News & Politics

2006 Washingtonians of the Year: Keely Thompson

“Once these kids start boxing in the ring, they stop fighting in the street.”

Photograph by Matthew Worden.

The kids trading punches mean business. They dance around, looking for chances to take each other down. The shouts from ringside are accompanied by thuds of fists hitting weight bags and feet on treadmills.

These sounds are music to the ears of former world lightweight boxing champion Keely Thompson, the man the kids call “Champ.” Thompson knows that every boxing glove donned is another potential gang fight averted and another homework lesson completed. Thompson had retired from the ring and was running his restaurant, Champ’s Southern Food, when DC councilman Jim Graham came to see him. “I’m tired of locking kids up,” Graham said. “Can you put together a program to help get kids off the streets?”

Thompson opened Keely’s District Boxing and Youth Center in the basement of the United Methodist Church on DC’s Columbia Road three years ago. More than 100 kids showed up the first day. Now 1,100 are involved.

Literacy and nutrition classes are mandatory. Boxing gives the kids discipline and helps them get in shape. The program is an outlet for youthful energy. “They leave here too tired to get into trouble,” Thompson says.

Thompson got into boxing by accident. One summer day, all his friends were going to Kings Dominion. Thompson’s family couldn’t afford the trip, so they took him to a local boxing gym. Most of those friends are now “locked up, killed, strung out on something, or working for me,” he says.

Thompson needs more space and more equipment. But six Golden Gloves champions have come from the church basement. More important, every kid there is learning what is worth fighting for: Get a good education. Work hard. “I didn’t make $350 million, but I live better than Mike Tyson,” Thompson says.

He’s giving hundreds of Columbia Heights kids a fighting chance.