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James Battle put on his first pair of boxing gloves when he was 7 years old.
It takes stamina, strength and speed to become great in the boxing world. But for one Florida gym owner, it's the heart and a love for helping others that makes him a champion.
"There's going to be some mentoring taking place in this," said boxing coach James Battle. "I've been dealing with a lot of these guys so long that when they walk through the doors, I know what type of day they've had. I know what type of training session it's going to be."
A Tampa Bay native, Battle put on his first pair of boxing gloves when he was 7 years old. From that day on, he's worked inside and outside of the ring— as a fighter, trainer, coach and now owner of his own gym, Battlezone Boxing in Clearwater, Florida.
"All of us have a gift in us, and you know, combat has always been in me," Battle said. "And when I learned the art and the fluidity of the punches and everything, this is what my gift is. Although I didn't go pro, I'm a teacher and a coach."
Battle believes "you don't have to be a fighter to train like one," so the gym encourages students — including long-time fighters, newcomers and kids as young as 5 years old — to focus on the discipline and fundamentals of physical conditioning.
And when it comes to training professional and amateur fighters, Battle is focused on being a mentor first.
"In opening this, I tell the guys all the time: I'm not looking to get rich in this," Battle said. "Being a part of the community, it's not just about giving someone a free session here and there. We have to be in it."
"When it comes to boxing, you are in there fighting by yourself; that's not a team thing," said professional boxer J.R. Ridge. "But whenever you're in the gym training with the rest of the fighters, it is a team thing. So the fact that every fighter has one goal in mind — and that's to be the best — it forms a family."
Ranked No.1 in his division in the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, Ridge has fought professionally for more than 15 years.
After working with Battle for less than a year, Ridge made him his head coach.
"His mentorship and the way he talks to you, it's from a solid foundation," Ridge said.
"J.R. is a great listener. He has a great tenacity, good perseverance while in the gym," said Battle.
As Battle continues to build his gym, he acknowledges the long history of Black boxers in America.
Boxing was one of the first sports to allow African American athletes to compete with White athletes, expanding the economic opportunities for Black boxing promoters and fighters like Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.
"Mike Tyson is the one who really paved the way for me," Battle said. "Even when I found out that he was running 5 o'clock in the morning, I would get up at 4:30, and I would run at 5 o'clock just to say I did something that Mike did."
Battle is now training Ridge for an upcoming bare-knuckle fight in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Ridge is now training nearly seven days a week.
Beyond that match and the day-to-day grind, both Battle and Ridge are looking to give back to their community of fighters.
"After five years, I see myself running my own gym, mentoring my own guys, maybe managing some fighters and also giving back to the community as much as I can," Ridge said.
"This gym is going to mean a lot of things to some people, so it is my wherewithal, my duty, to keep it open and do the best that I can," Battle said.
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