Float like a butterfly, sting like a Spartan

By Holly Johnson

Lansing-area fighter takes on a new career working with youths

It’s a sweltering late summer morning, and a handful of Lansing-area kids are spending the end of their respective vacations jumping rope inside a muggy boxing gym. A Kanye West song thumping over the speakers is keeping them in rhythm as their trainer, former Mixed Martial Arts boxer Kolmarge Harris, paces back and forth, watching intently.

“Now 25 times back and forth,” he shouts. The ropes hit the ground and the kids sprint across the gym floor. As their friends have been sleeping in all summer, these kids have spent their school break running, jumping, bobbing and weaving under Harris’ strict boot camp-like regime. It’s one of the programs offered through the Lansing Spartans Youth Organization, a community-based nonprofit he founded after he retired from boxing earlier this year. The organization’s syrupy goals of “fighting childhood obesity” and “giving kids something to do to keep them off the street” do little to conceal a not-so-furtive agenda: that street runs both ways.

“They keep me out of trouble,” says Harris. “I just want to show them what I know. They give me something to do.”

Harris runs his organization in the Capitol City Boxing building, 2120 S. Cedar St. in the heart of Lansing. After wind sprints, today’s student program is a shadowboxing-based workout, which teaches proper boxing conditioning and positioning. The young trainees put on gloves and start unleashing some steam onto the heavy bags or into Harris’ padded hands — an activity that appears to be highly favored by the attendees.

At first blush, Harris, a west side Chicago native, is an intimidating figure. He has fighter written all over him: his unreadable stare, his combatitive stance, his imposing physical stature. He allows the kids to take their swings at him, but his eyes seem to capture every motion they make. It’s like watching a small child whacking a big, docile-looking dog — you assure yourself that the situation is going to be OK, but in the back of your mind, you’re always kind of wondering. But as soon as Harris starts to speak about the art of boxing or the kids he works with, his tough demeanor bubbles into childlike excitement, his parries and thrusts become lively hand gestures and his glare melts into an ecstatic smile.

“Kolmarge wants to do so much and he has so many ideas floating in his head,” says Doniele McDaniel, Harris’ partner and the organization’s vice president and secretary. “It’s my job to wrangle them.”

McDaniel helps facilitate the programs, but said she mainly handles the “business side of things.” Sitting side by side, the two intently watch the students running around the gym doing their exercises. Harris spouts words of encouragement to the panting students and McDaniel chats about upcoming goals for the youth organization, including applying for grants. There’s always economics to worry about, such as funding new equipment, improved flooring and traveling to tournaments — as well as sponsorships — to consider. It would all play like a cheesy coach-saves-the-neighborhood movie if Harris wasn’t so gosh-darned earnest. When asked how he started training with boxing bags, his candor is downright disarming.

“It was a great way to release pent-up anger,” he says. ”The bags can’t hit you back.”

He began boxing at Windy City Boxing Club in Chicago when he was 7 years old, fighting as an amateur for 18s years before going pro at age 25. In 2009, at the age of 34, he received his mixed martial arts license and fought for three years before throwing in the towel this past June. Harris says his lifelong passion for boxing has kept him humble, positive and controlled — features he wanted to pass along. After traveling to various gyms around the country, including Floyd Mayweather’s Boxing Gym in Las Vegas, he realized that Greater Lansing needed a space that could provide fitness programs for children in a community-based setting.

“We’ve got gyms that deal with amateurs and pro boxers, but we don’t have a lot of people here who are training kids,” he said. Then, as if to demonstrate that he’s not afraid to lay down the law, he spins around and barks at the students.

“No cell phones, no talking, no joking!” The students freeze, looking at each other furtively. They seem to ask: “Which one of us broke a rule?” Harris keeps them on edge for a couple seconds, but then a gentle smile spreads across his face.

He and McDaniel share a laugh, and the exhausted group of kids, now drenched in sweat, takes five.

LSYO training
Mon-Thurs 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. (enrollment now open)
$40 per month
To register, call (517) 894-8429 or email kolmargetharris@yahoo.com