The first jabs landed politely, like the boxing students were tapping the punching bags on the shoulders instead of pummeling them.
Then, the music started blasting – hard, driving beats, the kind that push everyone in the club onto the dance floor. Ronnell “Bigg Ron” Jones, an aptly named wall of a man, barked instructions over the music.
“Jab, right-handed! Jab, right-handed! Jab, right-handed! Who’s the champ?”
“I’m the champ,” a couple of kids called out meekly.
“I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you,” Bigg Ron goaded. “WHO’S THE CHAMP?”
“I’M THE CHAMP!” 14 teenagers cried out in one voice.
As Annie Beurman punched at the bag in front of her, she couldn’t help but think: “Nobody better mess with me.”
The new Fight Club classes at Title Boxing Club in Prairie Village, Kan., are free to teens who are being bullied, teens wanting to stand up for friends being bullied and any teen needing to let off a little steam.
It’s not a self-defense class. Holly Reynolds, the woman who started the program, can’t call it that for legal reasons. It’s not about fighting, either, though Reynolds gave it the same name as the 1999 Brad Pitt movie about underground fight clubs.
This Fight Club is about getting fit, feeling strong and fighting the good fight, she said.
These teens don’t spar with each other. They spar with their feelings.
And a lot of anger gets left in those sweaty boxing gloves.
“People tried to get me to change the name to make it more accessible, but I was very determined,” Reynolds said. “That was the name that came to my head, because growing up is a fight. You’ve got to fight to be heard, you’ve got to fight to be understood. Some of these kids have to fight to get themselves out of bed in the morning and drag themselves to school. It’s a constant struggle.
“The metaphor went well with what’re doing. We’re not necessarily telling these kids go out and fight. We’re giving them the mind-body connection that comes from boxing and kickboxing.”
A boost of confidence is what Kelli Beurman, a grade school teacher from Olathe, Kan., wants for her daughter, Annie, who last week signed up for Fight Club. Fourteen-year-old Annie, now a freshman, has been bullied since fourth grade.
“I thought it would give her a sense of empowerment in case she would ever need to defend herself,” Beurman said. “Because part of dealing with someone who is bothering you is just knowing that you can.”
Reynolds knows the pain of being bullied. Growing up in Kansas City she was a target in high school, as was a friend who was harassed about his sexual orientation.
“I was a little chunky in high school, and I walked home every day through a neighborhood … this car full of kids would call me Jenny Craig drop-out. They’d honk their horn and yell out the window. I just got thick-skinned and let it harden me. That’s how I dealt with it,” said Reynolds, an aesthetician who runs a studio on State Line Road.
“So I know from experience that … there’s a better way to go rather than internalizing those emotions. It makes you mad at the world, really. And it doesn’t have to be that way. There are people who care.”
Those experiences kept her interested in bullying issues as an adult. She followed national cases and was especially moved by what happened to Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old in Buffalo, N.Y.
Jamey, who struggled with his sexuality, was bullied online for months. Last May he posted an anti-bullying message on YouTube. Then in September he posted final messages on his blog before killing himself.
About the same time, a friend of Reynolds’ told her of a girl she knew in town who also was being bullied in school. Wouldn’t that girl love to box to let out some of her emotions?
The thought wasn’t random. Two years ago Reynolds signed up for boxing classes at Title Boxing at a friend’s suggestion. “I’m an I-only-run-when-chased girl,” she said. “But I was having some postpartum depression, and it was the best thing I ever did for my confidence, for my power.”
So she asked Bigg Ron, her instructor and trainer at Title Boxing, to help her organize a program for teens with an anti-bullying message.
The owner of the Prairie Village location donated the space, while other members there volunteered to help. At the end of last year they handed out fliers at libraries, malls, coffee houses, places around town where kids hang out. Reynolds lined up speakers to offer encouraging words – the CEO of the YMCA of Greater Kansas City and women from the Kansas City Roller Warriors are coming.
Reaching for higher-power help, she also contacted famous anti-bullying crusader Lady Gaga; she hasn’t heard back yet.
Bullying is such a huge problem that “we’re not hoping to change the world,” Reynolds said. “Just at least create that spark.”
Bigg Ron pulls no punches. The workouts he leads are heart-pounding. One girl got sick during last week’s class.
DaRon Lash, a 15-year-old freshman at Shawnee Mission West, started out slowly, kicking at the punching bag as though he were kicking dirt in its face. Then a volunteer showed him how to power his kicks from the hip, and suddenly DaRon’s kicks started landing square and solid.
DaRon stuck it out through the sit-ups, the push-ups, the laps, the punching, kicking, punching, more laps. How he hated those laps.
He has had run-ins with school bullies – “I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there and took it. I was afraid I was going to get my face punched in” – so he’s determined to help other kids being targeted.
“He said, ‘Grandpa, I really don’t put up with that,’?” said his grandfather, Dan Lash of Overland Park. “That’s the reason he wanted to join.”
Fight Club wasn’t a hard sell for Grandpa, who competed in Golden Gloves when he was a teenager. “It got me into really good physical condition as well as taught me how to take care of myself,” Lash said. “They told us when we trained that our fists were considered weapons. We were told not to use them unless we were in the ring.”
He has counseled his grandson to do the same: When confronted by a bully, try to talk things out first. But if you must, protect yourself.
At the first class, Reynolds taped messages to the bags to give the teens something to aim at.
I struggle every day to fit in.
I worry each night before I go to sleep about what’s going to happen at school tomorrow.
I feel like I have no real friends.
One boy asked if he could bring a photo of a kid who was tormenting him and tape it to the bag.
“I said, ‘Man, I see where you’re coming from, I do. I totally understand that,'” Reynolds said. “‘But in a few weeks you’re going to see that it’s not him you want to hit. It’s those emotions that you want to hit.'”