Lee Reeves is a boxer. Twenty-two. Lives in Limerick, Ireland. Has a Hollywood-handsome face that looks like it has never met a fist. No imperfections. Nothing that says it has seen a single day of trouble.
Deonte Washington is also a boxer. Nineteen. Lives in Anacostia. His face is pop-star pretty, too. Bright eyes and a winning smile. No hint of fear or failure. Only fortune.
But faces lie.
Reeves and Washington have endured more misery in their first two decades than many kids will ever know. They’ve lost family members to murder and suicide and drugs. They’ve seen childhood friends locked up. They’ve been raised in neighborhoods where everything that can go wrong often does.
Boxing, as it has been for generations, is a way out. Or at least a way to keep out of trouble. And trouble is everywhere when you live in places where a sideways glance can lead to a beat-down. Or where a stray bullet can snuff a dream.
For the past week, Reeves, Washington and 22 others took part in the Belfast-Beltway Boxing Project, an exchange program for pugilists from the Washington area and Northern Ireland. The project has been bringing Northern Irish kids to the District for the past 10 years and sending D.C. kids to Belfast for cultural experiences and a chance to measure up against one another in the ring. But the bigger goal is to get participants to see a world beyond their neighborhoods and envision a future when even the prospect of that can seem elusive.
For the 10th anniversary, the program was expanded beyond Belfast to include kids from the Republic of Ireland — such as Reeves — and England. Along with their coaches, they all arrived one day last week and traveled to the Irish Embassy to meet Ambassador Anne Anderson and Stewart Matthews of the Northern Ireland Bureau.
It was a swank little party. Under the embassy chandeliers, big shots in suits clinked glasses and servers in bow ties passed canapés and handed out napkins.
“I feel like ‘Lady and the Tramp,’ ” said Reeves, his Limerick accent as thick as wet cement. “Back home I can’t even get into some of the nightclubs.”
Back home, life had been rough for Reeves. When he was 12, his older brother, Tony, died following an overdose at a party. The news was a gut punch like no other.
“He was a messer, always in and out of jail for stealing cars, but he was a good human being,” Reeves said.
The blows got worse. In December 2014, Reeves’s mother, Catherine, learned she had breast cancer. She was a single mother to her remaining four children. The news broke her. A few months later, she jumped off a Limerick bridge into the cold River Shannon below. Reeves was awakened by a pre-dawn phone call from his relatives. “A body’s been found, Lee,” they told him. “They think it’s your mam.”
His mother’s death sent him off the rails. He started drinking heavily. He was arrested twice for being drunk and disorderly. Reeves had been boxing for years, but now nothing mattered.
Friends brought him back from the brink, leading him to the Corpus Christi Boxing Club in Limerick.
“He’s a brilliant boxer, and he’s so humble in the club with the lads,” said Declan Fitzgerald, his 52-year-old coach, who drives a delivery truck by day and spends six nights a week working with young boxers. Corpus Christi is in a part of town beset by drugs, turf wars and high unemployment. Boxing is an outlet, and any kid who wants to train there is welcome.
“The lads will come in and say they need to get off the corner,” Fitzgerald said. “They say that if they don’t get off the corner, they’re going to land in prison.”
Reeves says the club saved him. He’s a few credits short of his high school diploma and has worked as a cashier and a bricklayer. Now, he’s training full time, hoping to make a career with his fists.
“Boxing’s everything for me,” he said. “It’s the only thing I’ve really excelled at in life. I love being able to stand out in one area.”
It’s 3,300 miles from Limerick to the District, but Lee Reeves and Deonte Washington have more in common than their passion for throwing punches. Washington grew up in Northeast, just off New York Avenue. Crime and violence were everywhere. Shy and soft-spoken, Washington tried to keep his head down. But in 2009, when he was just 11, his father was fatally stabbed.
“My dad was a hustler, selling drugs. That stuff caught up with him,” Washington said. “I was just getting to know my father and then someone killed him. It made me realize I’m not exempt from any of the chaos and drama in the world.”
After his father’s murder, Washington steered clear of trouble, but his older brother found it, landing in and out of jail. Although he is close to his brother and is helping him now that he’s out of prison, Washington never wanted to be like him.
“I learned a lot from my brother,” he said. “Every mistake he made, I did the opposite.”
Dwayne Thomas, Washington’s gregarious stepfather, guided his stepson to boxing to help keep him focused. And safe. Washington, Thomas said, had never caused problems. He wanted to keep it that way.
Thomas, 45, knew how dangerous the streets could be. As a young man in the District, he was fully immersed in the life. He spent three days in the hospital after a drive-by shooting. Arrested numerous times, he eventually served five years for possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
Thomas teamed up with an old friend, Tai-Rhan McBride of Diamonds N the Ruff boxing, and the two have worked with Washington since 2009. Their goal for him is the 2020 Summer Olympics, but they’re also focused on his education. He graduated in 2015 from McKinley High in Northeast and is majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of the District of Columbia. The Belfast-Beltway program has helped pay for his books. It has also enabled him to visit Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. He learned about the divide between Protestants and Catholics. He was struck by the greenness and by a world so different from yet so similar to his own.
Washington sees the gym, where he spends 15 to 20 hours a week, as “more than a lifestyle. It’s an opportunity. It keeps me away from things that could happen to me, things that happened to my brother.”
The BBBP was founded in 2007 by Emmanuel Quinn and a small group of friends in the District. Quinn had moved from Belfast when he was 15. In the early 2000s, he heard from relatives that there had been a spike in suicides among Belfast kids. Quinn, a former boxer, thought the sport would give kids a sense of self-worth, and he sought to help boxing clubs in Belfast. Soon, the idea expanded to include D.C. boxers. In addition to the exchange trips, the program provides funding for equipment and training facilities as well as school supplies.
The week the boxers spend in Washington is filled with sightseeing, storytelling and laughter. But the highlight is fight night. In a ballroom at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park hotel Saturday night, the young boxers got to prove themselves in the ring. Ten bouts, three rounds each.
The event is a fundraiser for the program, and hundreds of contributors had dinner and drinks and watched as the youngsters from Derry and Limerick and Belfast went up against the Washington area’s finest.
The kids from abroad took six of the 10 contests. Reeves won his fight. Washington lost his. But no heads hung after any of the bouts. All the fighters congratulated one another and raised one another’s arms.
“We’re gentlemen, that’s what we are,” said Marcus Johnson, a 20-year-old boxer from Silver Spring, Md., who won his fight and left the ring with his arm around his opponent’s shoulders. “Mean inside the ring. Friends outside the ring.”