Darnell "John Wal" Matthews, 18, puts on his fight face as he gets his head protection tightened at the Headbangers Boxing Team gym at 555 L St. SE in the District. (Daniel C. Britt/THE WASHINGTON POST)

After nearly two decades of coaching amateur and aspiring professional boxers, Marshall Cunningham and Barry Hunter aren’t pulling any punches.

As founders and head coaches of the Southeast-based Headbangers Boxing Team , the two men have been employing a unique instruction style that has made the team a destination for boxers nationwide since its founding in 1993.

Nurture a passion. Teach dedication. Use tough love. Raise tougher boxers.

Hunter, 49, and Cunningham, 55, both D.C. natives, created Headbangers at the height of their own amateur boxing careers. Hunter had been boxing since 1982. Cunningham had been an active member of the Amateur Boxing Association since 1986.

When they teamed to offer free classes to disadvantaged youth across the District, they were pleased to find dozens of young Washingtonians enlist almost immediately.

Initially, Headbangers held classes at the Bald Eagle Recreation Center in Southwest. But eventually, Hunter and Cunningham struggled to find space for the nearly 800 boxers who came and went over the next 17 years.

“We were in a small room that wasn’t at all conducive to boxing,” said Cunningham, adding that boxers would sometimes overflow into the center’s hallways or the adjacent basketball gymnasium. In October 2010, the team moved to a temporary location in Southeast.

But on Oct. 15, Headbangers will relocate to their old stomping grounds. As part of a three-year, $5.3 million project initially approved by former D.C. mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), Bald Eagle underwent renovations that included a 5,400-square-foot boxing annex, complete with locker rooms, warm-up areas and three new boxing rings.

Although it has taken years to find a suitable training ground, Cunningham and Hunter aren’t discouraged. They’ve raised exceptional boxers, including professionals such as Anthony and Lamont Peterson. Tiara Brown, the third woman in the history of USA Boxing to win a world title, is also a Headbangers veteran.

Headbangers has also found an ally in the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which covers nearly a third of the gym’s expenditures and sponsors its best fighters to compete in regional and national championships, according to Cunningham.

For the coaches and Headbangers boxers, moving to the new center is a hallmark in the team’s history — tangible evidence of success despite humble beginnings, and a sign that Headbangers coaches have a teaching style that is widely respected.

Headbangers isn’t really about boxing, Hunter says. “Our thing is life-saving,” he says. “It’s what we do.”

Growing up in a poor section of the city, Hunter saw many Washington area children suffer in crime-ridden neighborhoods and abusive households. Some had turned to violent behavior or substance abuse. Others, he feared, might not live to see adulthood.

Having devoted himself to boxing, Hunter felt that introducing at-risk children to the sport might instill discipline and discourage unruly behavior. At Headbangers, Hunter explained, “our job is to take those that the majority of society has forgot about and resurrect them. Make them anew.”

Knowing some students might backslide from temptations outside the gym, Hunter supplements regular training with getting to know his students on a personal level. He meets with parents. He offers advice on relationships. He makes sure boxers are up to date in school. Behind on homework? No boxing.

“If you’re bad in school, they’ll work you hard, but it’ll pay off,” says boxer Anthony Barnes Jr., 12, of the Headbangers coaches.

Anthony Sr., 28, arrives at the gym as his son is finishing a session of dips and push-ups. “I’ve seen tremendous change in his personality, in his confidence level” since his son joined Headbangers two years ago, he says. The four assistant coaches, he adds, have even taught him a thing or two about being a father. “The discipline and family-oriented approach,” he says, “will keep us here forever.”

Nina Lorkowski stops to catch her breath between running laps. A visiting PhD student from Munich, Germany, she says participating in a predominantly male sport has been difficult but that Headbangers approaches female boxers with the right attitude. “The trainers here will never say, ‘Okay, the girls do only five push-ups,’ ” she says. “The girls do the same as the boys. Everyone’s the same here.”

Regardless of whether the boxers spend weeks or years with Headbangers, Hunter and Cunningham say they hope they’ll take the team’s mission of charity and redemption to heart.

“Sometimes things happen. We cannot just walk away or walk over that,” Hunter says. “And I think if we turn that around — the selfish heart of men — you can turn the world around.”

The Headbangers team currently practices at 555 L St. in Southeast. On Oct. 15, the team will relocate to the Bald Eagle Recreation Center, at 100 Joliet St. Southwest. For more info and hours of operation, visit boxinggyms.
com/headbangers.htm.