Kay Koroma treats all of his boxers as if they were his children. He housed and fed many of them — sometimes seven at a time — in his two-bedroom apartment in Alexandria, Va. That helped ensure his pupils were awake for their 4 a.m. runs before school and available to train at Alexandria Boxing Club, where he coaches.
“I feel like if I was going to get the best of them, let me give them an environment they don’t have,” said Koroma, who also is an assistant coach for the U.S. boxing team. “A lot of them came from good homes, but at the same time, it let me show them that somebody else can love them and protect them.”
Koroma does not seem like the sentimental type. He is a former professional boxer who grew up fighting in the streets of different Virginia neighborhoods in the 1990s. He was living in Sierra Leone when civil war broke out and served time at Lorton Reformatory for fighting as a teenager, events that have contributed to his seemingly impenetrable exterior. But when Koroma described the summer nights he spent listening to “his babies” stay up late to play video games, whisper jokes and plot ways to get out of the early morning runs (they didn’t), a mischievous smile spread across his face, revealing a tender spot.
“It’s weird,” said Koroma, 39. “I don’t even know if I’ve been coaching 10 years or more years, because time has gone by so fast, with them growing up so quick. Years just go by. I lose track.”
Koroma will be with two of his boxers, Troy Isley and Keyshawn Davis, in Lima, Peru, this week where they will compete in the Pan American Games, where boxing gets underway Saturday. This is the first time any of Koroma’s athletes are attending the Games, which will serve as an unofficial trial for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The moment also provides a point of reflection in Koroma’s coaching career; Isley, 20, was the first athlete Koroma trained.
“My dad came to pick me up [after my first practice]," Isley said. “And Kay was like, ‘You keep bringing your son, and I can make a national champion out of him.’ Those were the exact words he told my dad. And my dad was like: ‘All right, no more football. You’re going to stick with this.’ ”
Isley was an unruly 8-year-old who was “always fighting” in an after-school program at Charles Houston Recreation Center, which occupies the same building as Alexandria Boxing Club, when Koroma — perhaps seeing himself in the troublesome, 80-pound Isley — reluctantly agreed to take him under his wing. Isley was a natural, and Koroma turned him into a two-time national champion and a bronze medalist at the 2017 Elite World Championships. He defeated 2016 Olympic gold medalist Arlen Lopez of Cuba in a Pan Am Games qualifying bout.
Ten years later, Koroma has grown into a globally respected coach, produced national and world champions and 2016 Olympic silver medalist Shakur Stevenson, and taken on his role with USA Boxing. Isley, who trained with Stevenson, has grown into a world-class talent as a middleweight along with Davis, a welterweight. .
In Lima, they will face boxers from Cuba and Brazil, who they battled during the Pan Am qualifiers in April in Nicaragua, but the stakes will be higher. The Pan Am Games serve as a prelude to the world championships in September and the Olympic trials in December. Both of Koroma’s boxers have their sights set on gold.
“I’m ready to go, to fight,” said Davis, who will compete in the 141-pound weight class. “[Kay is] most definitely a great coach — [he has] two people this time on the Pan Am team [and has gotten] us both ready. And we both should come back with the gold medals.”
Isley, a native of Alexandria, will compete in the 165-pound division. He said his goal is to make it to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and “be the first [boxer] from Alexandria to go to the Olympics.”
“That’s big. That’s always been big,” Isley said.
Davis, who moved to Alexandria two years ago to train with Koroma, credits teammates from his former gym in Norfolk, who cheered him on during his qualifying rounds.
“These are Virginia kids representing the DMV,” Koroma said. “We grew up in this environment — D.C., Maryland and Virginia — fighting all over, sparring with everybody, so I feel like it’s the whole DMV. They helped us get to this point. They helped Keyshawn and Troy get sharp — helping us spar, going to tournaments with them, fighting [at Alexandria Boxing Club].”
Now Koroma will try to take them to the finish line — the medal podium in Lima — from his usual place: their corner.
“I’m trying to show the world that we have something special here,” Koroma said. “It’s not trying to grab every athlete. We just love each other here. We push each other here. We motivate each other, and we’re family.”
Read more on Olympic sports:
as Isley As an unruly 8-year-old who was “always fighting” in an after-school program the Charles Houston Recreation Center, which occupies the same building as the Alexandria Boxing Clublubub