Walter Manigan sat in Jessup Correctional Institution on Dec. 12, 2009, watching Lamont Peterson fight Timothy Bradley for a World Boxing Organization title on Showtime. In Peterson’s corner was Manigan’s mentor, Barry Hunter.
Manigan remembers the moment.
“I looked up and I saw Lamont fighting on TV, and that made me feel a certain way,” he said. “My conscience bothered me.”
By bringing his stepson to Washington’s famed HeadBangers Gym, Manigan had learned boxing alongside Hunter, becoming a coach before he was sent to prison for two years for distributing cocaine. When Manigan got out, he couldn’t go back to HeadBangers.
“My pride wouldn’t let me go back because I knew I let those kids down,” Manigan said.
Manigan did not, however, quit on boxing. About a year after he got out of Jessup, Manigan walked into a gym set up at the former Gibbs School off Benning Road. There, he spotted Ragahleak “Peanut” Bartee, 9 years old, in the corner wrapping his hands. “I just looked at him, and I said, ‘There’s something special about this kid.’ ”
Manigan was right. Peanut, now 14, won the 75-pound intermediate division Junior Olympic national championship in 2015. In 2016, his training partner and best friend Quincey Williams, 12, won the 90-pound championship at junior nationals.
Peanut began by sparring with Manigan’s son, Rashad. The two are the same age, and though Rashad had more experience, the coach was struck by Peanut’s tenacity.
“Even though Peanut wasn’t skillful at first, he just had it in him. In a few months, my son was in trouble,” Manigan said.
It didn’t come as easily for Quincey, who was 8 years old when he met Peanut and “Coach Walt.” As Manigan recalls, “Peanut and my son beat him up so bad, he’d go in the corner, he’d cry. For like 30, 40 minutes. So one day, I put him out the gym.”
But three days later, Quincey was back, telling Manigan he wouldn’t cry anymore. The three young fighters, the founding members of the Lyfe Style boxing team, have been together ever since.
“These are good kids, man. There’s just some things they missing in their lives that they can’t control,” Manigan said. “So that’s where I come in, being a role model, teaching them about life, about being respectful. It ain’t all about boxing. I want to raise them from boys to men.”
And Manigan is in the perfect position to reach the boys. Five years ago, both Peanut and Quincey were missing father figures, something Manigan could relate to.
“It was tough for me coming up. I ain’t have nobody to teach me, nobody to take the time,” Manigan said. He says his parents were drug addicts and his grandmother, who raised him, died at an early age. Manigan was trying to balance boxing and the street life when he got arrested.
Hunter said that might have been a blessing in disguise.
“[Walt] had that fall in life,” he said. “Then when he came back, he understood what he had lost and what this thing was really about, and he just turned it around.”
Manigan and Lyfe Style have set up shop at the Ferebee-Hope Recreation Center in Southeast. Other coaches in the gym have been to prison, too, but like Manigan, they take responsibility for their mistakes and volunteer so that other young men don’t make them. It’s an ongoing endeavor.
Quincey lives only a walk away from the gym in an apartment with his mother, grandmother, aunt and two cousins.
The coach explains, “The neighborhood that Quincey stays in now is not too good. When he goes home, he’s gotta step over people, see people selling drugs, see people shooting.”
When Manigan first met Peanut, the young boxer was living in Washington’s Trinidad neighborhood, home to military-style police checkpoints in 2008. Peanut has moved to a better neighborhood but hasn’t forgotten that experience.
“My mom asked me why I come to the gym,” Peanut explained. “And I just said, ‘I just go and do it.’ ”
“But I really didn’t like where I was living at,” he said. “There was a lot of people shooting, a lot of people getting in fights. And I really wanted to get my mom a house ’cause my mom is getting older. I need her to be in a good neighborhood so nothing happen to her. And that’s what motivated me.”
The coaches are motivated to provide in any way they can, by buying boxing gear, taking the kids out for meals or haircuts or paying for travel. To fund this, the team sells bottled water on New York Avenue, attempts to raise money by GoFundMe, or the coaches pay out of their own pockets.
To Manigan, whatever it costs is worth it.
“I don’t look for nothing out of this,” Manigan says. But when his boxers win, “That’s the greatest feeling in the world for me. That’s like a high for me. . . . When Peanut first won the nationals, I cried. I cried for the simple fact that I’d seen how hard these kids work and what they give up.”
Considering his past and what happened with HeadBangers, Walt acknowledges, “If I do anything to mess up, I kill their dreams. That keeps me on a straight path.”
And the boys have big dreams.
In the ring, both Peanut and Quincey envision pro careers. Yet in school, both are honor-roll students, keeping, as Peanut says, “a second game plan.”
Manigan says that in the ring, “The sky is the limit, man.”
Peanut and Quincey are two of the best boxers at their ages in the country, having fought about 60 bouts each. Combined, the boys have won seven national championships in the past two years. Both Peanut and Quincey won the 2015 Junior Olympic and Ringside national tournaments. Quincey won this year’s Junior Olympic title, and Peanut added 2015 and 2016 Silver Gloves titles.
The boys have sacrificed to get this good, but they don’t see time in the gym as a chore.
“I see a whole lot of kids think like that,” Peanut said. “But me, I like boxing, so this is my free time. I like what I’m doing.”
On a day when the temperature reaches the mid-80s, Peanut wears a winter coat to sweat out excess weight while leading a group — twins Lamar and Lamont Odoms, Deric Graves, “Acorn” and “Pork n’ Beans” — running laps on the field outside Ferebee-Hope.
Inside, another coach, Joe Gordan, leads his son, Lil’ Joe, out of the ring after sparring. He speaks into his ear, “Find that peace in your mind, man. You’re going to be okay.”
Before the summer of 2015, when Lil’ Joe started boxing, Joe and his son hadn’t seen each other since 2001, when Coach Joe was released from prison and Lil’ Joe was born.
DeAngelo “Coach Dee” Beatty pats Joe’s back as he leaves the ring and goes to work mitts with Quincey.
Beatty spent his 20s in prison for manslaughter. In prison, he made two goals for himself: get a degree and “do anything and everything I can do to prevent kids from making the mistakes I made.” Now 43, Dee is one semester away from receiving a degree from the University of the District of Columbia and, through boxing, is fulfilling his second goal.
Sterling “Coach Scoop” Thornton is in the makeshift ring in the corner of the gym, wearing a body protector and letting Lamar Odoms practice his body shots. Scoop is 50 years old, 200 pounds, with dreadlocks. At 16, with his father in prison, Scoop started a life in the streets that lasted 10 years, ending with the birth of his daughter. Since then, he said he’s been on a mission, “to save kids from the streets because ain’t nothing out there for them except death and prison.”
Manigan knows this all too well.
One day, while talking about his past, Manigan suddenly teared up.
“My oldest son got killed on his 18th birthday [in 2002]. You know what I’m saying? And for me to be still here, there’s something God wants to do with me. I just gotta sit still long enough to receive the blessing. This is my calling.”
Hunter and the HeadBangers Gym used some of the money they had saved for traveling to tournaments to help bury Manigan’s son. Hunter is aware of the effect it had on him.
“He knows the importance of stepping up for the youth, especially in this area right here. Because they are in such a dire situation. If not for people like Walt, we would be in some serious trouble.”
At the core, Manigan and the other coaches at Ferebee-Hope are trying to make up for their missteps by giving back. Hunter, Manigan’s mentor, appreciates that.
“I think Walt has redeemed himself,” he said. “I think he has atoned for his past. . . . I think that Walt, along with any other mentor that is genuine, that is not looking at the youth for financial gain but care about them and guide them in the right direction, I think they’re worth their weight in gold.”
In the heart of one of Washington’s toughest neighborhoods, the Lyfe Style team offers a future for its kids and a chance at redemption for its coaches.
“All of us pretty much lived that lifestyle,” Manigan said. “It’s time for change, man. A lot of things that I experienced in life prepared me for this moment. Now I know where I’m at, and I know where I’m trying to go and I know I ain’t trying to go backwards. [The kids] keep me alive. They keep me striving ’cause I know they’re depending on me. This feels so good, what I’m doing. Oh man, it feels good.”