The first time Bernard Roach saw D’Mitrius Ballard box, the fighter quickly earned a bloody nose. The incident wasn’t a rarity; it was the norm. Ballard’s attack was so intense that he would forget to defend himself.
Roach could see that Ballard, who was fighting under a previous trainer, didn’t yet have the tools he needed. But he was aggressive. And he was tough. For Roach, that was enough to believe the kid had a chance.
“He has all of this,” Roach said, jabbing his index finger at his heart.
Ballard, 19, has developed into a national amateur champion inside Roach’s NoXcuse Boxing Club in Capitol Heights. His close-range style, highlighted by a devastating left uppercut, is now supported by a solid defense.
Last month, he was one of three members of the Washington team to capture first place at the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions in Mesquite, Nev. Ballard swept to the 178-pound title, Bowie’s Jerry Odom won at 201 pounds and Baltimore’s Gervonta Davis finished first at 132 pounds. Odom was named the tournament’s outstanding boxer and the D.C. team captured the overall title.
In August, Ballard and Odom will compete in the Ringside World Championship in Kansas City, Mo., and in October they will fight at the Police Athletic League’s National Championship in Toledo. Both have won each tournament multiple times. They aren’t yet ready to turn professional, but expect to in a few years.
“Whenever we go to tournaments, people see ‘No Xcuses’ and they know we’re here to fight,” said Ballard, who is 89-21 as an amateur. “It means by any means necessary, do what you have to do to win. There are no excuses. You come here and you do what you have to do to win.”
Located on an unpaved parking lot behind Walker Mill Baptist Church, the NoXcuse gym lends itself to Ballard’s gritty style. Roach’s old boxing ring, transported from his former gym in Temple Hills, sits in the middle of the gym, which is converted from an old truck garage.
The thumping of heavy bags is audible from outside the thin aluminum walls. Speed bags are attached to welded metal and a row of treadmills and weight benches sit outside the ring. Newspaper clippings are displayed above a wall-length mirror that reflects the images of young boxers jumping rope.
With the blessing of the church’s pastor, Roach and his cousin, Lamont Roach Sr., turned the garage into a gym four years ago.
“It’s like an oven in here,” Ballard said. “If it’s 80 degrees outside, it feels like 100 inside. It keeps everybody focused and everyone going. If you can spar eight rounds in 100-degree weather, then fighting in a regular tournament for three rounds shouldn’t bother you at all.”
Ballard trains at the gym five nights a week and takes classes at Prince George’s Community College. He first took up boxing during high school and didn’t plan on it becoming a lifestyle. It was simply a conditioning tool during the football offseason.
A few years after Roach first saw Ballard’s nose bloodied, the two met again. Spiritual in nature, Roach said he believed it was fate that brought them together.
Roach, a D.C. fire lieutenant, closed his former gym, Fit 2 Fight, and offered his assistance at the Hillcrest Heights Boys Club, a move he called humbling. He offered to train some of the younger fighters. One of them happened to be that bloody-nosed boxer he had seen a few years earlier.
Roach began working closely with Ballard, teaching him to become a complete boxer. The two gravitated toward each other.
Several months later, Roach missed a week at the gym because of an incident at his firehouse. When he returned, the trainer told him his services weren’t needed. Ballard’s father, Victor, said if Roach was gone, so too was his son.
“I like the way he hit the mitts, I like the way he teaches the game of boxing,” Victor Ballard said. “My son had to get that there. I just had a good feeling about the guy.”
The two then trained together in the basement of Roach’s Temple Hills home. A few months later, Ballard helped clean out the truck garage that became NoXcuse. The former home of dump trucks needed to be power-washed, hand-brushed and deodorized.
“It feels real good,” Ballard said. “It was a lot of hard work to turn this into a gym. We take a lot of pride in that.”
As a pair of boxers shadow boxed inside the NoXcuse ring, Roach watched from ringside as if it were a real bout. He shouted instructions and once they finished, he barked his next order.
“Go hit the speed bag,” he said. “And hurry up.”
Just 5 feet 8 and pencil thin, Roach is a demanding presence. He was an amateur fighter during his 12 years in the Army and tries to instill military discipline in his fighters. A wooden sign near the front door reads “No Eating, No Smoking, No Cursing.” It doesn’t happen in here, Roach said.
And if you call Roach a trainer, he’ll be quick to correct you.
“I’m not a trainer, this is my ministry,” Roach said. “Just like the pastor has the church. I’ve been around boxing for 41 years.”
On the ceiling above the ring hang a pair of long banners, with the colors of NoXcuse: red and black. The banners feature a large photo of Odom and Ballard and celebrate the boxers’ accomplishments. It’s the NoXcuse Hall of Fame, Roach said. Roach and his cousin printed the banners as a way to show their gratitude for the boxers’ dedication.
National championships, area titles and city tournaments are followed by an empty spot, where Roach has left some room for the boxers’ future.
Just some added motivation on those Friday nights in the summer, Ballard said.
“What I’m doing in here is way bigger than what anyone else is going out and doing,” Ballard said. “It’s bigger than going to a party, going to a club, whatever. It used to be hard, but not anymore. We’re like brothers.”