It was 10 years ago that Johnny Papin hung a boxer's heavy training bag from a tree limb and taught kids how to box. He formed a friendship with one of those kids — Immanuel Thompson, 12 years old, angry, flunking out of school.
The friendship surprised both of them.
It still does.
Johnny, as he said of himself, was a sad, old black man then, an ex-thug, part-time janitor. He carried self-loathing like a heavy bag.
Manny Thompson was a mouthy kid, disrespectful and sullen. A prime candidate, as Manny said later, for street gangs, jail and early death.
But in Johnny's backyard, as the two of them pounded that bag, a long friendship took root and blossomed.
Johnny taught Manny how to fight.
Then he made him stay in school.
Then he turned him into a man.
* * *
This happened in the Ken-Mar area in Wichita, where Crips and Bloods sometimes roll by, billed caps turned cockeyed.
The convenience store at 13th and Oliver — where gang-bangers got shot, where a 2-year-old was mortally wounded in a gang shooting — sits one block away.
Johnny used to box out of Los Angeles, a bantam and flyweight fighter. "Smalltown Johnny" they called him because he came from Wichita. He won fights, sparred with Ken Norton, saw Muhammad Ali.
But now, pushing 50, his life story could make up the lyrics of one of those blues songs he loved to hear: Poolroom hustler. Thug. Has-been.
His son had died in the gangs. Johnny thought he'd failed his son, his race and himself.
When he hung that bag, it was like hanging a sign, asking young punks to come see him.
For what, he did not know.
* * *
Only a day after he began to punch that bag, neighborhood kids peeked through Johnny's fence, most of them black.
"Could we punch it, too?"
"Yes," Johnny said.
He let them in.
What happened next was not planned. It just happened.
He began to teach.
And as the days passed, and as feet churned grass into dust, Johnny called out four-count cadences and ran step-and-jab drills.
He cursed street gangs and denounced school drop-outs, and demanded that the boys respect their mothers, all the while saying curse words and praising God. And every evening, they clasped hands and prayed together under that tree.
A skinny kid peered through his fence one day: thin shirt, worn-out shoes. An angry look.
He was Immanuel Thompson, age 12, and Johnny knew him as Manny. And because he knew Manny's mother, he knew Manny stuttered, mouthed off to his mom and flunked classes at Coleman Middle School.
A thug someday, Johnny thought. A wasted life.
Manny asked Johnny to teach him boxing.
"Ask your mama first."
Manny walked away, disappointed.
Johnny watched him go.
He thought, as he said later, that Manny was a punk. Prison bait. It made him sad.
Had anyone told him then what was going to happen next, he would have laughed. He would have said it was impossible.
He was poor, disillusioned and nearly illiterate, after all.
The only two things he knew were boxing and how to play the blues.
How does a man like that turn a punk kid into a college scholar?
* * *
In Wichita, according to statistics released by the police this year, there are:
* 62 gangs
* 2,896 documented gang members
* 1,717 active gang members.
* 360 Wichita gang members in Kansas jails and prisons.
* 71 graves of gang members in Wichita cemeteries.
Many of the dead are young black men who died in shootings or stabbings, leaving mothers to grieve.
A black male born in America in 2001, the same year Manny peered through Johnny's fence, had about a one in three chance of going to prison, according to the Children's Defense Fund.
Many of them, like Manny, are raised in households headed by single mothers.
The high school graduation rate for black males in Wichita: 57.8 percent.
The rate for whites: 70.
* * *
Manny plans to graduate this fall with a bachelor's degree from Wichita State University. His major is criminal justice, with a minor in forensic science.
His grade point average for his two years at WSU: 3.43.
If his grades from his two years at Cowley College are factored in, his overall grade point average is 3.83.
* * *
In the training ring at Laselva Mixed Martial Arts gym on South Woodlawn a few days ago, Manny shadowboxes, his hands wrapped tight in yellow tape.
It is 10 years since the day he peered through Johnny's fence.
Among many other things, Manny is a professional boxer. At 22 he looks as fit as Michelangelo's David, only with bigger shoulders, better six-pack abs.
He weighed 98 pounds 10 years ago. He is 6-feet-2, 174 pounds now, a light heavyweight.
Johnny says he hits like a heavyweight. Joe Bidwell, an athlete training at the gym, says getting hit by Manny during sparring "is like getting kicked in the face by a mule wearing an iron shoe."
Sparring partners fear him. But Wichita's fashion people like him a lot. Manny works for a modeling agency; he's hired to model clothes for local newspapers and magazines.
On the gym floor beneath the elevated ring, Johnny Papin, 60 now and a little pudgy, white-haired and nearly a foot shorter than Manny, is carrying a tenor saxophone strapped to his thick neck.
He is cursing at Manny.
For an hour now Johnny has blown blues riffs on the sax, and told jokes, and cursed, and he is so deaf in both ears that he can barely hear curses or riffs or jokes.
"Damn it!" Johnny yells at Manny. "I thought I (curse) told you to get up on your (curse) toes and (curse) dance."
Manny glances at him and dances, throwing jabs. When Manny arrived at the gym an hour before, Johnny had glared, "I'm going to put the hurt on you tonight."
Manny answered without the stutter that made him almost unintelligible 10 years ago. He needled Johnny.
"You need a hug?"
"I don't need no (curse) hug," Johnny said. "Get dressed."
Johnny glares at Manny now, shaking his head. Manny's upcoming professional fight next month has Johnny on edge.
"The truth is, I'm terrified."
"I love him dearly.
"This is not a game. This is not playing around. This is boxing, where you can get killed. Where you can get your brains scrambled.
"I can't get no good sparring partners to help train him anymore. Sparring is everything. But anybody he spars, he busts them up. They get black eyes, broken noses, broken ribs.
"I put that in him."
* * *
During his sophomore year at Cowley College, Manny did almost 1,700 hours of community service with AmeriCorps, a federal work/scholarship program.
* * *
On July 16, at Doc Howard's Lounge in Old Town, Manny — a former two-time Golden Gloves champion — will fight his second professional boxing match against Demarcus Glosson.
Manny's first pro fight, in Albuquerque on Dec. 3 against Christian Bruffy-Holmes, ended abruptly.
Manny knocked him down after 16 seconds. In the fight video, Bruffy-Holmes' head snaps back, as though he's been hit with a bullet, and he falls down.
He gets up. The referee starts the fight gain. Manny throws a left hook, Bruffy-Holmes' head jolts again, and down he goes.
The fight lasts 58 seconds.
Manny's trainer, Johnny Papin, leaps into the ring, picks up Manny and lifts him into the air.
* * *
Most of Manny's AmeriCorps work was done at Gordon Parks Academy, a K-8 school near 25th and Hillside.
When Johnny demanded he improve in school in 2001, Manny was flunking, nearly illiterate and a stutterer. Most of his work at Gordon Parks was as a tutor and para-professional educator. He speaks with a polished diction.
* * *
In the backyard in 2001, Johnny sometimes walked through his dancing boxers with a sax hanging from his neck. He taught dignity, respect and the jab.
"Respect your mamas!" he yelled at them night after night.
"Stay out of those gangs! Pull up those silly-ass saggy pants! You HEAR what I'm SAYING? No REAL man WALKS around with his BUTT hanging out!"
Two weeks after Manny joined the boxing club, Johnny tied gloves onto the boy and pitted him against a kid two years older, a head taller.
"Go," Johnny said.
Manny punched wildly — no jab, no skills — just anger and roundhouse swings. But Johnny was surprised at his hand speed. Fast.
And then: Shock.
Manny threw a crude left-right combination... BA-BAM!
The boy went down.
Johnny jumped toward Manny, who was standing over the boy, gloves up.
Johnny yanked Manny away, tried to make a joke, bent over the prone kid, checked his eyes, pulled him up.
There were things he didn't know. But Johnny knew boxing.
Manny had something.
* * *
Manny joined the U.S. Army Reserve after his freshman year, and last summer traveled with the U.S. Navy to Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore, delivering medical aid to poor regions.
* * *
"Listen," Johnny told Manny one day, when he was still 12. "You got some special talent. You could be somebody big. Maybe, in a few years, a champion. You hear me?"
"You got two things I can't give you," Johnny said.
"You're meaner than a sack full of rattlesnakes. And you got heart.
"But that ain't nothing. If you want to win fights, you got to learn to jab, you got to listen to me, and you got to work. You hear me?
"I tell the boys to run, you run harder. I tell them to work, you work harder."
The boy nodded, his eyes steady. It would be like that from now on; the boy who blinked awkwardly in conversation, who stuttered when called upon to read in class, did none of these things in boxing practice. He talked straight, looked eye to eye.
At school, he still failed.
* * *
For years, as he taught Manny and the other boys, Johnny spent his own money on the $30 American Boxing Association passbooks the kids needed to take part in association-sanctioned fights, on equipment the kids couldn't afford.
To raise money, he sent Manny and the kids to wash cars, sell candy door to door. On the road, Johnny paid for food, gas and fees.
* * *
Since his junior year at WSU, Manny has taken part in a work-based learning program as an intern for the Drug Enforcement Administration. It dovetails with his criminal justice major and provides a steady paycheck.
* * *
Brenda Thompson never wanted to be a single mother or watch a son join gangs.
But after her husband left her in 2001, and after Manny began to mouth off and flunk, she sank into gloom. Trouble was clearly where Manny wanted to go.
But she refused to let up on him, or his younger brothers, Gary and Garrett. She demanded they also do well. She stretched too little money over too much week, working in food prep at the Spaghetti Warehouse.
She went to see Johnny.
She did not know him well. She knew he taught boxing, that her son adored him.
She told him Manny was flunking, mouthing off.
Johnny said he knew how to stop that "punk behavior."
"Take something away from him that he loves."
Later that day, when Manny came home, Brenda told him he could not box anymore.
Manny was furious.
God takes care of you by putting somebody in your life at just the right time, Brenda said later. This was one of those times.
Manny protested to Johnny. Johnny told him to stay away from his backyard until he started studying in school.
"And go home and apologize to your mama."
* * *
In May, Manny was accepted to a master's degree program at WSU to study criminal justice.
* * *
Brenda and Johnny let Manny box again when Manny studied hard.
Johnny and Brenda went to his school, told teachers what they were doing, asked for help. They helped. They said later that they seldom see a mother so resolved.
One day Manny showed Johnny his grades, which showed improvement. Johnny danced. Then he said:
"If you worked as hard at school as you do at boxing, you could make honor roll."
Manny walked home, his mind whirling.
After that, many good things happened.
* * *
Manny hopes to become a special agent for the federal government, perhaps with the DEA, FBI or ICE.
* * *
At Coleman Middle School, starting in 2001, Manny made the honor roll repeatedly.
His success surprised his teachers, his mother and his boxing coach.
"One day he just woke up," Brenda said. "He said, 'Hey, Mom. You know what? I like school.' "
A story about the aging boxer pushing the flunking kid onto the honor roll appeared in The Eagle in November 2002. It was republished by Reader's Digest in 2003.
People stopped Johnny in restaurants, the supermarket, the street. They praised him.
But Johnny said Manny always had a great mother, and that she had two other sons doing well, and he said he hadn't spent as much time with them.
But after he heard that Gary wanted to play music in school, Johnny did what Brenda could not afford to do.
He bought a trumpet, walked down to Brenda's house and handed it to Gary.
Gary played that horn all the way through middle and high school, and into college.
* * *
While going to high school, and then college, Manny won two Golden Gloves boxing championships and compiled an amateur record of 38 wins, 11 losses.
He fought in 11 states, rode thousands of miles.
Johnny drove all those miles and stood in Manny's corner for all 49 fights.
* * *
At Southeast High School, until he graduated in 2007, Manny made the honor roll every year.
Over the next four years, he won academic honors in college. He studied far into the night. In Brenda's modest house, if a light fixture had a dead bulb, Manny would move to a corner of the house that had light.
He was so focused on boxing and school that there wasn't time to do bad things: Loaf on corners. Get in trouble. Take drugs. Join gangs.
Many friends did those things, he said. Not him.
"There's no doubt I would have ended up getting in trouble if it hadn't been for my Mom and Johnny. I was headed that way," he said.
There is no way he can ever repay Johnny.
He has tried to help others.
He has tried to be a good brother, but his brothers are so smart that he says he couldn't do a lot for them.
He tries, sometimes, to mentor other fighters, other people in his life.
There are three big items in his life plan, he said. He's going to go as far as he can go with a career in criminal justice; he's going to go as far as he can go in professional boxing, right up to world champion if he is good enough.
And one more: He will try to help people in the same way Johnny helped him.
"I'm going to try to help other people for the rest of my life."
* * *
At Laselva's gym, Johnny and Manny sit side by side, joshing, joking.
Johnny curses gangs and thugs.
He no longer coaches boys in his back yard. Working all those boys wore him out, he says. He coaches a few men at this gym now, older trainees, black, Hispanic, and white; there is one woman, Alexandra Blasi, 20. She's got something, he says. Works hard.
He picks up a few dollars working part-time as a janitor here. He's grateful for how Laselva has helped him and his boxers.
He still mentors wanna-be gangsters, he says. But only when one of them asks for his help.
Johnny always points the guy to Manny.
"You think you're badass?" Johnny will ask. "Watch that guy. If you're half as badass as he is, you're a real badass."
He says Manny could end up a world champion if he gets good sparring partners.
He tries to explain, again, how good Manny is as a fighter. He talks about his jab, Manny's hand speed, how fit Manny is.
Johnny stands up.
"Watch this," he said. "I'll hit him, and show you."
Johnny cocks his right arm and throws a vicious upper-cut with his bare fist into the center of Manny's abdomen, turning his entire body into the blow.
There is a sickening crunch, bone on flesh. Johnny's fist recoils, as though he punched a rubberized wall.
Manny, sitting in a chair, does not move, or blink.
"See?" Johnny says. "You see that?"
Manny grins. He gets out of the ring and walks away.
Johnny watches him go.
"I can't make myself say this in front of him," Johnny says. "But I think of him as a son.
"Look at him.
"I mean, LOOK at what he's become.
"He's become a man any man would want as a son."