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Nigel Fennell with the 2014 Virginia state championship belt (photo courtesy Nigel Fennell)
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Nigel Fennell (left) during a match (photo courtesy: Nigel Fennell)
Nigel Fennell’s father has been in prison since 1994, the year he was born. Two brothers on his father’s side have spent five years or more behind bars and a third is paralyzed from the neck down after a stray bullet struck him in the throat at age 15 while living in Richmond’s Hillside Court neighborhood.
For a while, Fennell seemed to be headed down a similar path. He faced his first charge at age 12 when, he says, a friend stole a cellphone and brought it to his house. That was dismissed, but about a year later, he served 30 days in Chesterfield juvenile detention for assault — the first of five such stints.
“I had a bad temper,” he says. “I would get into fights at school and on the street.”
He recalls being teased for wearing the same clothes a lot. Money was tight at home as his mother struggled to support Nigel and her two older children on her own. When he’d get in trouble, his mother would have to take time off from work, and she once lost a job as a school bus driver. When he was 13, they were evicted from their home in Chesterfield County’s Salem Church area and went to live for about a year with his older sister off Westover Hills Boulevard in South Richmond.
Fennell looked up to older teens who seemed to have it better.
“They were smoking weed, selling weed. I thought they were cool. I saw they had a little money. That’s how I wanted to be.”
He got behind in school and when his family moved back to Chesterfield, he repeated eighth grade at Providence Middle School. He didn’t think much about the future.
On April 27, 2010, everything changed. On that day Fennell, then a ninth-grader at Monacan High School, skipped school with a friend and picked a fight with a teenager they didn’t recognize as living in their neighborhood. Fennell tried to take the guy’s backpack. “He didn’t want to give it up. He got in my face and we started to fight. It was two against one. We got the better of him.” They left the other teen lying on the ground and went to Fennell's friend’s house. The teen they’d fought with then showed up at the house with three cars full of backup help.
“Guns were drawn. There was a lot of chaos,” Fennell says. His friend’s mother came out and ordered the boys to leave. “I believe if she wasn’t there, something would have happened,” he says. Someone could have been killed, maybe him.
Police arrived and put everyone in handcuffs.
“I was charged with armed robbery,” Fennell says. “My friend had a gun. I didn’t, but they put that charge on both of us.”
Fennell’s probation officer told him he could face 30 years in prison if convicted.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I cried because I thought I’d never get out. I’d never see my family again.”
Fennell’s mother got him a lawyer, who assisted them in having the charge reduced to assault. During his court appearance, Fennell’s mother told the judge that he was going to military school in an effort to get him on the right track, and that became one of the conditions of his probation.
Fennell didn’t want to go, but he knew something had to change. “I didn’t want to be like my father,” he says.
At first glance, it might look like Fennell was following a pattern laid out for him and reinforced by the influence of neighborhood street toughs.
But that’s only part of the story. At home, in the juvenile justice system, at school, at church and in his neighborhood, there were people looking out for him.
Levin Smith got to know Fennell while working as youth supervisor at the Chesterfield Detention Center. “The way I looked at him was a young man who needed some guidance,” Smith says. He saw in Fennell “a good kid who had made mistakes.”
In conversation, Fennell is polite, well-spoken and thoughtful. He calls me “Ms. Tina.” He talks about his faith in God. He also has a kind heart. Even though he had his troubles as a high school student, he worked as an aide with special needs students and formed a friendship with a girl in a wheelchair who lived near him. When he was in detention, Monacan High teachers and the principal wrote to him and sent him care packages.
His mother, Cheryl Jackson, did what she could to support and encourage him. She tried getting him into counseling numerous times, with little result. After noticing Fennell’s interest in boxing — inspired, he says, by watching Floyd Mayweather on TV — she found out there was a competitive boxer, Warren Freeman, living in the same housing complex.
"I saw him leaving with his gloves on," Jackson says. "I ran out to him and talked to him." She asked Freeman if he could help her son get into boxing, thinking that he might be able to channel his anger in a productive way. Freeman, a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, became a mentor for Fennell, taking him to the gym to train or to Byrd Park to run on the track.
Smith connected with Fennell on Facebook and, after learning that he was involved in boxing, once traveled to Maryland to see him fight.
“I had a real big head coming up,” Fennell says. “I thought I was the man, I could fight … the whole boxing thing — I thought it was just ‘knuckle up, put on your gloves and fight.’ “
He learned that boxing requires patience and discipline.
“It takes a strong body, but also a strong mentality,” he says. “It’s easy to give up.”
Attending military school, the Commonwealth Challenge Youth Academy in Virginia Beach, also taught him discipline. “Every day, we had a lot of physical activities, but I still managed to study,” Fennell says. He learned how to clean, buff floors and pay attention to detail.
The experience was life-changing, his mother says.
"He's my baby son," Jackson says. "I did not want him to go away, but if he stayed here in Richmond, I felt like he wouldn’t do anything productive with his life." At military school, she says, "it was like, my son is going from a caterpillar to a butterfly, right before my eyes."
After completing the program and earning his GED, Fennell started attending community college, but then focused his attention on boxing. He got a job at Panera Bread and started training at Combat Sports Center in Henrico County and entering boxing competitions. Through Combat Sports, he met Carmelo Guerrero, whose brother, Fernando, is a well-known professional boxer.
Guerrero, who was based in Salisbury, Maryland, persuaded Fennell in 2013 to move there and train. For five months, he lived at the gym there and, when his car broke down, walked six miles to and from work at another Panera Bread location.
“I had that determination that I was going to be great,” he says.
He went on a 21-fight winning streak and made it to the finals of a Maryland state tournament, going up against Gary Russell, who was ranked No. 1 in the country for the light welterweight class. “I put up a good fight, but ended up coming short,” he says.
Fennell got back in the ring, though, and kept on fighting. In 2014, he made it to the quarterfinals of the Ringside World Championships in Kansas City. Last week, he entered the tournament again and won one match before losing to a boxer from Massachusetts. He has one more amateur fight set for Aug. 4 in Glen Burnie, Maryland, a rematch against a boxer he defeated previously, Joey Veazey, for the Junior Middleweight Title. The name of the event is “Rumble Young Man, Rumble: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali.”
After that, Fennell plans to turn pro. He’s talking with three potential managers, and is weighing his options.
He’s also considering life beyond boxing. Living in Midlothian again with his mother as of June 5, he’s working as a peer counselor for at-risk youth. He wants to go back to college and study counseling. He hopes to open a gym in the next several years.
“A lot [of them] are like me,” he says of the young clients he works with. They’re growing up poor, without fathers in their homes or with verbally abusive parents. “I was there before and I don’t want to see kids in the situation I was in. I want to give back. I have to. I was given that second chance.”
Talking with Levin Smith, I’m struck by the thought that things could have turned out differently for Fennell if even one beam in his support structure had been missing. I’m reminded that all of us can look for opportunities to have an influence.
“All it takes is a couple of words of encouragement,” Smith says. “It can change a life.”