AIKEN, SC — In 2015, James and Brittany Hankinson started a nonprofit boxing gym in their backyard to fight gun violence in South Carolina’s Aiken County. Six years later, there are half a dozen professional boxers and 13 state champions among their interns.
James Hankinson, co-founder of Hankinson Boxing Gym, started boxing when he was 8 years old.
The first gym Hankinson trained at was owned by a local couple. He said that experience inspired him to recreate the program with his wife, Brittany, in Aiken County.
“When I saw how my coach and his wife took us in and how they loved us, I wanted to keep that same love,” Hankinson said.
Growing up with boxing, he said he recognized the impact that sport can have on youth and that he saw a need in Aiken County.
“I’ve never played any other sport, so boxing was one of the things I knew how to do,” Hankinson said. “With all the violence going on around Aiken at the time, my wife and I wanted to make a difference – all the kids were carrying guns and killing each other. So we called the gym ‘Gloves up, guns down.'”
Hankinson said the gym is more of a family than anything. Photos of young boxers fill the walls around the ring.
“It’s history,” Hankinson said, looking at the pictures on the wall. “When the kids who come through the program leave, we follow them. Growing up doesn’t mean me and Brittany are out of your life. We go to all the graduations and it’s nice to remember those memories. “
The gym has no age limit and they start training kids at the age of 7.
Hankinson said the program relies on word of mouth and social media to recruit participants.
He said Charles Barranco, Aiken’s chief of public safety, and school principals were also spreading the word about the work they do.
Jabreiona Hankinson, the 15-year-old daughter of the Hankinson and national champion in her weight class, said boxing helps young people stay active and off the street.
“It helps you to be free,” said Jabreiona. “Anyone can do it; it just has to be in your heart to do it.”
Tyesha Harrison, another 15-year-old who is a national champion in her weight class and trains with Hankinson, said the gym offers opportunities.
“It gives us the opportunity to travel, learn self-control and boost our confidence,” Tyesha said.
When asked what it’s like to break into a male-dominated sport, she said people at school are impressed.
“They’re surprised we’re boxing,” she said
Tez’Waun Starlings, who also trains with Hankinson, is now a professional boxer and recently won the 2021 UNBC Champion title.
Starlings said he started boxing at a different gym when he was 9 years old.
“At first I didn’t really like it, but the more I went into it — it was something I kind of fell in love with,” he said.
Starlings quit boxing to join the military. When he came back, he decided he wanted to turn professional and Hankinson became his coach.
“I felt like the next level was needed,” he said. “So I contacted him, told him I wanted to be a pro and he told me what to do.”
Although Starlings is a national champion, he said that Hankinson Boxing Gym is more than just the sport.
“It’s more than boxing here,” he said. “We’re a family. We put God first, then family, then boxing.”