By Mary Figuers Stallings
QUEENS COLLEGE — In a white, sterile room, Kenneth McNeil sits in a metal folding chair. He methodically wraps black tape around his right hand, securing a hard boxing glove to his chiseled arm. Above his head the words “Bullet Hands’ Locker Room” are scribbled on a piece of white paper. The fluorescent lighting exposes his anxiety; his foot taps the floor a little faster than usual.
In the next few minutes he will enter the Legacy Arena at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. He is fighting for his first belt – the North American Boxing Federation Title – a distinction that will rank him as a professional boxer.
“Once you’re in the rankings, you’re cookin’ with grease,” McNeil said.
The fight will be a career-maker, and he’s been training hard for the past six weeks.
“A lot of people don’t understand that the fight is won long before its fight time, ya know?” McNeil says. “Fight time is just time to perform.”
At age 25 McNeil has been performing this art for nearly 10 years.
His boxing career began with encouragement from his father, Kenneth McNeil Sr., the owner of a repair shop.
“Every dad puts their kid in basketball or football,” McNeil Sr. said. “I wanted Kenny to do something different.”
His father also knew that his son, a self-proclaimed “class clown” with a history for suspensions, needed a physical outlet. So he took him to the gym. McNeil quickly learned that he was a better boxer than most.
“The first couple weeks in the gym, ya know, I was fightin’ bigger guys and hurtin’ ‘em,” McNeil said. “So, yeah, I could fight.”
In little time, the scrappy up-and-comer developed a reputation and a nickname: “Bullet Hands.”
“Fighting guys, they was just like ‘this kid hits so hard and when he hits you he pretty much kill you, he gets you outta there! And, he’s fast!’” McNeil said. “So what’s fast and kills you when it hits you? Bullet. So, ‘Bullet Hands,’ it just stuck on.”
The sport required extreme discipline, something that McNeil’s father knew he needed, and something that many of his Pratt City neighbors lacked.
Pratt City sits on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, where train tracks separate the poor from the wealthy and the black from the white. Racial division lingers in this part of the south and gang-related gun violence is a reality for residents.
“All this gun violence is huge in every community in Birmingham. We have ‘The First 48,’” he says, referring to a TV reality show that focuses on violent crimes in cities around the country. “Let’s not play with it. It’s dangerous here in Pratt City,” McNeil said. “It’s kinda’ like the wild, wild west…everybody has a gun.”
But McNeil was raised differently. He grew up his family’s lawn mower repair shop, where Christian values were central. His father had a strong presence in his life; something that McNeil says was crucial to his success but was rare amongst his peers.
“That’s what’s going on in this community, if you get straight to the chase,” McNeil said.
“No fathers in the households around here, so moms are tring to raise boys alone,” he continued. “But those boys see drug dealers with nice cars and they want nice cars, so they go that route.”
Despite his upbringing, McNeil admits that he’s made mistakes.
“I’m still growing as a Christian, ya know, everybody has their flaws,” McNeil said.
In the past, he’d succumbed to the negative influence of his peers. But his faith and the strict nature of boxing helped him choose a more disciplined path.
“As a Christian, I leave a lot of stuff alone because I don’t even want to go that route,” he said. “What good is a mean gangster in the world if he loses his soul? My thing is to get to the Promised Land, so I’m trying to get on track right now.”
After the birth of his son, Kenneth McNeil III, three years ago, McNeil’s boxing career grew and his purpose sharpened. He felt obligated to share the positive effects of boxing with his community.
That’s when he met Gregory Young – “Coach Greg” – the founder of ‘Fight 4 Life Ministries.’ With Coach Greg’s foundation and McNeil’s vision, the two opened a community-driven boxing gym in the back of the repair shop.
“Fight 4 Life ministries uses boxing as a way to help children,” Young said. “We’re teaching them ways to control their anger and their stress, and at the same time, they’re learning how to make better life decisions.”
The gym now serves as an outlet for Pratt City children and teens, teaching them discipline and hard work, through the art of boxing.
McNeil has also become somewhat of a local celebrity to these children. His boxing name, “Bullet Hands,” has become synonymous with the gym’s motto: “Put down the guns, pick up the gloves.”
“I tell people that gun violence is never the answer – I’d rather see them fight than anything,” McNeil said. “Come to the gym and learn how to fight.”
McNeil tirelessly embraces the responsibilities of his mission. He knows his role in the community as a leader and as a mentor. His decisions reflect a strong sense of self-awareness, and he practices what he preaches.
“Boxing is like a flower, whatever you put in it, that’s what it’ll grow,” McNeil said. “If you put in drinking beer, partying with your friends, playin’ around with girls, and not coming to the gym, its gonna show up in the fight and you’re gonna be embarrassed in front of your friends.”
This mentality has allowed him to become an undefeated, middleweight boxer.
Back in the waiting room, these reflections bounce around in McNeil’s head. His confident stature reflects his identity: he is more than a boxer; he is a loved father, son, role model, and a leader in his community. While a win that night could mean the fast track to success, a loss could not undo any of his accomplishments.
After his father and coaches surround him in a circle of prayer, McNeil’s anxiety is replaced with a sense of peace. He’s prepared for this, and now, it is in God’s hands.
At the cue of the officials, McNeil walks out into the stadium. “Sweet Home Alabama” blares over the loud speakers, while the stadium lights dance on his shiny shorts and blue bow tie. His mother, friends, and neighbors watch from the stands as he enters the ring.
Staring down his opponent, McNeil remembered his father, his gym, and the aspiring boxers from Pratt City. He knows who he is fighting for.
With the resounding ding of the starting bell, Bullet Hands puts up his gloves