A little after three o’clock on a sweltering summer afternoon, a dozen youngsters of varying ages, sizes, and races filtered into a converted fire station in north Minneapolis. There, as usual, they were greeted by Mohammed Kayongo.
“Hey, champ,” Kayongo said to an 8-year old boy, whose face brightened at the shout-out and fist bump
Kayongo’s effervescent manner elicits a smile from most of his charges at the Northside Boxing Club, the non-profit gym where he and another former professional fighter, Phil “the Drill” Williams, serve as coaches and mentors to about 30 aspiring pugilists.
Kids come to the club for all manner of reasons: to learn about the fistic arts, of course. But also to get a square meal or a good workout. Sometimes, it is just to have somewhere to go. That latter feature is by design.
The gym, housed in a two-story Art Moderne brick structure built in 1939, sits a block north of Lowry Avenue in the Folwell neighborhood. A tornado ripped through the heart of this working class community 10 years ago and the scars are still evident in its sun-blasted, treeless boulevards. Less visible is the damage from more recent gun violence that has plagued the area.
But it’s there if you know where to look. On the wall behind the ring in the old fire station hangs a mosaic of photo portraits of about 30 boys and girls, mostly Black. The faces belong to the kids who came to the gym when it first opened in 2016.
Kayongo pointed to the pictures of two boys, both beaming with the bravura of youth, who were part of that inaugural class. They were cousins, Kayongo explained, and both were later shot to death. He hopes that the tally of fatalities ends there, but who knows, he said.
“We’ve got a new program: Every Friday, we teach them Black history,” Kayongo said. The classes are conducted by a woman from the neighborhood who was drawn to the gym’s mission and wanted to help. “She gives a historical lecture,” Kayongo added. “At the end of the program everybody gets $10.”
In Kayongo’s view, most of the youth who make their way to the Northside Boxing Club are in need of structure and, just as critically, adult affection.
“Most parenting is giving love. And most of our kids need more of that. They need love,” he said.
A former professional boxer who grew up in Uganda, Kayonga cuts an impressive figure. Always a fitness fiend, Kayongo still works out all the time. As a side gig, he moonlights as a personal trainer.
Now in his early 40s, he looks as lean and sinewy as he was back in his fighting days when he rattled off more than 200 amateur wins as an amateur and served as the captain and honorary flag bearer for Uganda’s national team at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
Nobody at the gym calls him Mr. Kayongo or Mohammed. Everybody calls him “Moe.”
But in boxing circles, Kayango has been known by other names. Local fight fans called him the “African Assassin” back in 2003, when he first arrived in St. Paul to launch his professional career.
Another nickname: “Moe Marciano.” He adopted that surname years ago after a Canadian boxing trainer, impressed by his hook, likened him to the legendary American heavyweight Rocky Marciano.
Ryan Burnet, the Minneapolis restaurateur who founded the nonprofit that operates the boxing club, calls Kayongo “the soul of the gym.”
“He’s the first one in to open the doors, the last one out to lock the doors at night,” said Burnet. But his admiration for his colleague runs much deeper.
“He’s the most spiritually sound and kind person I know,” said Burnet. “It guides him and it guides the gym.”
Burnet first got to know Kayongo in 2012, when both men regularly worked out at the Uppercut Boxing Gym in northeast Minneapolis. Burnet wasn’t a boxer. He was just an aficionado looking to get fit. But Kayongo was still active in the professional ranks and Burnet marveled at the intensity of his workouts. Over time, the two became close friends.
As Burnet learned more about the traumas Kayongo endured during childhood, his appreciation only grew. “I think what he went through—and you can’t find a harder story—has given him the ability to have true empathy,” Burnet said.
Kidnapped to serve as a child soldier
As he tour-guided this reporter though the elaborately renovated club, Kayongo stopped in the kitchen, which was stocked with ready-to-eat snacks, dry pasta, and assorted fixings. A sign on the wall lays out the rules: “Kids eat first.”
Food is a big deal at the club. While the gym closed at the beginning of the pandemic, the kitchen remained open, Kayongo said, “because the need was still there.”
After pit stops at the computer lab and weight room, Kayongo sat down next to a ping pong table in the hallway outside the office, where he relayed the saga of his life’s journey from Uganda to Minneapolis.
Kayongo’s father was a cop turned medic, his mother a traditional healer, originally from Rwanda. Kayongo grew up in the slums of Kampala, a member of the country’s Muslim minority.
At the age of 11, Kayongo recalled, he was abducted by insurgents from the Holy Spirit Movement, a messianic rebel group led by a spirit medium named Alice Auma. She claimed divine inspiration and told followers they would be protected from bullets by anointing their bodies in shea oil.
Over time, the movement morphed into the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose leader, Joseph Kony, became notorious for kidnapping and conscripting children.
What Kayongo recalls most vividly from his time in captivity was the constant movement. He and other youth were marched through the jungle. They were never in the same place long, always in a state of terror. Those who fell behind were routinely slaughtered, Kayongo said.
“They trained us every day. At the same time, they made some kids kill their mom and dad in front of everybody. That happened a lot,” he recounted. “I don’t know what the point was. I don’t know how I survived. I was lucky.”
Kayongo acknowledges that he sought to improve his odds.
“I did everything they asked me to because I didn’t have a choice. In two months, they gave me 30 people to lead. I think they trusted me,” he said.
“I thought nobody could help me, not my parents. Nobody. So I started to be what they wanted to make me.”
He never tried to slip away, he explained, because he never knew his location in the countryside. He was certain that fleeing would mean death.
In recounting this, Kayongo paused for a solid moment. “Man is the first animal,” he said, as he dabbed his eyes.
When Kayongo was finally liberated, it felt like 10 years had passed. In fact, it was 11 months. Staying in army barracks while the authorities sought to locate his parents, Kayongo got his first exposure to boxing.
Bare knuckles, flip flops, and 14-mile runs: Training in a ‘Jungle Gym’
The sport had long been popular in Uganda, a legacy of the country’s status as a former colony of the U.K. At the time, the country boasted some top boxers, including the world super welterweight champion, John “the Beast” Mugabi.
Kayongo said his interest in boxing blossomed after he watched the Sylvester Stallone movie Rocky II.
After reuniting with his family, Kayongo began training for his future. He ran 14 miles a day, he said. With friends, he slashed a clearing in the forest to fashion a crude boxing gym—his “jungle gym.” The youthful pugilists sparred with bare knuckles, jogged in flip flops, and worked out on a heavy bag filled with sand and dangled from a tree.
All the time, Kayongo said, the trauma of his abduction left him fearful and yearning for escape from his home—and Uganda.
“I told my dad, I don’t want to live here. I don’t feel protected. I want to go back to the barracks,” he said.
Eventually, he did return to the barracks, where his focus on boxing turned into obsession. With financial help from a family friend, he enrolled at Kololo High, a secondary school with an excellent boxing program. For the first time, Kayongo said, he was boxing with proper gear and coaching.
Over the years, Kayongo ascended the amateur ranks, racking up over 200 wins and winning five national titles. He suffered rare losses, including one to future world champion Kassim Ouma. Ouma, like Kayongo, was a former child soldier. But after Ouma defected to the U.S., Kayongo said, “there was nobody in Uganda who could beat me for five years.”
As Kayongo’s record and confidence grew, so did his conviction that boxing would be the vehicle for his escape.
His amateur career hit the high water mark in 2002 at the Commonwealth Games, an international tournament with participants from 72 nations. Boxing in front of 12,000 spectators in Manchester, England, Kayongo won a silver medal. Afterward, he was feted at a reception with English royals. He also drew the attention of the professional fighting world.
Coaching kids in the classroom
In the end, Kayongo was lured to St. Paul by the late promoter and manager Tommy Brunette, who helped Kayongo secure a visa. Under Brunette’s tutelage, Kayongo turned pro in 2003, rattling off 10 straight victories, seven by knockout, in a little over a year. While Kayongo didn’t maintain that clip, he managed to win a minor title in 2009. He last fought professionally in 2016, retiring with a record of 18 wins, five losses, and one draw.
Over those years, Kayongo worked a series of day jobs around the Twin Cities, mostly in the hospitality and security industries. Then, in 2014, Ryan Burnet, his restaurateur pal from the gym in northeast Minneapolis, told him about his plans to open a nonprofit gym on the Northside. Kayongo leaped at the opportunity to sign up.
That, in turn, led to a different opportunity.
Doran Schoeppach, a teacher at the public middle school in the Minneapolis suburb of Columbia Heights, works with some of the school’s most challenged (and often challenging) students—the kids who wear the label “EBD,” or emotional behavioral disorder. In small group settings, a teacher, with the help of an assistant, works to get these students back on track, with a goal of returning them to mainstream classes.
About three years ago, Schoeppach recalled, one of his students announced that he had started boxing at a new gym on the Northside.
“He kept pestering me, saying ‘Mr. Schoeppach, come watch me box!’ So eventually I went over to the gym and I met his coach. It was Moe Kayongo,” Schoeppach said. “After that, I went there once a month. And I saw how the students reacted to Moe and that Moe was getting good results.”
A light bulb went off in Shoeppach’s head. Why not see if Kayongo would be interested in working as an educational assistant? While about 70 percent of students at Columbia Academy are Black or Hispanic, the faculty is overwhelmingly white. Schoeppach, like many others, recognized the pressing need to diversify the staff. Since then, Kayongo and Schoeppach have worked side by side in the classroom at Columbia Academy.
In that setting, according to Schoeppach, they have developed a good cop/bad cop routine. Kayongo takes the good cop role: “Moe makes it all happen because he can relate to the kids and he can express his expectations.”
“The kids respect him. They seek him out,” said Schoeppach, who describes Kayongo as “magnetic.”
“I must get asked the question, ‘Where’s Moe?’ 30 times a day,” he said.
Schoeppach figures at least a dozen of his former students have found their way to the Northside Boxing Gym. Working in the same classroom and working out in the same gym, Schoeppach added, he and Kayongo have grown close—so close, in fact, that Kayongo recently convinced Schoeppach to fast over Ramadan as an exercise in personal discipline.
“I made it 17 days,” Schoeppach said with a laugh.
Building another club—in Kampala
While Kayongo splits his time between the school and the gym, he has a big side project, one that is also focused on kids. Between 2003 to 2018, Kayongo did not return to Uganda. When he did—to lay his mother to rest—he was shocked by the changes he saw. Among the most notable: a huge increase in the youth population, most of them poor, with scant opportunities or hope.
So now, he’s in the process of building a gym in Kampala that is, in part, modeled on the Northside Boxing Club. In other words, a place designed to meet the needs of underserved kids.
“The Godfather Boxing Academy,” as he’s named it, is a work in progress. But as Kayongo flips through his smart phone, he brings up a video of kids laying the bricks for the foundation of the facility. Already, he said, 50 youth regularly patronize the half-built club.
One day in the future, when the pandemic risks have faded, Kayongo plans to take a few kids from the Northside Boxing Club to visit their sister club in Kampala. For him, the trip would be a homecoming. But for kids from north Minneapolis, he hopes, it will be an eye-opening, even transformative, experience.
“I want them to see how other kids live,” he said.