Northern Liberties gym owner who grew up in the streets is giving Philly kids an alternative

Maleek Jackson’s path to entrepreneurship hasn’t been easy.

8 year-old King Lewis hangs with Maleek Jackson at his boxing gym in Northern Liberties

8 year-old King Lewis hangs with Maleek Jackson at his boxing gym in Northern Liberties

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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Stories like Maleek Jackson’s never get old or less inspiring. The 34-year-old South Philadelphia native has lived a life marked by tragedy, yet accomplished things that’d be impressive for people who faced far fewer obstacles.

For one, he owns his own successful business. And at Maleek Jackson Fitness Boxing Gym, the 4 p.m. hour is designated for kids.

As the clock struck on a recent afternoon, the Northern Liberties fitness center filled with a dozen little masked faces. The group of young boys and one girl were in their element. They jumped around with gloved hands, waiting for permission to punch things: a string-suspended tennis ball, dangling speed bags, the air.

Jackson is planning to expand his boxing training to more children this summer with the launch of the Azzim Dukes youth program, named after his brother. It’ll accommodate 12 to 15 children per class, with a total capacity of up to 100. Spots will be offered at no charge.

The initiative aims to provide a constructive after-school activity for what Jackson called “inner-city kids” whose parents are facing financial hardship. He said he was once that kid.

“I know that my mom couldn’t afford Maleek Jackson,” he said of his gym, “if Maleek Jackson was Maleek Jackson when I was growing up.”

Jackson grew up in a single-parent household, and struggled with violence, life in the streets and incarceration, before becoming a millennial business owner. Azzim Dukes was his younger brother, murdered at the age of 17 about a decade ago. Jackson was serving a 10-year prison sentence at the time, locked up when he was just 16.

“When he got murdered, I couldn’t think of why he didn’t have something else to do,” Jackson said, sitting on the edge of a red and black boxing ring. “He was always in the streets.”

“So the boxing program for me is to help kids do something different.”

Video by Kimberly Paynter

Finding a mentor and making a checklist

When he was six, Jackson watched an older brother get shot. The brother survived, but “got killed the following year,” Jackson said. Three of his siblings were lost to gun violence, two of them killed while Jackson was incarcerated on assault, robbery and gun charges.

The three tragedies, he said, created “a backstory of my life and what I wanted to be.”

Prison proved to be a place where Jackson was able to learn to thrive. There he met Taj, a friend he holds dear to this day. “He liked me,” Jackson explained. “He seen that I was much more than my environment, and I was just a child.” Taj gave Jackson guidance, and taught him that there were legal ways to make money.

In prison, Jackson fought. A lot. “Prison is a hostile environment,” he explained. “Fighting is like breathing. It’s like, ‘Yo, how you doing? … Oh, you wanna fight?'”

Rather than discourage Jackson’s love of fighting, Taj encouraged him to hone it into a viable career. Though he first wanted nothing more than to be a boxer, Taj pushed, and made sure Jackson also studied to become a trainer. Jackson created a checklist that made the return home in 2012 a bit more straightforward.

First: Try to become a boxer. Didn’t work out, but the effort was made. Check!

Next up: Try to become a trainer. Check! This one stuck.

Hanif Nelson is one of the coaches at Maleek Jackson Fitness Boxing Gym

Hanif Nelson is one of the coaches at Maleek Jackson Fitness Boxing Gym

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

After a stint as a trainer at nearby Joe Hand Boxing Gym, Jackson was forced to find something new when GoPuff acquired the building. Rather than let it stop him, Jackson saw the local business shakeup as a divinely intertwined push.

“Your dreams live through other people’s dreams,” he said. “GoPuff was courageous enough to pursue a dream. They bought the building and forced me to pursue my dream.”

By 2018, six years after getting out, he was opening Maleek Jackson Fitness Boxing Gym on Northern Liberties’ thriving 2nd Street business corridor.

“I thought life was much more than just growing up and seeing age 21,” he said. “I would like to see what 40 looks like. I would like to see if I put my mind to it, what I can achieve. That was intriguing to me. That’s where I place my focus at.”

At 8 years old, Lewis King needs an outlet for his energy and frustration

At 8 years old, King Lewis needs an outlet for his energy and frustration

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Training kids to bridge the gap

Eight-year-old King Lewis was one of the children at Jackson’s kid hour. Laced into his bright red boxing gloves, the shy fighter sat ringside beside the gym’s namesake, his mentor.

King and Jackson have a special connection, and he’s sort of a pilot student for the Azzim Dukes program.

Jackson grew up with King’s father, Prince, who’s currently incarcerated. King’s been learning boxing at the gym for a few seasons, and they keep dad up to date on son’s progress by sending photos. For Jackson, that contact is one more way to bridge the gap between street life and success.

“Who knows what that does to somebody that’s locked up, to see their son out there doing something that they weren’t doing when they grew up,” Jackson said of the photos. “That may change a person. They might want to come home and do something different… become a better member of the community.”

For young King, it’s all about throwing his fists. “It’s fun because I get to meet my friends,” he said of the boxing gym. “Also, we punch a lot of stuff.”

The gym is still finalizing the details of the Azzim Dukes youth program. Jackson said interested parents should follow the gym on Instagram or Facebook to learn more about how to enroll their child.

Priority for the classes will be given to children living in the city whose parents are incarcerated or who come from single-parent households.

It’s not the most opportune time to launch a free program. Like many other small businesses, Maleek Jackson Fitness’ business suffered because of the pandemic. Cash flow was down, Jackson said, but he believes the effects of the pandemic on children, namely the isolation and idle time, makes this the perfect opportunity to launch the new initiative. For him, the gym is not about getting paid.

“This could have been little Azzim,” Jackson said, comparing the children he trains to his lost brother. “It’s not that I’m a man with a job. I’m a man doing something he’s passionate about.”

The pair takes pics of their boxing workouts and sends them to King's father, one of Jackson's best friends, who is currently behind bars

The pair takes pics of their boxing workouts and sends them to Lewis' father, one of Jackson's best friends, who is currently behind bars

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

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