With his grandsons growing up fatherless in Flint, Michigan, Leon Lawson devised a tough-love remedy they couldn’t escape. Rather than suffer the hard knocks of the inner city, Andre and Anthony Dirrell endured the Joe Byrd Boxing Academy.
“We would hide from my grandfather, wanting to play with friends in the neighborhood, race in the streets, play tag or hide-and-seek,” Andre Dirrell recalls. “Thinking he was gone, we’d sneak out of the house and go around the corner, but there he was, sitting right there.
“Being bloodied, knocked down and tired just came with the territory. Playing outside definitely beat gym workouts making your body hurt. I hated having to put that work in when I wanted to go outside and play, but I was never discouraged.”
Lawson considered it a necessary evil.
“Their father wasn’t there all of the time. I had to step up to the plate. They were young boys growing up to be men and were a lot for my daughter to handle by herself,” says Lawson, who still trains both brothers.
“It was strictly love. They are my heart. I wanted the best for them. I had to teach them the sport of boxing, which I came up doing. I had to do what I had to do to keep them off the streets. I did that by teaching them discipline in the gym."
Dirrell (24-1, 16 KOs) has a chance to become a world champion at 168 pounds Saturday when he fights James DeGale (20-1, 14 KOs) at Boston’s Agganis Arena as the Premier Boxing Champions series returns to NBC at 4:30 p.m. ET/1:30 p.m. PT.
Lawson, 75, sparred with Muhammad Ali when they were teenagers growing up in Louisville, Kentucky. “He was 15 and I was 16,” Lawson says of Ali, who was known then as Cassius Clay.
Anthony Dirrell, 30, won a 168-pound world championship last year before losing his title to Badou Jack in April. Lawson says it is now time for Andre, 31, to become a champion, as well.
“These boys are doing it, and I feel very good about them accomplishing their goals,” says Lawson, whose assistant for the third straight fight will be former two-time heavyweight champion Chris Byrd. “It makes me feel like I’ve done something in life instead of just sitting around and wasting away. I’m also very proud of them as parents.”
Andre Dirrell has a 9-year-old daughter, Anaijah, and sons Andre Jr., 7, and Ayden, 3. He says he owes his parenting skills to Lawson.
“I was like 4 or 5 years old when my father left. My grandfather’s dedication to us, I take all of that into my role as a father,” says Andre Dirrell, who talked to his father, Willie, for the first time in years around Christmas. “He was actually trying to make an attempt to re-enter our lives. I didn’t say that it was a no-go, but I just said that I’m going to have to take a rain check on it because I’m focused on my career right now.”
Even though boxing is now the family business, Dirrell says he doesn’t necessarily want his sons following his footsteps into the ring.
“Boxing is a very tough sport. There’s a lot of roadblocks and I don’t want my kids to go through that stress if they don’t have to," Dirrell says. “I will allow them to box, but that decision will be totally up to them. I’ll give them the reasons why I think they shouldn’t first, along with the reasons why I’ll push them as hard as I will."