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Crushing Battles

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Profile
Sep 1st, 2023

article by Vanelis Rivera 
and photography by Kelly Moore Clark

“So, do your interviews usually be this high intensity?” Sam Crawford asked me with a sly grin as we both stood outside his gym’s red and black boxing ring. As I leaned on the rope dividers pressing record on my phone, the beads of sweat that had been running down my face began to evaporate, steadily cooling me. The answer to his question was no, I have not had an interview in my six years of writing that began at 7 AM and entailed five minutes on an elliptical, a series of mobility exercises, a breakdown of boxing fundamentals, and nonstop boxing drills that left my muscles sore two days after the workout. I could deal with the pre-workout, but wrapping my hands and putting on bulbous gloves was a little more intimidating. Not to mention, Crawford’s direct coaching style leaves little room for overthinking. This is to say, he challenged me to give my all, a character trait Crawford clearly values, as his story is ultimately a testimony to the immense power of defying the odds. 

Originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, Crawford’s life took a sharp turn at a young age. In 1993, at the impressionable age of seventeen, he was sentenced to twenty-five years for armed carjacking. The harsh reality of prison life took a toll on his emotional well-being, as he was often put in isolation. The tense environment led to an increase in his aggression, and he was often caught in brawls. “But only by the grace of God and many prayers that I was able to skip around some of the more serious offenses,” he says. Thanks to an attentive mentor, he could channel his aggression into building a skill that would end up being a part of his ministry. 

Crawford was put in one of the six Louisiana state prisons that participate in the Louisiana Institutional Boxing Association (LIBA). One of the trainers, most likely seeing himself in the young Crawford, took him aside and told him, “If you’re going to fight so much you might as well learn to box.” With nothing to lose, he took the offer, but it didn’t come without its challenges, especially those tied to his ego. Going in, he had an attitude of disrespect and quickly learned that with boxing the greatest skill to learn is discipline. “I can go play basketball at the park with no referees or I can try to take it all the way to the NBA, which would require me to learn how to work with others,” he says, adding, “Boxing is about why you fight.” During his time fighting with LIBA, he earned the nickname “Bone Crusher” as well as the title of LIBA Light Heavyweight Champion in 1997 and between 2001 to 2006. His Champion belt, intricately crafted by inmates involved in the hobby craft program, is mounted on a wall. Another piece celebrating his victorious boxing legacy sits on his desk, a masterful paper mache figurine of Crawford in boxing regalia made from toilet paper, another superb creation from an artistic inmate.

Some may consider such an aggressive sport to increase violent behavior, but for Crawford, it improved his chances of reentering society. “Number one, it’s a sport. It’s got rules. It’s got an order you have to follow,” he says, mentioning the craft of having to keep emotions in check. After twenty-two years of serving time, he was released in 2015. It was a date he had already begun planning for years prior. In addition to boxing, he was part of the culinary arts program in prison, and inspired by an article in the New York Times informing of the substantial salary personal trainers can make, he began to create a plan for his transition. Two weeks after his release, he landed his first job with Chef Cory Bahr at Restaurant Cotton working as their sauté chef, quickly refining his culinary chops for the fine dining kitchen. “When you know food, it doesn’t take you that long to learn how to prepare it how they want you to prepare it,” he says. As his expertise grew, so did his confidence, and six months later he was able to get a part-time job at the former Pickel Barrel. There, he was promoted to kitchen manager. 

In addition to his culinary endeavors, he kept with his plan of personal training, taking in clients early in the morning at a local gym. This impressive diligence and dedication paid off, when a gym member, noting the vigor of his training, began to encourage him to consider opening up a boxing gym in Monroe. Crawford didn’t know this at the time, but that man would end up being the owner of the property he had found just for that purpose. The day that he met with the building manager to sign the lease, the same man called him and asked him if he was in the process of leasing 3307 on Renwick Street. Confirming that he was, the man replied, “Yeah, I own that building.” Recognizing the divine intervention, Crawford is still in awe of and full of gratitude for the doors that kept opening for him after he straightened out his life. 

In 2018, BoneKrusher Boxing Program opened its doors. But for Crawford, the gym wasn’t merely a business. He envisioned a space where people’s lives could change for the better, particularly those of children and young adults. So, he began a youth outreach program which he recently turned into a nonprofit organization titled BK Mentoring. As far as the gym, even the name (his boxing namesake) has gained new meaning. The logo, which is a boxing glove breaking a bone, coincides with his tagline “Off the streets and into the gym.” In other words, sometimes the toughest bone to crush is your mentality. “You want to see the opportunity to educate yourself on how to transform your whole way of thinking,” he emphasizes. Many of the kids in his program come from one-parent households, are dealing with behavioral issues, or require more outdoor activities. He considered his hands-on mentoring as one of the key factors of change in his kids, a recipe of attention, guidance, and honesty.

The interior of BoneKrusher Boxing not only demands attention but acts as a source of pride and encouragement. Keeping community in mind, the red and yellow walls are strewn with posters featuring Muhammad Ali, “Iron” Mike Tyson, Michelle and Barack Obama, “T-Rex” Claressa Shields, and Laila Ali. A painted mural honors Crawford’s faith—three crosses surrounded by sunlit clouds with the phrase Trinity of Triumph” at the base, and the words “decide, commit, succeed” bordering the top. And another painted dedication framing the front door, a quote from Proverbs 22:6, establishes the gym’s central principle: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”

Though a few of Crawford’s clients are college-bound students hoping to improve their boxing skills and stay on the straight and narrow, most of his clients are women. At his gym, they have found a place where they feel comfortable, and where they don’t have to be hypervigilant of being harassed during their workout. While some of his female clients opt for fitness training, those who opt for boxing tend to reap even more substantial benefits, as yours truly can attest. One of Crawford’s recent clients, Katrina Branson, appreciates his focus on safety and proper instruction. She remembers him always telling her, “This ain’t no Jenny Craig workout over here.” Which to her translates to, “When you come to the BoneKrusher boxing gym, you’re going to work hard and sweat, and there’s no stopping or quitting on ourselves.” Without a doubt, the high-intensity movements of boxing drills burn fat, build lean muscle, help develop endurance, and can improve balance and coordination. Just one round of a three-minute circuit felt like I had run half a mile. As I caught on to the drill jargon—jab (“one”), right cross (“two”), lead hook (“three”)—I felt more confident in maintaining momentum. And though I confused the numbers now and then, Crawford kept me motivated. 

From the outside looking in, BoneKrusher Boxing may seem like a rugged man’s playground, but Crawford’s intense focus on community building indicates that this faith-based institution cares more about results than revenue. And his efforts have not gone unnoticed. This year, Black Business Owners United awarded Crawford with the “Best Mentoring Program” and “Best Fitness Instructor.” Certainly, Crawford—a man who believes that his God is bigger than the stigma that follows the incarcerated—has crushed through his battles to help others crush their own.