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At Knock Out Kings, Rob Bell is always in your corner

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Mike Rundle
Rob Bell spars with a Knock Out Kings boxer at the East Bluff Community Center.

Boxing is a way of life for Rob Bell.

In his youth, he would walk the streets of Pontiac, Michigan—boxing gloves in-hand—looking for a challenge. Honing his skills whenever he could, Bell became a talented athlete; but at 18, his life changed when he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

“I kind of got derailed because I didn’t have that father to tell me, ‘No, you’re not going to do this,’” said Bell. “I just basically started gravitating to the streets because I felt like I wasn’t getting the support from my family and friends that I thought I deserved to have.”

Following his prison sentence, Bell returned to boxing and achieved a life-long dream of competing in the Golden Gloves tournament. After tearing his rotator cuff in the early rounds, Bell was forced to exit the competition and decided to turn to training.

Initially, Bell’s training was informal, but he soon realized that a safe space for the kids to work out was critical.

“The last conversation we had, I was like, ‘I’ll train you out of my basement, just show up,’” said Bell, recalling an interaction with a former student in Michigan. “That next day, I get a call, he had gotten killed.”

With the goal of taking in as many kids as possible, Bell expanded his training program when he arrived in Peoria four years ago; thus, Knock Out Kings was born.

“This is not just any old thing. I am really into this, and I’m really trying to save lives, that’s my mission,” said Bell. “If I can save one kid, I did my job—but I want to save hundreds of kids.”

Bell originally came to Peoria to assist his eldest daughter, Chama St. Louis, with her mayoral campaign. While in town, Bell says St. Louis pushed him to officially bring the training program to Peoria.

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Mike Rundle
Javon Williams poses with championship belts earned in multiple competitions.

“I’m basically like a new avenue, a new road for these kids,” said Bell. “I knew there was a lot of talent here, I knew that these kids were searching for something, and I just decided to stay here…and it’s been a blessing.”

Knock Out Kings is currently operating out of the East Bluff Community Center where Bell has a small room adorned with boxing trophies, commemorations of Muhammed Ali, and posters outlining the “K.O.K. Way.” Bell also works as a supervisor for Carl Cannon’s ELITE Program, and often takes students from the program into his gym to give them a physical and emotional outlet.

“I’m showing them that no matter what you’re going through in life, you still can make something of yourself, you still can be somebody,” said Bell.

East Bluff Community Center Executive Director Kari Jones says that Bell’s efforts to make an impact in the kids’ lives has been palpable.

“What a lot of their focus is with the boxing program is not only the sport itself, but things like respect, determination, and working hard, and that really shines through,” said Jones. “You can really tell that the values that Coach Bell is trying to instill are really getting through to the kids.”

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Mike Rundle
De'Yahnna Styles spars with Bell during class at the Community Center.

Derrick Booth, Peoria Public Schools Director of Social Emotional Learning, says that Knock Out Kings is a prime example of a “pro-social activity” and that Bell is dedicated to the students that participate in the program.

“[Bell] follows up with their progress in the school setting, making sure that they are attending school, making sure that they’re doing their work. That alone is a positive motivator for students, ” said Booth. “It’s not just boxing…that’s just the avenue to get their attention to teach them other life skills.”

With the total number of program participants now over 60, Bell is hoping to expand the reach of Knock Out Kings even further. One way he’s working to break down access barriers is by operating in satellite locations such as the Tri-County Urban League.

League President and CEO Dawn Harris Jeffries, PhD. is glad to have Bell on-site, saying that Knock Out Kings is one of many programs seeking to provide additional resources in areas it may not always be readily available.

“[Peoria is] pretty high on the poverty spectrum and…there’s certain things that come with it, and sometimes it’s violence and sometimes it is an overall lack of hope,” said Harris Jeffries. “[Knock Out Kings] allows them to have a release in a way that’s productive. It provides that social support and connectedness that could be missing in a child’s life.”

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Mike Rundle
During each class, participants work on overall strength and conditioning while tying boxing technique into the workouts.

In terms of physical space, Bell says his ideal gym would be a larger building with room for the two boxing rings he currently owns along with additional training equipment. With four years of the program under his belt and registration increasing, Bell feels that his limited space at the Community Center could eventually curtail growth.

“We’re competing at a good level with what I’m working with right now, just imagine if I got the right stuff, the right equipment,” said Bell.

Moving forward, Bell hopes that he will be able to secure additional funding through his 501(c)(3) status and build Knock Out Kings into more than just a boxing program.

“What I’m hoping for is to be able to accept any and everybody, no matter how many people, no matter color, race, condition,” said Bell. “I want to be able to provide a space where I can help any and every individual that needs help, whether it’s for boxing, whether it's just for the workouts, whether it's just for the mentoring, whether it's just for you to know you're off that street and that parent knows that you're somewhere safe.”

With gloves still in-hand, Bell is looking to conquer this next challenge: bringing boxing, and a lifeline, to the youth in Peoria who truly need it.

“That’s the dream, to see this place become what it’s supposed to be,” said Bell. “It’s time for [the kids] to get what they deserve. That’s what I’m trying to do, it’s for them.”

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Mike Rundle is a correspondent at WCBU. He joined the station in 2020.