*This article originally appeared in RVA Mag #34, on the streets now at all your favorite spots.
For Reggie Barnett, Jr., prison was just another place where he didn’t fit in. Raised in the boxing gym, he failed to find a place in the ring or his neighborhood. Arrested for marijuana possession at 18, he found himself pulled into a downward spiral, spending the next decade drifting in and out of the penitentiary — and in and out of the lives of the people he cared about. Outside those metal bars, the world dragged on, as Barnett tried in vain to find a place where he could be accepted.
During his final stay inside, he turned to books, reading 237 during the two years and nine months that constituted his last period of incarceration. “I didn’t understand who I was as a person, what my culture was,” he said. “I didn’t understand what it meant to be a man, what it meant to be alive. Going to prison and being able to take a step back and analyze, see the world from both aspects, I’ve finally had that perspective.”
Today, at 32, Barnett is out of prison and on the road to being a world champion. In the five years since his release, he has accumulated a 6-1 record, a 135-pound WMA bantamweight belt, and an undefeated record in the two-year-old Bare Knuckle Fighting Federation. His most recent victory guaranteed him a spot in the first Bare Knuckle World Invitational. But Barnett has known he would someday walk the champion’s path since the day he took the stage in the Indian Creek Correctional Center, and read aloud a poem he prepared for his fellow inmates.
Barnett recalls the work as a statement, an opportune moment amid the volleys of death threats and trash slung by the raucous crowd. His friends called it a riot. Going back over the lines today, he seems proud, his shoulders rising with each line. “Because I didn’t come to school with the freshest J’s, I wasn’t fresh enough,” he said. “Because not every female is a bitch or a ho, I’m not pimp enough. Those are mothers and sisters and grandmas — at least, that’s how I looked at it, and I saw hell for it.”
In that moment, and ever after, he reminded as many he could that one day, he would rise above his current circumstances. “I told them to just wait, I’m going to be fighting on TV,” he said. “I’m going to be a world champion.” Until that day came, they knew where they could find him: in the back left corner of the gym, right by the speed bag.
Dave Tordoff, a childhood friend of Barnett’s who served time alongside him, said he only saw his old friend at the gym, training. He would sneak out on laundry duty to see him. At first, Barnett was quiet, shy. “Always kept to himself,” said Tordoff. “He was just like a lot of us at the time — just floating.” But at the rear of the gym, where Barnett planted himself in front of the speed bag, Tordoff described an aura lifting that cramped corner of the gym. “The drive that I seen when he was incarcerated, I wish I could have gotten a shot of it,” he said.
Within the first year, the facility gave Barnett a speed bag and pads to let him shadow spar. With the help of some fellow inmates/boxers, Barnett started a boxing club at the Indian Creek facility. which propelled his efforts to build a bridge with the facility’s many isolated groups. “In prison, everyone wanted to get me out of my square and fight me, change my form of thinking,” he said. “Had it not been for my friends closest to me pulling back, being that voice of reason to stay that course…” Instead, Barnett would invite the provocateurs over to the gym for a workout.
But he wasn’t always so resolute. He was raised in a boxing family; his father, Reggie Sr., trained under legendary boxer Curtis Coates and led a stoic lifestyle where ego was checked at the door and success was protocol. This was a far cry from the difficult streets Barnett walked; always the short kid, he became an easy target, caught between the neighborhood community and a distant father whose closed-off nature made Barnett feel smothered.
He was an impressive boxer at a young age, but the Marquess of Queensbury never fought in the streets. Barnett got into a lot of fights, though he instigated few. The fights exposed his greatest flaw — his protective nature. He fought for the neighborhood. “What I knew about Reggie growing up was that although he was a small guy, he definitely wasn’t going to let anybody get picked on or beat — that was not going to happen,” said Tordoff. “Reggie was always the bully beater.”
However, having to be the protector weighed on Barnett. He still struggles to explain why he put up his fists so many times in his younger days. “Maybe it was a pride thing — it made me feel like I was in control, especially in a world where there’s so much that we don’t control,” he said. “For that moment in time, whether I win or lose, I’m the one that’s in control.”
At a young age, Barnett was poised to succeed his father’s ringed glory. However, his father was hesitant to train him — he wanted his son to stick to the books. “I just wanted to teach my kids how to protect themselves,” Barnett’s father says today. “I never had any vision of one of children wanting to do boxing, period.” Barnett Sr. had difficulty in articulating much with his son, often refusing to let up on his own strict code, and at times not knowing when to be a father and when to be a coach. “Senior was hardest on Reggie — sometimes was a little too hard, but he had a hard time growing up as well,” Barnett’s mother said.
Despite Barnett’s continued interest in boxing, he did follow his father’s advice. An active member on the debate and scholastic clubs, as well as captain of the chess club, Barnett takes pride in his academic work, even if he was ridiculed for it. “Reggie is a boxer but he’s also an intellectual, and always had a hard time fitting in,” his father said. “For being well versed in a lot of subjects, he got a teased a lot — I mean a lot. And that didn’t sit well with me.”
Neither Barnett’s boxing talent nor his academic achievements, though, could save him from the streets. He felt held down by the very neighborhood he’d worked so hard to be accepted by. “Black men — we’re like crabs in a fucking bucket,” he said. A confused kid, he saw others fall around him and began to drift a bit himself. He didn’t know where his life was going, and didn’t see much of a future in it; by the time he’d reached 17, he didn’t expect to see 25.
A week after he turned 18, he went to prison for a minor possession charge. But the time he served was nothing compared to the trouble his first-offender status gave him once he’d gotten out. At first, he had trouble getting permission to attend out-of-state boxing tournaments. As he battled to stay in line with his probation, he was drawn to the liquor aisle. A few drinks a night to drown his sorrows turned to steady cycles of “6 AM to 6 AM,” as he had to keep drinking to avoid withdrawal sickness. “I was so engulfed in alcohol that if I didn’t drink, I would shake, I would sweat, I’d have seizures,” said Barnett.
Then, injured and piss-drunk he fell off a ladder at work. That was the last straw. He knew he was in violation of his probation, and called his mom to say he was turning himself in. She asked him to wait until after the holidays — “That’s my child,” she said, tearing up. “I couldn’t do it.” But Barnett had already called his probation officer, while sitting with a bottle of Vicodin and two bottles of Black Velvet on the steps of his sister’s house. “I was just so overwhelmed at life at the time that I just really didn’t care anymore,” he said. “So I resolved myself to just drink until I die.”
Toward the end of his time at Indian Creek, Barnett was given the opportunity to be released. However, he decided that two years hadn’t been long enough — he asked for more time to complete the drug program. They obliged, giving him six more months, but for many on the outside, it was difficult to feel good about this extra time behind bars.
Tordoff believes the result of Barnett’s decision speaks for itself. “All I can say now is that Reggie made the right choice [to stay],” he said. “You don’t know what would’ve happened had he come out after two years, but you can see what happened after that extra nine months in prison, plain as day. The man [went] from prison to pay-per-view.”
Now, after some success in the ring and a successful marriage proposal, Barnett is trying to build a community of his own. His parents made him co-owner of the boxing gym where he was raised. “He always struggled the most with taking responsibility with his own actions, but being in there, it was a wake up call for him,” said his father. “It took some time, but he’s finally becoming a man.”
Barnett has a lot of plans for the gym and his future, but he knows he doesn’t have it all figured out, and he’s certainly not basking in any winners circle. “When opportunity arises, you make yourself fit,” he said. “You just gotta be comfortable. I love my support system, I love my team, but at the end of the day, I have to fit in most with myself, because I’m the one getting punched in the face.”
As our conversation draws to a close, he returns to the poem. “One of the lines in the poem says, ‘The definition of where I’m from is not defined by how many people are killed or how much violence is around — that’s nothing to be proud of,” he said. “Try helping, try being there for all those kids that are dying on a weekly basis.”
I ask how he wishes to be remembered. He leans back into the ropes, thinking over his answer. “I want the history books to know… I was here, but not just for fighting,” he said, leaning down and setting his gloves onto the floor. “I want the world to know I was here, that I went through some things, and I was able to rise above it, and help others who had no path, make one.”
Heading into the World Invitational for Bare Knuckle Boxing, Reggie is far from consumed in his quest for glory. He’s more focused on giving his family a roof over their heads and his boxing trainees a place to hang their gloves. And though his students don’t have the nicest shoes or the best gear, they share an endearing quality — an aura of proud determination, much like the one Barnett once had in that cramped corner of the prison gym.