Owayne Mcleod has been drawn to athletics for as long as he can remember.
As a child in Jamaica, he racked up trophies as a sprinter on his school’s track and field team. To pass the time, he and his friends played cricket, raced barefoot in the streets of Kingston and lifted makeshift barbells fashioned from concrete and metal rods.
But life was not all fun and games. “I would go days without eating,” he said. “It was horrible.”
Mr. Mcleod’s parents divorced when he was young. His mother emigrated to the United States when he was 4, leaving him in the care of his grandmother and two older brothers. The situation at home was so dire that his mother would send the family barrels of clothes and food that would last them months.
Mr. Mcleod’s mother eventually remarried and settled in New York City. When he was 12, he and one of his brothers left Jamaica to move in with her and their stepfather on the Lower East Side. “As soon as that plane landed, as soon as I got into the house, I looked in the fridge,” he said with a chuckle.
Now 21, Mr. Mcleod has smiling eyes and a relaxed demeanor that belie the hardships he went through. He was in middle school when he first came to the United States, and his mother had him wear suits and church shoes to class. “The teachers loved it,” he said. But many of his classmates bullied him over his dapper style and mocked his Jamaican accent, which has since faded.
“It made me feel like I didn’t belong here,” he said. “I wanted to go back home.”
One day after school, Mr. Mcleod started a fight with someone who was bullying him. “People were saying that I got beat up,” he said. “I felt like I had something to prove.” He wanted to learn how to defend himself, so he went home and watched videos of Ultimate Fighting Championship athletes to study their techniques. Later, he came across a book at school about professional boxers. Two of his teachers noticed his interest and helped him find a boxing gym.
The sport has defined his life ever since; his goal is to become a professional boxer.
Mr. Mcleod trains every day for about three hours at a gym in the Bronx with John Skerret, a former boxer. Mr. Skerret trains 13 fighters of varying ages, and said Mr. Mcleod is his best. “He listens,” he said. “When he’s committed to something, he’s committed.”
Mr. Skerret has been training Mr. Mcleod for about six years, and has never charged him for his services. Sometimes Mr. Mcleod cannot afford to pay the gym’s $50 monthly fee, so Mr. Skerret offers to split it. “He does it out of love,” Mr. Mcleod said. “He’s like a father figure to me.”
Recently Mr. Mcleod has been devoting time to other ambitions. In June, he graduated from the Brooklyn High School for Leadership and Community Service, a transfer school for older and undercredited students run by the New York City Department of Education and Brooklyn Community Services, one of the seven organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.
The suits were long gone by the time Mr. Mcleod started high school; he had traded them for Air Jordans and was more interested in girls than going to class. He got into fights frequently and had to repeat his freshman year, so his mother enrolled him in the Brooklyn High School for Leadership.
The teachers and counselors there urged him to focus on his studies. “I had to wake up,” he said. “I was going down the wrong path for a second.” He passed all of his classes in his senior year, a first for him. “My teachers were crying when I graduated,” he said. “They really care about you in that school.”
Because he enjoys working with his hands, he is learning plumbing skills through a six-month program at a trade school in Queens. This month he got a part-time job as an activity specialist at a Brooklyn Community Services center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Working with children is an opportunity “to set an example,” he said, and he hopes to incorporate some boxing into the job.
Mr. Mcleod is also gearing up to fight in the New York Golden Gloves tournament, an annual amateur boxing competition, early next year. In October, Brooklyn Community Services used $300 from The Fund to buy him a pair of black boxing gloves.
Last year he took home a bright orange and gold belt after a victory in a tournament in Connecticut.
“Not to be weird,” he said, but “sometimes I just put it in my bed and sleep with it.” The belt is a token of his perseverance, he said. He had lost his first two matches and nearly lost the motivation to keep going. “People around me just kept pushing me,” he said. He went on to win three subsequent fights.
During the last of these, in December 2018, he threw a wide punch and tore the labrum in his right shoulder. He won the match, but had to slow down for months. He had surgery in August and has since been easing back into his regimen.
Mr. Mcleod said boxing had taught him discipline. He was easily provoked in the past, he said, and often wound up in street fights. Now he is a member of USA Boxing, a nonprofit organization that promotes Olympic-style amateur competitions. He understands that a messy brawl could cost him his license, and he is not willing to take that risk.
He has also learned to pick himself up after a fall, and not just in the ring.
“Losses could be like your blessings,” he said. “You don’t quit — you keep going.”