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Jason Lord says his life hit a fork in the road when he was 14.

“I was a troubled kid, stealing cars, I was robbing people and quite violent and angry,” he says.

“I was a kid who was heading to Berrimah Prison.”

A court ordered him to put on some boxing gloves and get in the ring.

Luckily, he says, he met a good person “who wanted to give back a bit and saw something in me”.

“I robbed him a few times but continued to box; he continued to look after me, which is crazy.”

Mr Lord, an Arrernte man and traditional owner for Alice Springs, said his mentor’s compassion, alongside the sport, changed his life.

“All the trouble and all the crap that I got up to, boxing was always there; it was that little safe haven that kind of kept me together,” he says.

He believes this is part of the sport — the ring teaches people balance, structure, self-control, and ambition.

Now, it’s his turn to give back.

Care comes first
On any given day you’ll find serious boxers of any gender, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, sparring inside the ropes of the Arrernte Community Boxing Academy.

But you’ll also see kids who’ve just learned to walk trying gloves on for size while they watch older kids give it a go.

“Our whole focus is on making people happy,” Mr Lord said.

“We’re a custodian club, having that name on Arrernte country.”

He says what really sets the gym apart from others is that care, culture and self-control are at the heart of its project.

“Not just Aboriginal culture but the culture that brings people here,” he says.

“We provide love and that environment for people of all ages, everybody who comes here gets the same treatment.”

He hopes the gym creates the same environment that kept him out of Berrimah and gives young people the love and care they need to be “put back together again”.

The academy works with schools, “kids on the streets”, and has started branching out into remote communities.

Mr Lord has been recognised for his work with young people — he was the 2022 Alice Springs NAIDOC Week advocate of the year.

The academy in its current form opened in November last year and Mr Lord says he’s seen young people make big changes in that time.

“We go a bit deeper when we work with these guys, you know; we break them down through sweat and tears.”

Boxing as therapy
Early mornings, the gym runs kungkas (women)-only classes.

Nirosha Boaden is a regular at these classes. She has boxed for 15 years and, like Mr Lord, believes it changed her life.

“I was living in out-of-home care — like a lot of the youth that comes here — and then I started up boxing,” she said.

Ms Boaden now works in youth mental health in Alice Springs and says she’s professionally seen what the gym can do.

“Especially here in communities where traditional Western therapies don’t really work, boxing is great.

“It teaches kids and adults how to be in everyday life, particularly around emotion regulation.”

Anyone welcome
Ms Boaden says Arrernte Boxing Academy stands apart from other gyms because it genuinely feels inclusive.

“Everybody who comes here knows that this is a place for everyone of all cultures and levels. It’s really inclusive,” she says.

Sarah Landers, a Durri woman who also regularly attends the kungkas class, agrees.

Relatively new to the sport, Ms Landers started at the gym after her 14-year-old son started training in the evenings.

She says she’s seen her son “become a lot more confident” since he started boxing and that he’d begun to value his health and eat healthily.

“He lives and breathes boxing now, he’s really inspired,” Ms Landers says.

“This is my little social outlet; we go for coffee afterwards and just laugh the whole time, there’s a real family feeling.”

This is exactly what Mr Lord is aiming for.

“It’s a safe, caring environment,” he said.

“If this was my place as a kid, I’d be a whole different person and that’s what this place is about.”