The boxing prodigy has lived a complicated life and seen the very worst of what America has to offer. But he hopes to represent his country at the 2020 Olympics before he turns pro.
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After finishing his first training session of the day, Lorenzo Simpson changes out of his USA Boxing track jacket into a plain white t-shirt and drives to Park Heights, the northwest Baltimore neighborhood where he grew up. Leaning on the trunk of his 2011 Acura, he looks with heavy eyes toward consecutive vacant buildings at the bottom of the street. There are more blighted houses behind him, and hard-staring passersby walking along trash-strewn sidewalks.
Simpson is a kinetic person. In his idle moments, he's usually shadowboxing, throwing combinations and cutting angles. But here, in his old neighborhood under an afternoon sky turning stormy, he withdraws into near motionlessness. Around the corner is Simpson's old elementary school. He recalls seeing dealers and addicts trade vials for cash as he walked to class. Drug transactions were normal. So was the sound of gunfire in the distance. "People started shooting and you'd just run," Simpson says. "You don't never stand there and watch because you gonna get shot too."
Simpson's story, that of the inner-city kid finding a refuge in boxing and fighting his way to the top, sounds like it could be the stuff of boxing cliche. But that would ignore the outsized circumstances informing Simpson's life: the father murdered before he reached kindergarten; the coach who inspired a character on HBO's The Wire; the 181-3 combined record and the half-dozen National Silver Gloves titles; the praise from Floyd Mayweather, Jr. Heading into his senior year of high school, 17-year-old Simpson is the top-ranked 165-pound fighter in the country, a hard-hitting southpaw with an eye on the 2020 Olympic team. "When you come from this type of lifestyle, you can't be nothing but an animal," he says. "If you show that you soft, it's a wrap. I wouldn't have been as good a fighter if Baltimore hadn't made me [like] this."
Baltimore is a city of abrupt changes in scenery. Pimlico Race Course, the track that hosts the Preakness Stakes, is less than a mile from the Park Heights neighborhood where Simpson and I are speaking, but getting there means driving past liquor store after liquor store, bail bondsman after bail bondsman. On the gentrified blocks branching out around the Inner Harbor, row houses are renovated and rented out to young creatives; unfashionable neighborhoods such as West Baltimore's Penn North and Sandtown-Winchester, meanwhile, are home to a significant amount of the city's 17,000 vacant buildings, many of which are boarded up and forgotten. In 2016, a year after riots consumed the city following the death of West Baltimore resident Freddie Gray while in police custody, the Justice Department found systemic racial bias within the city's police department. Last month, state attorneys dismissed dozens of cases after discovering body camera footage showing a Baltimore police officer allegedly planting drugs. In 2017, the murder rate has averaged nearly one homicide per day, a record-high.
Simpson knows how grim his city can be, but he criticizes the assumptions made about Baltimore and its residents from afar. "[The media] makes it look like shootings and killings and kids running wild. Really, you choose your own crowd—you choose what you're gonna gravitate to," he says. "Me, I never touched a drug, never sold a drug. Some of my best friends are in that life, but it's just where we're from."
Danica Nicole Carroll, Simpson's mother and a Baltimore native, shielded her sons from the city's worst. "I didn't want my kids to sell drugs, use drugs, or have to depend on anybody or anything else but themselves," she says. Her father, she says, went from working for Coca-Cola to dealing, and is currently in the federal prison system. Her relationship with her high school sweetheart and father of her three boys—Lorenzo is the middle child—turned rocky after he started dealing drugs himself. In 2004, he was murdered during a robbery gone bad.
Neighbors alerted the family to the shooting, and they arrived to the scene of the crime before the police could even get there. Simpson, just four years old at the time, still remembers seeing his father bleeding. After his father's death, the young Simpson's anger boiled over. He acted out at school and responded to perceived slights with violent outbursts. Carroll says that her son stabbed another student in the hand with a pencil. "Something had to change."
As Simpson's mother encouraged him to find an outlet for his rage, a family connection led him to the sweet science. His uncle Hasim Rahman, a Baltimorean who briefly became heavyweight champion after knocking out Lennox Lewis in 2001, began letting him tag along during training camps. At seven years old, Simpson walked into Upton Boxing Center, now on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore, for the first time. Too young to put on gloves, Simpson watched from the sidelines of the gym, run by the city's parks and rec department, and practiced what he saw on his own. "He went in the gym and showed the coaches what he'd been working on," Carroll recalls. "They looked at him and said, 'Come on, you can start training.'"
Ever since then, he's trained under Calvin Ford, a former lieutenant for a West Baltimore drug enterprise who served a decade in federal prison on racketeering and conspiracy charges before becoming a boxing trainer, eventually becoming Upton's head coach. Ford's story was the inspiration for Dennis "Cutty" Wise, the youth boxing coach on the Baltimore-centric HBO series The Wire. "Calvin was like that missing piece that he lost with his father," Carroll says.
Simpson spent hours training and watching film during downtime. His grades stabilized and the extracurricular fights diminished. "Instead of me zapping out on you because you say something disrespectful, now it's in the ring," Simpson says. He first fought at eight years old, stopping his opponent in the second round. At ten, he traveled to Missouri to compete in his first National Silver Gloves tournament—the under-16 counterpart to the Golden Gloves—and came home a winner, surprising even his mentor. "I told his mother he was gonna be a national champ his first time going away," Ford says. "I didn't [really] expect it, but he was."
Since then, Simpson has turned into the most touted junior amateur fighter in the country, with six consecutive National Silver Gloves titles, two Junior Olympics accolades, and a host of other honors to his name. USA Boxing's youth rankings have him first in his weight class, and it hasn't been easy keeping his spot: in the third round of his final Silver Gloves appearance in February 2016, his opponent knocked him down with a wild overhand. It was the first time he'd ever been dropped. "I told the ref, 'I'm good.' Then I dropped him back right away—uppercut, hook, straight hand," he says. Simpson took the decision.
The next month, TMZ recorded Floyd Mayweather, Jr., flanked by Money Team affiliate and Simpson's Upton training partner Gervonta "Tank" Davis, pointing out Simpson in a crowd and saying, "That kid can fight right there, I can tell."
"Floyd's got all the young kids thinking about the pros," Ford says, "but it misses the essence of how he got where he got: through the Olympics." Mayweather's hundred-million-dollar paydays have made a generation of up-and-coming boxers impatient about scraping by in the amateurs, so the fact that Simpson never talks about fighting professionally is "a blessing," says Ford. He wants Simpson to chase a gold medal, to try putting himself in the company of Oscar de la Hoya, Andre Ward, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Muhammad Ali. Those hopes aren't so far-fetched: Tyrieshia Douglas, another Upton fighter, came within one fight of winning a spot on the 2012 Olympic squad.
Simpson has a good shot to qualify. Last year, he became a member of Team USA. Ford's against-all-odds optimism has paid off before: Gervonta Davis has become something of a West Baltimore celebrity, capturing the IBF junior lightweight champion and becoming the youngest living pro boxing titleholder. Mayweather eventually took Davis under his wing, and in August, he fought in the co-main event for the Mayweather-McGregor pay-per-view. "If [Davis did] it on this level, in the projects, in a parks and recreation facility, and you wearing a gold medal around your neck—[Lorenzo] can do it," Ford says.
When his gloves are laced up, Simpson is a solid pressure fighter, an expert at swerving from his opponents' worst, cutting off the ring, and making them pay without getting winded. His sparring sessions with Davis, his knockout artist friend and mentor, frequently turn into brutal brotherly brawls. Simpson spends six hours a day training and travels around the country to train with the likes of 28-year-old, four-division champion Adrien Broner. This summer he spent two weeks at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and then traveled to Germany for the Brandenburg Cup—his first international tournament—where he beat three of the top youth boxers in the world before losing in a split decision to Ukraine's Ivan Papakin in the finals.
These days, Simpson lives with his mother and younger brother in an apartment in Reisterstown, a suburb half an hour outside Baltimore. Carroll left the city in 2013: the last straw, she says, was when she found out about a fight that began with Lorenzo defending his younger cousin against a few boys throwing rocks, and then spiraled out of control. As much as she loves her hometown, Carroll couldn't risk her sons falling victim to the streets. "The drug epidemic is what hurts Baltimore," she says. "Poverty is what hurts Baltimore. It's a beautiful city outside of that—it's just people trying to adapt and live the only way they know."
It's a shared sentiment in Simpson's family—heartbreak at how bad things have gotten, but pride in a place they love, warts and all. There are signs of hope, like a city-directed effort underway to redevelop Park Heights. It's a step in the right direction: the way Simpson sees it, spending millions to lure tourists to the Inner Harbor and hospitals buying up run-down real estate only pushes inner-city problems to the outskirts. In this part of the city, the trick is finding the good within the bad. Outside the front doors of Upton Boxing Center, a man wearing one shoe nods off on the sidewalk. Inside, a few days out from traveling to Germany, Simpson and a handful of other fighters suffer through a regimen of lateral pushups and weighted squats up and down the length of agility ladder. First, Simpson fusses—he just did his roadwork last night, he says—but finds his groove once the sweating starts. Eventually, he becomes the jester of the session. In between squats, Ford asks him the name of a past opponent. "Deez…" Simpson deadpans, and Ford howls.