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Local man uses boxing to encourage Southwest Florida community to fight through life's challenges

Larry Willis, Sr. uses the sport of boxing to connect with youth in the Southwest Florida community
Posted at 1:17 AM, Feb 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-02 10:08:15-05

FORT MYERS, Fla.  — In our Living the Legacy series, FOX 4 spotlights people in the Southwest Florida community who are impacting our community in positive ways.

“People randomly tell me ‘your dad changed my life.”

Marcus Willis says he’s reminded almost every other week of his father’s impact on Southwest Florida.

His dad, Larry Willis Sr., has spent more than 20 years coaching and mentoring in Southwest Florida.

Willis Sr.,originally from Lake Wales, grew up in Southwest Florida.

He tells FOX 4 that his original plans for life did not include boxing.

But, all of that changed when he was bullied and beaten up by a girl in middle school.

“She beat me so bad. They had to drag me back into the house. I have friends that are still living that remember that, and when we get together…I hope that they don’t remember that. But despite what happened, they say ‘Hey. You remember when she beat you up?’”.

Getting knocked down during his adolescence would lead to an internal uprising within the then middle school student.

He was enrolled in boxing classes to help him master self-defense.

Willis would go on to graduate from North Fort Myers High School.

Soon after, he became an amateur fighter - earning state championship titles in the USA/ABF and the Florida Golden Gloves.

The dad of three also coached football and worked full time.

His love for sports and the community has led to two decades of service fueled by his own childhood.

His relationship with his father is strong now, he tells FOX 4.

But growing up, his dad was absent.

Willis says his mom assumed both roles.

“She was my mother-figure and father-figure.”

That experience created a passion for children with similar experiences.

“My heart goes out when I see kids who don’t have a mentor or kind of positive role model in their life.”

That’s how the same skills Willis once used to defend himself and to fight for fun became a way to support youth in his own community.

For more than 20 years, Willis worked with local agencies and non-profits to teach the art of boxing and to mentor.

At one point, he even held classes outside.

In 2016, Team Willis Boxing found its home in Fort Myers.

Willis tells me nearly 70 to 100 people train there every week - and the work often goes beyond just a workout.

“Every day there are men that come in or children come that have some issue and just need somebody to talk to.”

He says people from all walks of life enter the gym.

“Some that’s been locked up…been to prison before. They just need some guidance. So that they don’t go back into the same situation that they’re in. ”

Marcus Willis is an accomplished boxer, too.

He says people from the Southwest Florida community often remind of the impact his father has had on their lives.

“They tell me like ‘your dad…he’s the reason why I am the person I am today.’”

When he’s not at the gym, Larry Willis is busy working.

The former Century Link employee of 39 years is now employed by the Sanibel Police Department as a Traffic Operator.

But, even that job ties right back into Willis’ mission.

He tells FOX 4 the money generated from the monthly fees paid to the gym by clients doesn’t cover the overhead of the gym.

“So, I went back to work to keep the gym for the most part.”

“It’s not about the money.”

Willis says despite the boxing accomplishments of some those he’s trained, including his sons, the end goal is not about training the next great athlete.

He says it’s about the opportunity to impact someone’s life.

“They’re there and I get a chance to talk to them about life in general. And they’re going to be good citizens, good fathers….good husbands. ”