One of the first things you notice about Aubrey Clemons is his smile, almost cartoonish in its expanse, each tooth straight and bright like a row of “Wheel of Fortune” squares awaiting Vanna’s spin. Not exactly the dental framework one might expect from a man who’s spent his life dodging fists.
“Good defense,” Clemons jokes.
On a recent afternoon, the 31-year-old walks through the Presbyterian Community Center’s aqua-hued basketball courts in Smoketown.
“This is enough space to dance around, get footwork in,” he says rubbing his hands, looking around the hollow space from under a black University of Louisville cap. In January, Clemons will start a boxing program for kids. “This is a childhood dream. Growing up in the projects, fighting and whatnot, it just happened to be a sport. (It was) a way to survive, a way to vent, a way to communicate.”
In his youth, Clemons called the old Sheppard Square public housing complex home, a place where boxing existed as an inheritance, a source of pride.
“I’m thinking about me sitting up under the boxing gloves, and out of all the stuff we vandalized — and vandalized with profession — we never, ever thought about messing with them gloves,” he says, referring to the Ed Hamilton sculpture paying tribute to Louisville sports legends, including Muhammad Ali, who trained in Smoketown.
Clemons picked up boxing as a way to stay in shape. During his early teens, it alleviated struggles with anger. He never delved much into competition, but admits to seeking out opponents.
“There were a couple days I can say when I was most definitely itching for a fight and cooking for something dead wrong,” he says.
In his early 20s, Clemons lived in Atlanta. Interest in boxing waned. Bad decisions followed.
In August 2006, he was sentenced to five years for bootlegging movies and music. Clemons was driving through Hart County, Ky., when a cop pulled him over and found illegal copies of “Flightplan.” This came at a difficult time. In June 2006, his childhood friend, William Sawyers, was murdered along with two others. The case of their suspected killer, Lloyd Hammond, has dragged on in courts for years.
“Everybody called us brothers,” Clemons remembers.
Behind bars, he saw himself as a statistic — a young, black male in trouble. He felt buried, useless. Just months after being paroled in July 2008, Clemons tested positive for marijuana and landed back in jail until 2009.
“I chose a path of destruction,” he says.
Behind bars again, he reconnected with spirituality. Clemons committed to ending the “street life.” In the last few years he’s penned a book, found a job as a security guard, and become an active member of the Network Center for Community Change, an organization he says has encouraged him to give back to his hometown.
Boxing immediately came to mind. He wrote a proposal to the Presbyterian Community Center, and on the day we meet, he sits down with the youth development director to iron out details: days, times, flyers, waivers.
Clemons envisions his program as a blend of physical practice with structured lessons on eating right and boxing legends. He’s picked out a corner in the community center’s compact gym to chain up the punching bag. Just talking about it unleashes a wide smile as memories of a young Aubrey jabbing air up and down Hancock Street surface.
“I used to always say a little slick, slick, slick saying,” he recalls. “I keep my hands cocked on Hancock.”