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Under father’s watchful eye in makeshift gym, Baltimore’s Robinson brothers seeking boxing stardom

Only 11, Yusuf Robinson envisions becoming a world champion boxer. He dreams of similar success for his three older brothers.

“That would be cool because then we all could see each other and we all could train together and win together,” he said.

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If 18-year-old Ibrahim, 16-year-old Muhammad, 14-year-old Musa and Yusuf reach that objective, they agree that a significant part of the credit would go to their father, Shawn Robinson, who has converted the basement of the family’s home in Nottingham into a makeshift gym for his sons.

“If it wasn’t for him, we probably wouldn’t even be in boxing,” said Muhammad, a sophomore at Parkville High School where Ibrahim is a junior. “He’s the one who pushed us. We also love boxing, but he’s the one always pushing us and trying to find us ways to get better.”

Robinson, 46, is the first to admit that he has never boxed in his life and is learning on the fly by reading books he has collected and watching clips on the internet. A part-time resident counselor who works with autistic children, he said the sacrifice he and his wife, Shareese Carter — who drives a bus at night for the MTA — have made for their sons is worth it.

“My wife used to always tell me that if my boys were going to get to the next level, I was going to be the one that was going to get them there,” he said. “So I was just like, ‘Let’s see what we can do.’ ”

Shawn Robinson, left, trains his four sons in his basement gym to prepare them for a national boxing tournament in December. Ibrahim Robinson 18, and his brothers Muhammad, 16, Musa, 14, and Yusuf, 10, all have been trained by their father since about 10 years old.
Shawn Robinson, left, trains his four sons in his basement gym to prepare them for a national boxing tournament in December. Ibrahim Robinson 18, and his brothers Muhammad, 16, Musa, 14, and Yusuf, 10, all have been trained by their father since about 10 years old. (Kenneth K. Lam)

The early results are encouraging. More than 40 championship belts and many more trophies fill several bookcases on the main floor and basement and have spilled onto the floor. Musa, an eighth grader at Parkville Middle School, won the intermediate male division of the USA Boxing Eastern Elite Qualifier and Regional Open Championships on Oct. 11 and is tied for third at 114 pounds in the most recent USA Boxing Boys Intermediate rankings.

Boxing was not the Robinsons’ first contact sport as the parents signed the boys up for martial arts when they were living in York, Pennsylvania. But after almost four years of that activity, Shawn Robinson found an after-school boxing program for stepdaughter Candice Carter, Ibrahim, Muhammad and Musa.

“Boxing is symbolic to life,” he said of his reasons for making the switch for his sons. “It’s teaching them responsibility, it’s teaching them discipline, it’s teaching them resilience. Everything is not going to go as planned in boxing, as we know. You train hard, but you don’t get the results that you want. Do you give up or do you go back to the grind and keep working and fighting until you get it right? So it’s preparing them for life.”

Ranked No. 1 at one point among female boxers in her age division, Carter, 20, has since moved on and is now a hair stylist. Another daughter, 12-year-old Maryam, also does not box. But the sport has mesmerized the four boys.

“When I was little, my father made me do boxing, and I wasn’t used to boxing,” said Yusuf, a fifth grader at Fullerton Elementary School in Baltimore. “But when I grew up, I started getting used to boxing.”

When the family returned to Baltimore in 2012, Shawn Robinson took his sons to a few boxing gyms in the city. Three years later, he converted a storage room in the basement of the family’s home, where the boys work out five days a week from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Along with a washer, dryer and water heater, there is a heavy bag, an aqua bag, a speed bag, a treadmill and a Bowflex workout machine. Robinson can also add battle ropes, medicine balls, ab rollers, ladders and resistance bands to vary the workouts.

Tacked to a wall next to posters of Muhammad and Musa is a neon green posterboard listing a series of warmup exercises. The list includes three sets of 10 burpees, 150 jumping jacks, five sets of 20 pushups and crunches, and two runs on the treadmill.

Although the treadmill is one of the least favorite choices in the room (“All you do is run, and you’re looking at nothing,” Musa said), the boys said they prefer training at home compared with occasional forays to Charm City Boxing or the local YMCA.

“I feel like that’s the place where we get the most work,” Muhammad said. “It feels the most comfortable.”

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From certain vantage points, Shawn Robinson can observe the whole room and will bark out orders or reminders to his sons. His chatter might seem unyielding at first, but the boys embrace his coaching methods.

“It helps push us and motivate us,” Ibrahim said. “If I’m hitting the bag and there’s nobody down there and it’s just me trying to motivate me, it gets boring. We love it when he throws out motivational speeches and tells us what we’re doing wrong.”

Serving as the boys’ trainer and manager has not been easy. Shawn Robinson has compiled a backpack full of composition books with notes on boxing, had to learn how to wrap their hands properly, and has driven 15 hours to Kissimmee, Florida, and 17 hours to Kansas City, Missouri, for boxing tournaments.

He also has had to be economical about which tournaments to sign up for. While relying on his uncle Phillip Robinson for some funding, Shawn Robinson is trying to raise $2,500 to take Muhammad and Musa to the United States Olympic Trials and USA Boxing National Championships from Dec. 10-15 in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

But those difficulties pale in comparison with the time he spends with his sons.

“A lot of the time, these kids, they get caught up in the streets because their parents aren’t home,” he said. “Me and my wife, we’ve been married going on for 20 years. So we have a foundation. We work together as a team. I get to see where my boys are going and I get to see what they’re doing.”

Each Robinson has a nickname. Ibrahim has been called “The Hitman” because his 6-foot-1 frame reminded people of eight-time world champion Tommy Hearns. Muhammad’s is “Little Sugar Ray” because of his resemblance to six-time world champion Sugar Ray Leonard.

Musa is “The Quiet Storm” because he can be shy and wears glasses. And Yusuf is “Tornado” because he tries to destroy opponents.

As usual with siblings, there is a brewing rivalry after Musa’s victory at the USA Boxing Eastern Elite Qualifier and Regional Open Championships earlier in the month. Ibrahim and Muhammad said they are driven to match their brother’s accomplishment, while Musa said he doesn’t feel the need to lord it over his brothers.

“It just motivates me to win more after winning this one,” he said.

The Robinson brothers said they are determined to go as far as they can in boxing — and they won’t forget what their parents have done for them.

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“It would be nice because we could look out for each other when we become world champs and can look out for our families,” Ibrahim said. “My father wouldn’t have to work, and my mother wouldn’t have to work. We could buy them cars and get houses. It would be great.”

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