Martial arts coaches seek to curb youth violence in Franklin

Published 10:17 am Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Donte Stith already has a reputation in Franklin and regionally as a mixed martial arts fighter, having been ranked the No. 4 amateur men’s heavyweight in Virginia in 2015. But now, Stith is hoping that the youth of Franklin will come to see him in another light — as a coach and mentor.

For the past several weeks, Stith and his coach, Eric Scott of Boykins, have been offering free, faith-based mixed martial arts training to children and young adults at the College Drive Park, an initiative Stith calls “guns down, gloves up.” The initiative is intended to teach children and young adults to resolve their differences without picking up a firearm — even if it means slugging it out instead.

“When you come work with me and Eric and put these gloves on, and you’ve got some beef … settle it right now,” Stith said. “I’ll let you all go one 3-minute round and end it.”

But “guns down, gloves up” isn’t just about letting kids work out their disagreements via fisticuffs, Stith said. In fact, even that’s a last resort. The main goals, he said, are to get kids off the streets and into something positive, and to teach them discipline via mastering the martial arts so they learn to control their anger.

“I was talking to a young lady at work, her son got suspended for three days, I said ‘Bring him to me,’” Stith said.

Another goal in providing martial arts training, he said, is to show kids an alternative to getting involved with drugs.

“I’ve been on both sides of the drug spectrum; I’ve been a dealer and a user,” Stith said. “It’s not pretty on either side. There’s only two places you can end up on either side of that spectrum: dead or in jail.”

Stith and Scott are working regularly with eight or nine boys and girls, ranging in age from 6 to 21. Two are current members of the Franklin High School football team.

“My coach came out there the Sunday before last,” Stith said. “It’s a small group that actually wants to learn but I could tell that, me talking to some of these kids, they’re getting interested in it. They’re like, ‘Can I try?’”

Stith and Scott hope to eventually purchase a building in Franklin that they can convert into a boxing and martial arts gymnasium, complete with bathrooms and locker rooms, so they can move their lessons indoors.

When this happens, the instruction would continue to be free to anyone ages 5 to 16. Those 17 and up would need to pay, but the cost would be income-based rather than a flat rate.

“We also want to do promotional fights, where people can come and watch guys from different gyms fight,” Stith said. “The small businesses would benefit. We could have weigh-ins at Fred’s. The hotels could make money in the area. It would be revenue for the whole community, and put Franklin on the map.”

Right now, he said, the closest venues for promotional fights are Norfolk and Danville.

When asked how they ensure that students don’t use their newfound fighting skills to hurt others, Scott said he emphasizes to his students, “You only use your skills to defend yourself.”

“Even during training, if I see things start getting amplified, I sit them down,” he said. “Self-control makes you a better martial artist. My goal is not to train just good fighters, but good people.”

Stith agreed, saying, “I was bullied growing up. I don’t tolerate it.”

In addition to coaching, Stith is also looking to get back into the ring himself, with his first-ever professional fight in the continental United States scheduled for Nov. 17 in Salem, Virginia. He hopes that someone will donate a van between now and that date so he can take some of the youth of Franklin to see him fight.

“I’ve fought overseas before … everyone I met doing this, I’m still friends with,” said Stith, who fought his first professional fight in Guam while serving in the Army. “You make friends for life doing stuff like this. Training in a martial art is almost like being in the military. Your body gets broken down, your mind gets broken down, but you can see the camaraderie.”

Those interested in training with Stith or Scott may contact Stith at 758-2283 or