The relationship between boxer and trainer is often put under a microscope. Sometimes it's personal. Other times it's strictly business. For Shakur Stevenson and many of his pugilist peers, they benefit from having a rare gem in Kompa Koroma, otherwise known as Coach Kay.
The two met when Stevenson was 13 and immediately developed a strong relationship. Now Koroma, 40, serves as one of Stevenson's trainers alongside Stevenson's grandfather, Wali Moses.
"I knew Coach Kay from when I used to box his fighters and I used to beat them up," Stevenson chuckled. "Him and I started talking and got cool after that and I told him I was moving down to Virginia and I needed a gym to go to."
Stevenson struggled at school, and relocating to Virginia from New Jersey offered both a chance to start over and an opportunity to focus on his passion. " I got kicked out of a couple schools," he said. "At that time, I really just wanted to focus on boxing."
In 2014, Stevenson finally made his way down to Hampton, Virginia, to live with his other grandfather, Wayne Stevenson. Koroma was three hours away in Alexandria, and the coach fulfilled his promise to Shakur that the two could work together once the fighter arrived in Virginia, even though Moses was still in New Jersey.
Koroma created a weekend routine. He would gas up on a Friday and drive 174 miles south to get his new student, then turn around and bring him back home on Sunday.
The winter of 2014 was harsh and made it a challenge to maintain the effort. Stevenson recognized Koroma's weekly sacrifice, eventually coming to the decision that the most practical thing to do was to move in with Koroma full time. Stevenson asked the question one Sunday evening during a drive back to Hampton.
"A bad snowstorm happened for one whole month and Shakur came up with the idea like 'Hey, can I live with you?'" Koroma recalled. Koroma wasn't opposed, but this wasn't a simple decision. The empathetic trainer talked it over with Shakur's mother, Malikah, and grandfather Wayne, understanding their concerns to keep Stevenson on a straight path. Ultimately, they were sold on Koroma's ability to take on that responsibility.
"Coach Kay, he's a good dude ... he fed me and housed me, and we were getting ready for the Olympics," Stevenson recalled.
The compassionate trait that's embedded in Koroma's DNA derives from a range of life-altering experiences. Growing up in Alexandria, he was often getting into fights, which forced his mother to send him to Sierra Leone in West Africa. "I had gotten into trouble and my mom sent me over there to stay with some people," Koroma said.
His mother was hoping that returning to their native soil would help guide him and shake off his troubled ways.
Koroma also spent time with his Aunt Dorene in London, but ultimately the lessons his mother hoped he'd learn didn't take when Koroma returned to Alexandria. He found the same trouble as before he left and was eventually put in a detention center.
Koroma spent most of his teen years incarcerated at Lorton Reformatory. His beleaguered mother had one last resource that could possibly steer her son straight. She had heard of the Alexandria Boxing Club, and put forth the idea to Koroma's parole officer that her son should partake.
"My parole officer took me to the gym and told me if I could stay in this program, follow the rules and follow the curfew, he'd take me off probation early," Koroma said. "I was with it, like, I don't have to go back to the detention center?"
Koroma took heed and never looked back.
Koroma boxed competitively for head coach Dennis Porter and eventually transitioned into the pro ranks. But it was short-lived, as he began to lose his passion for the sweet science. Koroma's final bout was in 2007; he retired at 5-1 with 3 KOs.
He took a brief hiatus from the sport and embraced life beyond boxing. With the birth of his son, Koroma worked as a plumber to make ends meet. It wasn't until Koroma ran into an old counselor at the Charles Houston Recreation Center in Alexandria that his fire returned.
Koroma referred to the counselor as Miss Gina. She was familiar with all the children at the center and understood their struggles of growing up in project housing. She was constantly involved with keeping the kids off the streets.
"Miss Gina was someone who watched me grow up in the projects and in the boxing gym," Koroma said. In 2007, she approached him about a troubled 9-year-old boy who was in need of some serious guidance. She knew in her heart Koroma was the perfect man to help steer the boy straight.
He was constantly getting into fights and beating on other kids.
Koroma could relate.
Soon thereafter, Koroma ended up meeting the child and brought him to his old stomping grounds -- the Alexandria Boxing Club.
"I took him to the boxing gym, but he didn't stay long [after I left]," Koroma explained. "I came back to check on him and he wasn't there. So I thought, let me stick around and maybe he'll stay."
From that moment on, the child stuck to the routine and became a regular at the gym. The child went on to become a decorated amateur, winning multiple national titles, and he is currently with Team USA. His name is Troy Isley.
Koroma eventually took over managing his old gym in Alexandria, which eventually drew about 60 kids. "It wasn't just about boxing ... I wanted to save the kids in the community and wanted to provide a place they could call home," Koroma said. "I would help them with their homework and even buy McDonald's for the entire gym."
The goal was not to be praised by others for providing stability for these young men and women. He was simply making sure the kids were going to be OK. "You know some of these parents had three or four jobs and I just wanted them to know that their kids were safe," he said.
After Shakur Stevenson spent a few years honing his skills with Koroma, he prepared himself to relocate to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to begin his training for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Stevenson was firm on bringing Koroma along with him as he prepared for the biggest opportunity of his life, but as Olympic training got underway, Koroma didn't like what he was seeing.
"I sat back, I observed and I didn't bother none of the coaches that they had in the selection process to become Olympic coaches. I was a little irritated because I felt like the [candidate] coaches were more about trying to get a job," Koroma explained. "That wasn't fair to [the elite fighters on the team, like] Claressa Shields, Nico Hernandez and Charles Conwell."
That frustration on Koroma's part motivated him to ask if he could help out the team. He began in very small spurts, with the intent of not stepping any of the coaches' toes as everyone got settled in and the boxing team finalized its staff. But when the coaches were finally officially appointed, he voiced his opinion against the selections.
"The coaching staff didn't really match with the team, because half of the athletes didn't really respect or listen to them," he said. "The [U.S. Olympic Committee] saw that and they listened. They talked to some of the athletes and they offered me the job." Although this was an opportunity many people would have clamored for, Koroma didn't necessarily feel like he was the clear solution to the coaching issue, and turned down the offer at first.
It took further convincing from Julie Goldsticker, who at the time was the director of media relations for USA Boxing. She convinced Koroma to do it for the athletes, considering how much he had their respect. Koroma realized he was going against everything he believed in by not taking the job, so he finally gave in and became an assistant coach to head man Billy Walsh.
"Something I never expected in my life was to become an Olympic boxing coach. It was never in my vision," he laughed.
His daily duties included setting up the training schedules, conducting workouts and chauffeuring the boxers when necessary. The 2016 team was stacked with future talent, including now-unified women's middleweight champion Shields (10-0, 2 KOs), junior lightweight contender Mikaela Mayer (12-0, 5 KOs), middleweight prospect Charles Conwell (12-0, 9 KOs) and, of course, Stevenson.
2016 was one of the strongest years in recent memory for USA Boxing, as they captured three medals: Shields won gold, Stevenson silver and Nico Hernandez bronze. After Shields won, she received the Order of Ikkos medal, which is given to all Team USA Olympic medalists to present to someone who's been instrumental to her journey to the Olympic stand. She ultimately gifted that medal to Koroma.
Koroma's responsibilities continued to grow when Mayer sought out to retain him in her corner when she joined the pro ranks, alongside former Olympic coach Al Mitchell.
"Coach Kay is the assistant coach for USA Boxing, but he's so much more than that," Mayer said. "It's more than just a coach or professional relationship."
Mayer tends to split her training camp between her new home in Colorado Springs, where she works with Koroma, and in Michigan with Mitchell. As fight time approaches both coaches come together to prepare Mayer for the task at hand. She describes her coaching team as the "perfect situation."
While in Colorado, Koroma is devoted to Mayer's training in Mitchell's absence. Koroma sets up her running schedule, conducts mitt work and coordinates sparring.
"Coach Kay understands Coach Al is the boss and that he calls all the shots. I've been with Coach Al for the last 10 years, and Coach Kay doesn't allow his ego to get in the way of that," she stated. "It's the perfect situation because they don't butt heads at all. It's hard to find that in boxing."
In addition to the Olympians, Koroma also recently added Jarrett Hurd to his roster, a decision the coach asked his team for approval.
"My No. 1 rule is all of my athletes in my gym, if they're not feeling you, I can't let you in because I don't want nobody being uncomfortable."
It's just the way that Koroma operates -- a team player, no matter the venue.
Koroma will always consider Alexandria his home -- both for what it did for him, and for what he's been able to do with a bunch of kids who may have otherwise followed in his footsteps down the wrong path.
The only time he regularly gets back to Virginia is to kick off Shakur's camps at Alexandria Boxing Club, before moving to Colorado Springs for the second half of camp. It's what they did to prepare for Stevenson's fight on Saturday against Miguel Marriaga.
"I feel great about this fight. Shakur had a great camp. ... Marriaga is a very good opponent. It's another step to show the world who Shakur is.
"Shakur is my family, he's like my son or little brother," said Koroma. "There's a lot of great moments between us. I'm always there for him and I know he'll always be there for me, even when I'm down."