Marine Corps veteran Mike Steadman (GSN '20) has been all around the world, but it’s the city of Newark that has captured his heart, and where he’s paid it forward by starting a nonprofit boxing academy to help local youth learn skills both in and out of the ring that will propel them forward in their personal lives and careers.
His road to Newark is an unlikely one, bringing a Black kid from the South to a northeastern city to do community work. But underneath that is an enduring truth, one that reflects U.S. military members’ desire to serve causes larger than themselves, and signifying the power of connection when organizations in need request the talent and experience of those same service members.
Steadman, 33, grew up in Bryan-College Station, Texas, an hour and a half northwest of Houston and home to Texas A&M University. As a high school senior, he wanted to attend the Naval Academy but didn’t have the grades, so he spent a year at the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, RI, before enrolling at Annapolis in 2006 to study history.
While at the Naval Academy, Steadman also looked for a sport to participate in and discovered boxing. He trained hard his freshman year, learning the ropes as a light heavyweight, and went on to become a three-time National Collegiate Boxing Association (NCBA) champion and two-time NCBA Most Valuable Boxer.
Since the Marine Corps falls under the Department of the Navy, about 25 percent of the Naval Academy’s graduating classes go into the Corps. In 2010 Steadman entered basic training as a Second Lieutenant in the Marines, then spent two years at Quantico, VA, and Camp Lejeune, NC, before being deployed with his unit to Afghanistan for the first half of 2012. He did a second tour in Okinawa, Japan, and the Philippines in 2014 before leaving the service in in May 2015.
After the military Steadman weighed attending graduate school at Texas A&M but instead moved to Newark to start a boxing program at St. Benedicts Preparatory School.
He’d found out about St. Benedicts back in 2008, during his sophomore year at Naval Academy, when he received an email request for Black midshipmen to do a four-week internship there, teaching a leadership course and joining the freshman on their annual Appalachian Trail outing. Steadman loved it so much that he interned there the following year as well and stayed in touch with the St. Benedicts headmaster.
I wanted to use amateur boxing as a stepping stone to give kids other options.
“I'd never seen a school like that before,” said Steadman. “In the South, I’d always associated private school with folks who didn’t look like me. It was great to discover a school teaching young Black kids how to great they can be.”
For a while, Steadman lived in a St. Benedicts residence hall with 70 teenage boys and taught them boxing there by moving tables and chairs out of the way to create a makeshift training space. He then worked with the kids at a boxing gym that the City of Newark opened in the Boylan Street Recreation Center, but while his students were getting one-on-one instruction, Steadman noticed lots of other kids hitting boxing bags without coaching, so he invited them to work with his St. Benedicts group.
That move reflected Steadman’s true desire: to use boxing as a teaching tool to build champions in and especially out of the ring, and to make if free for inner-city youth. With that vision in mind, in October 2016 the city let Steadman set up a boxing gym at the Sharpe James/Kenneth Gibson Recreation and Aquatics Center, in the Ironbound section of Newark, where he could begin to fulfill his mission. He then turned that into a nonprofit called the Ironbound Boxing Academy, raising funds from various sources to provide free boxing training, entrepreneurial education, and employment opportunities to all Newark youth and young adults.
“I’d spent a lot of time at boxing gyms in various cities, and it angered me that young kids of color seemed to have only two choices: become a professional boxer or hit the streets,” said Steadman. “I wanted to use amateur boxing as a steppingstone to give kids other options, to help them develop the grit, confidence and discipline that will improve every aspect of their well-being, personal development and job performance.”
While working at St. Benedicts and setting up the Academy, Steadman also steadily pursued an M.A. in American Studies at Rutgers University–Newark, under the direction of then program director, Professor Jason Cortes. There he dove into classes on race, history and culture, and had his eyes opened by the course material and the student diversity.
“RU-N is like a mini-United Nations, very different from the Naval Academy. I’d also toured Afghanistan with the Marines, and here I was now sitting next to students wearing hijab,” said Steadman. “It took me a while to wrap my head around that, and I grew a lot in the program and by being on campus.”
The boxing academy had taken off during this period, however, and so in June 2018 Steadman left St. Benedicts and paused his RU-N studies to focus full-time on his nonprofit. To support the Academy financially, he set up a business teaching boxing to employees of New York City–area companies as part of their health and wellness programs, employing his Academy students as onsite boxing instructors in these corporate settings.
As that business waned during the pandemic, Ironbound Boxing Academy has continued to safely work with the kids in Branch Brook Park six days a week, and this summer Steadman started a small-business incubator program for Newark youths and young adults called Thrive, where the kids submit business ideas, and he and other veterans help them draft business and marketing plans—and learn the financial side and other entrepreneurial skills. The first cohort of 20 youths took the four-week course in July, with Steadman and his staff giving out a total of $7,000 to six students with the most promising plans. The second cohort starts their four-week course this week.
In addition, Steadman has started doing a personal podcast series titled, “Confessions of a Native Son,” which focuses on American culture through the lens of marginalized groups, and he is currently launching Ironbound Media Productions, a for-profit venture to help companies build and launch their own branded podcasts to connect with consumers.
“I’m excited about this new business,” said Steadman. “It has a lot of potential and will help continue to support the Boxing Academy and Thrive so we can continue to invest in our kids.”