Another workout nearing its end, Paul Kroll pulled off his sweat-soaked shirt and placed a towel atop the canvas of the ring.
Kroll lay on the towel as his 4-year-old daughter held his feet, pulling himself forward while a trainer counted his sit-ups. If Kroll — a rising boxer from North Philadelphia who fights Friday night on Showtime — needed any more motivation, he received it each time he lifted his head from the canvas and locked eyes with his daughter.
Jasmine’s birth in 2017, Kroll said, was life-changing. Her arrival provided a clear perspective when it was desperately needed.
Fifteen months before her birth, Kroll was arrested after a gunfight on a Saturday morning in West Philadelphia. Kroll, then 21, was charged with attempted murder and his boxing career — which nearly reached the 2016 Summer Olympics — was all but extinguished.
He was a graduate of Truebright Science Academy Charter School who soared to the top of the amateur boxing world with a work ethic inherited from his parents and a trainer who was always by his side. But instead of turning pro in the fall of 2016, Kroll sat for two months at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in the city’s Holmesburg neighborhood, wondering if he wasted his boxing dream.
“Everything was taken away like that,” said the 26-year-old Kroll. “When I got locked up, the question was ‘How did I get here?’”
Kroll (9-0, six knockouts) grew up in North Philadelphia, living for a time in the now-razed Blumberg projects. He started his boxing career by forcing Dirk Gooden, his neighbor on North Newkirk Street, to give him a shot.
“I wasn’t going to train him because I was already training my sons,” Gooden said. “But I would come outside in the morning and he would be sitting on my step. ‘What are you doing on my step?’ ‘I’m going running.’ ‘You’re going running?’ ‘Yeah, I’m going jogging with you guys.’ ‘All right.’ Every morning this would happen, so I got in the habit of just leaving the door open.”
An amateur’s rise
Gooden taught Kroll the finer points at the Rivera Rec Center as part of the Peacemakers boxing team. They traveled the country together as Kroll’s amateur career took them all over before they arrived in December 2015 at the U.S. Olympic trials in Reno, Nev.
Kroll lost his first fight and was dropped to the challengers bracket, usually a death knell for one’s hopes to win the trials. But Kroll rallied, won six straight bouts, and captured the welterweight title. He joined elite company: Floyd Mayweather Jr., Evander Holyfield, and Roy Jones Jr. are among the six others to win at the trials after falling to the loser’s bracket.
Kroll’s place on the U.S. team was secured, but he still needed to win a qualifying tournament in Venezuela to reach the Olympics. He lost there on a heartbreaking decision and returned home, ready to become the next great boxer from North Philly.
Kroll could have been boxing at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August 2016. Instead, he drove with three friends to 55th and Sansom to confront an ex-girlfriend over a money dispute, according to police. An argument outside with the 19-year-old neighbor of Kroll’s ex-girlfriend quickly escalated into a gunfight in broad daylight.
According to the report, Kroll’s friend shot at the neighbor and police said the older brother and father of Kroll’s ex-girlfriend rushed from the house with their own guns, firing at Kroll and his friends. Two of Kroll’s friends and his ex-girlfriend’s brother wound up hospitalized.
Police initially said Kroll pulled the trigger, which led to his being charged with attempted murder. Kroll denied that, went to trial, and pleaded guilty to a lesser assault charge. He spent 18 months on house arrest and remains on probation. His friend — Cardell Hellams — remains in prison and Kroll fights with his name on his trunks.
“He’s never been in trouble a day in his life,” Gooden said of Kroll. “This was just something that happened. I’ve been around him since he was in the fifth grade. He was never a bad boy and only wanted to fight in the gym. I never had any trouble with Paul, so when it happened, I was like, ‘How the heck did this happen?’ Before or after that, no problems. Never. Just a bump on the road that he had to learn from and he’s better for it.”
Kroll’s boxing career was put on hold while he was on house arrest with a GPS monitor strapped to his ankle. But he wanted to keep his dream alive, so he called his friends from the Peacemakers and held sparring contests just outside his front door. Unable to leave home, Kroll turned his house into a boxing gym.
“Most kids, that incident would have broken them,” Gooden said. “‘I got to the height of my career, I’m getting ready to fight pro and this happened. Oh my God, I’m going to jail forever. I don’t know what’s happening with my friends. I don’t know how this happened. I’m sorry for the people over there.’ We’ve been through the whole gauntlet. Even me and him went through it. It was as simple as this: ‘I’m going to box. I’m going to the gym and I’m going to box.’ That’s what he does.”
Kroll does not have a manager or a promoter. It’s just him, Gooden, and fellow trainer Darnell Timms. But Kroll does have his own gym, which he purchased two years ago. The gym he was training at near 9th and Spring Garden was set to close before Kroll saved it and renamed it the Paul Kroll Boxing Gym.
He runs the gym while working full-time in the warehouse at Billows Electric Supply on Front and Luzerne, where his father, Paul Sr., is the store manager.
Gooden remembers a 13-year-old Kroll being dropped off at the gym after spending a day working — “hard work like carrying wheelbarrows,” Gooden said. — with his father. Kroll’s work ethic is nothing new, but what are the hours that allow him to balance a job with owning a gym and building his boxing career?
“Truth be told, we don’t have hours,” said Gooden. “We do it all day, every day. To be continued. You’ll catch us on the corner doing it. You’ll catch us in front of his house doing it. If he wants to be in the gym at 12, we’ll be there at 12. If he wants to be there at 4, we’ll be there at 4. We don’t have hours. We do it when we can do it.”
“We make our own time,” Kroll said.
Kroll’s fight on Friday against Marquis Taylor (12-1-1, one KO) in Orlando, Fla., will be his first televised fight in two years. It’s a chance, he said, to remind people who he is. He’ll fight Friday at 152 pounds before moving up to the 154-pound light-middleweight division.
His arrest delayed his career by two years, spoiling his chance to crack the 147-pound welterweight division and giving Kroll fewer pro bouts than the average 26-year-old boxer. But Kroll is undeterred.
“I’m not trying to make up for it,” Kroll said. “Everything happens for a reason and I’m moving at my own pace. I’m not in a race. Everyone that’s up and coming now, whether they want to admit it or not, they know me from the amateurs. I beat everyone. They know. Errol Spence always says, ‘The tables turn.’ I feel like the tables are turning this year. Everyone has to see me.
“I’m going to take over the division. I know that. It’s just a matter of time and certain opportunities to present themselves so everything can fall in line. This is the beginning of it.”
He shadowboxed last week around the ring at his gym while others trained throughout the converted warehouse. Kroll hopes his gym can be a safe haven for kids, and it’s the home of the current amateurs who make up the Peacemakers.
His daughter sat on a bench outside the ring and watched her father’s right hand whack Gooden’s left punching mitt so hard that it fell off. Kroll said Jasmine’s birth caused him to “grow up mentally all-around” as he had a family to provide for and a daughter to set an example for.
Kroll’s TV exposure on Friday could allow him to grab a promoter’s attention and propel his career. He is set to be married this summer, and his boxing journey is promising. It’s going to be a big year, Kroll said. A dream that was once extinguished is burning again.
“No matter what you’re going through, you’re going to get through it,” said Kroll, leaning against the ring ropes after his workout finished. “It’s just how you deal with everything. One thing I learned is that not every action needs a reaction. If you react the wrong way, you might not get the reaction that you want because you acted off emotion. Sit back and think before you react.”
“Just like boxing,” Gooden said. “Life is boxing.”