Born and raised in East St. Louis, Ill., — considered one of the country’s most dangerous cities — Quontez McRath lost his parents at a young age and was a street fighter headed down the wrong path in life before he walked into a boxing gym a couple of towns over.
Ken Reilly, who ran the nonprofit Belleville (Ill.) Boxing Club, quickly took McRath under his wing and into his family as McRath moved in with Reilly and his wife, Gina, when the couple moved to Las Vegas in January 2013.
Making huge strides in the ring over the past year with the help of local pro boxing trainer Ibn Cason — former world heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman’s brother — McRath advanced to the finals of the national Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions on Saturday night at the LVH.
In his fifth three-round fight in three nights, McRath — representing Team Nevada — lost a 3-2 decision to Florida’s Samuel Valentin in a 152-pound bout.
Valentin clearly won the first round, when McRath received a standing eight-count. The final two rounds could have gone either way as the amateur boxers stood toe-to-toe and slugged it out.
“Them two boys tore it up,” Reilly said. “(McRath) fought like a lion. That eight-count didn’t help. I don’t think he was hurt. The referee thought so.”
McRath, 22, took the loss hard, but agreed with the decision.
“He won. The first round he got that eight-count. I wasn’t hurt at all, but he got it,” he said. “I’m just upset because I worked so hard for this and didn’t come up with the win. I had no days off, for real, in like a year and a half.”
Just making the finals was an impressive accomplishment for McRath, relatively inexperienced with only 23 amateur bouts (17-6).
“I came from nothing. I got there,” he said. “I came a long way.”
McRath’s mother died from lupus when he was 13, and he and his brothers moved in with his aunt.
“We had nothing. I got in a lot of trouble fighting,” McRath said. “I had a daughter, and that changed everything. I wanted to do better in life. That’s when I met (Reilly).
“He’s like my pops, man. We’ve been through a lot. He got me from the streets — (East St. Louis) is the murder capital of the world — and brought me here.”
Reilly, 53, has helped mold “Moo Moo,” who first entered his gym at 185 pounds, in and out of the ring.
“My wife and I have raised him like he’s our son,” he said. “He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t do drugs. He’s in the house at 10 o’clock. He’s trying to live out his dream to become a professional boxer.
“He was just a good kid inside that needed a little bit of guidance, love and structure. I’m more proud of him than I am my own son, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
McRath plans to turn pro soon. Cason, who trained former world heavyweight champion Samuel Peter, said McRath has the potential to win a world title.
“I don’t want to say any names, but he’s been in there sparring with champions and he handles them with ease,” he said. “He’s one of the best that I’ve seen.”
Cason said he and Reilly plan to start a nonprofit boxing program locally called “Sweet Science.”
“The best thing about Ken is his heart. He has a heart of gold,” Cason said. “I’ve seen him fly people out here on his own dime, no contract. He’s just doing everything strictly from the heart. I like that.”
Reilly, who has retired as owner of a construction business, said he’s simply trying to give kids the same opportunity afforded him when he was a young amateur boxer in Illinois.
“I taught kids for free because when I boxed it was free,” he said.
The national Golden Gloves tournament, which was hosted by the nonprofit Barry’s Boxing Center in Las Vegas with sponsorship from Mayweather Promotions, has a rich history dating to the 1920s that features a long line of noted champions — including Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya.
The experience was priceless for McRath.
“His heart was so set that he was going to do this, it’s a big disappointment for him,” Reilly said. “But he’ll bounce back. He always does. He’s a trooper. I’m proud of him. We’re going out to party.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.