Marko Bailey sat on a thin cot in the Durham County Youth Home the week before his 16th birthday. Alone and afraid, he began to cry.
“I remember sitting inside the cell and thinking, ‘This is not what life is,’” Bailey said. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”
He was given the option to go to school each morning. When he refused, the home kept him locked in his room until dinner. With just a tiny window in the metal door, Bailey felt abandoned.
The East Durham teen had been arrested on misdemeanor marijuana charges. He said he hoped to turn his life around after being released. But surrounded by friends focused on making quick money, he kept dealing drugs and eventually landed in jail.
Bailey, 21, has now chosen to leave his criminal lifestyle for a career in boxing and will make his professional debut Saturday, Jan. 30, at the Durham Armory.
On a cold winter morning, he began his workout by aggressively punching the air as he danced around the ring at Inner City Youth and Boxing Center on Avondale Drive. It’s called shadowboxing and involves visualizing your opponent. Completely zoned out, Bailey said he sometimes feels each punch connect.
Bailey trains like he wants to fight. He grunts as he attacks punching bags, doing each exercise for three minutes to mimic a round in the ring.
But even before he began to box, he already had some fights under his belt.
Bailey’s mother Sharon Lyons thinks his love for fighting came from studying “Walker, Texas Ranger,” the show starring martial artist Chuck Norris. He started wrestling in high school but had trouble building a relationship with his coach.
As he got older, he also struggled to get along with his family and spent most of his time out with friends. Teased for his small size and “pretty boy” looks, he would often retaliate.
“A lot of people wasn’t surprised when they found out how serious I was about this boxing stuff,” Bailey said. “I used to get in a lot of fights.”
Still wanting to wrestle, he transferred to Northern High School for his senior year. Despite a gap since he had last competed, Bailey qualified for the state championship tournament.
But he went back to the streets after graduation and started getting in trouble again.
‘Stop messing around’
He and a cousin were walking near Bentwood Park Condominiums in Durham when a man began insulting them. Bailey punched him in the face, and he fell to the ground.
A group of the man’s friends attacked them after the dispute, leaving his cousin with a swollen eye. Bailey felt responsible for putting him in danger but also had a realization.
“I thought if I’m knocking dudes out in the street for free, I might as well get paid for it,” he said. “So I was like I really need to stop messing around and do what I need to do.”
Bailey went to LA Boxing in Durham and met David Moore, the gym’s general manager at the time. Moore enrolled him in a class.
The gym worked with Bailey and other boxers on their technique, but Moore realized he could make a bigger impact by putting them in matches.
There was not a clear avenue for North Carolina fighters to make a career in boxing, so Moore said he decided to manage fighters from LA Boxing until he started One Hit Promotions in 2012.
From the beginning, he was interested in helping boxers become better individuals.
“Boxing is going to come and go,” Moore said. “But we want to get some of these guys off the street and develop them into a better man or woman so when they leave boxing they can make it.”
His ‘life coach’
Moore paired Bailey with Keedar Massey, a boxing trainer at Inner City Youth and Boxing Center, whom Bailey considers his “life coach.”
Struggling to make money, Bailey had gone back to selling marijuana and spent some time in jail. But Moore thought Massey could help him.
Massey tested Bailey by putting him in the ring against one of his best fighters – and Bailey got pounded.
“I intentionally did that to see how he would respond,” Massey said. “He kept wanting to get back in. I said, ‘All right, you’ve proved your point. I will train you.”
Bailey compares boxing to chess and says it’s important to always be a step ahead of your opponent. To prepare, he runs five miles each morning at 6 a.m. and trains in the gym for three hours Monday through Friday.
“A lot of times he’ll lay in the ring and go to sleep because we’ve been training so hard,” Massey said.
The training has turned Bailey into a flashy defensive fighter, Moore said. His style is partially inspired by watching Floyd Mayweather.
“When I saw Floyd Mayweather move and hit and not be hit, I was like ‘wow,’” Bailey said. “You have to be really talented and really smooth and slick to hit somebody and not be hit.”
During an Olympic Trials Qualifier in Memphis last October, Bailey defeated Roscoe Hill, a top amateur fighter who had trained with Mayweather in the past. Bailey lost his last fight in the qualifier, missing the trials by one match.
But instead of waiting another four years for the next Olympic Trials, Massey felt Bailey was ready to turn pro.
He just needed a sponsor.
Conrad Rensburg, president and CEO of Absolute Dental Lab, started Absolute Care Foundation after battling colorectal cancer. The foundation’s goal is to help “deserving” people through kind acts instead of donations, Rensburg said.
Rensburg was exercising at LA Boxing when he first met Bailey, who later helped Absolute Care Foundation in 2013 to renovate Carroll Street Park in Durham. The project included adding benches, barbecue grills and new basketball goals.
Familiar with Bailey’s character and in-ring talent, Rensburg sponsored Bailey in 2015.
“I realized in him, if you give somebody a purpose, then you can focus the person to realize there are better things in life than what they are dealing with,” Rensburg said.
Bailey is now focused on providing for his daughter, who will turn 7 months old the week of his debut. He could receive up to $1,000 for his first professional fight but says he gets more emotional when thinking about his potential impact.
“I want kids to see my story and where I come from and the bad things that I’ve done and know that at any point in your life, you can turn your life around,” Bailey said. “I really just want to give back to my community and give back to my city.”
Bailey, 5 feet 7 inches tall, will compete as a light welterweight, which tops out at 140 pounds. He has a 13-3 record going into his fight, which is one of 10 matches at the January 30 event.
The professional event starts at 7:30 p.m., preceded by an amateur event. Tickets are available at www.ittakesonehit.com/. The Durham Armory, which accommodates 800 people, is located at 220 Foster St.