Damon Allen Jr. was always surrounded by sports. Spending time at the local West Philadelphia rec center after school, where he said his "grandpop ran a boxing gym," he tried his hand at team sports, specifically basketball, but it "just wasn't his thing." Due in part to his highly competitive nature, he found boxing as his calling. "I was real nervous at first, you know," Damon said. "Nobody took me serious -- the little black kid with the green eyes, boxing -- and they portrayed me as, like, the pretty boy."
The 25-year-old who began his career slap boxing any kid who would let him 17 years ago, is now an undefeated professional lightweight boxer with Golden Boy Promotions, traveling the country and taking on boxers brave enough to step in the ring with him.
The Allen family isn't a stranger to the boxing culture and lifestyle. Damon is the third generation in the family to box and the second to box professionally.
He is surrounded by support from all sides: His mother, Rasheeda Allen, was a USA boxing judge; his father, Damon Allen Sr., or Big Dame, has been his coach since Baby Dame was 8 years old, with his great grandfather and Philadelphia boxing Hall of Famer, Mitch Allen Sr., as the "overseer." Now Damon is a role model to his young cousin Tyreem Haywood, aka "Moo Moo," a 12-year-old boxer who hopes to be a professional heavyweight someday.
Boxing is ingrained in Damon. There is nothing else he would rather do.
"I don't like things getting the best of me, so knowing I didn't conquer or I didn't give boxing my all or live up to my full potential, I couldn't sleep at night knowing that," said Damon.
When asked what he wants out of all of this, Baby Dame says, "To have my name remembered. I want to be legendary."
Damon and his cousin Moo Moo get in an early-morning run through their West Philadelphia neighborhood in late fall 2017. Moo Moo is treated like a brother by Damon; the Allen family took him in when he was a little boy. Moo Moo is a constant fixture at many of Damon's gym sessions.
The patriarch of the boxing family, Mitch Allen Sr. has been coaching his great-grandson since Damon first came into Mitch's gym when he was 8. The Philadelphia Boxing Hall of Famer knows a thing or two about the sport, or lifestyle, as Damon refers to it. Everyone calls him Pop-Pop or Big Mitch at his gym, which is in the basement of the Shepard Recreation Center, and he is often seen passionately directing Damon on the punching bag. Damon says Pop-Pop is an overseer at all of his fights. If you see him getting up and going toward the ring, it's because there's some kind of advice he thinks Damon isn't getting.
Damon goes through conditioning training at Joe Hand's Boxing Gym in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia. When describing boxing, Damon said, "There is you and one other guy in there, and there ain't no break 'til that bell ring." Damon doesn't see boxing as a sport because there's no "playing" it. He says, "It's 24/7, 365. There's no offseason. You've got to always have that killer instinct ... that Mike Tyson state of mind. Boxing is really not a game; it's a sport like no other. It's really art."
The Allen Family arrives at a local youth tournament at Ridiculously FITT on Frankford Avenue in October. Moo Moo is part of the Mitch Allen Gym's youth boxing club, nicknamed the "Bang Gang." Damon, center, his sister Dajah, second from left, and father Damon Allen Sr., right, wait with Moo Moo, left, before his bout. Moo Moo says, "My main trainer is Big Dame. They treat me like a son. He's my uncle, but he treats me like his son."
Inside Ridiculously FITT, family and spectators fill the seats for the youth boxing matches. The Bang Gang seems ready and unfazed by the competition waiting for it in the ring.
Twelve-year-old Moo Moo battles a bigger opponent. Moo Moo says that since the age of 4, he has been "running around the gym hitting people and stuff. I'll go and continue my career and become a champion. Just like my cousin Damon Allen."
Big Dame coaches Moo Moo before the last round. The boys fight three rounds at the Fall All-Star Amateur Boxing Showcase, a USA Boxing sanctioned event.
Damon takes a photo of Moo Moo flexing proudly after his win. Damon started boxing at a young age as well, but said, "Nobody took me serious -- the 'little black kid with the green eyes' --and they portrayed me as the pretty boy." Still, he showed a lot of natural talent, and as he got older, he would be thrown into the ring with more experienced fighters and emerge triumphant.
A section of Damon's father's house is filled with trophies and awards Damon earned as an amateur. Boxing has always been a part of the Allen family. "My mom was a USA Boxing judge. My aunts was always involved in the gym. My grandfather, my great-grandfather, my uncles, my little sisters. So it was like, boxing at the gym and then coming home to another boxing lecture about what I should have done at the gym." Damon reflects on his place in his boxing family tree: "There was a lot on me, and it wasn't like I was going to quit, because everybody was in my corner."
Damon leaves his grandparents' row home in West Philadelphia, where he has lived since he was 15. Damon's parents were always involved in the boxing community; his mother was a judge, and his father coached. They often had to be away for a long weekend tournaments, and Damon was too young to join them, so he stayed with his grandparents. His grandfather Mitchell, would wake Damon up at 5 a.m. most mornings to jog around the neighborhood and train. His grandmother, "Honey," would prepare all of his meals.
Besides their love of boxing, the Allens' love of the Philadelphia Eagles is almost as strong. When the Eagles made it to the NFC Championship Game, the Allens hosted a party for friends and family in their downstairs home lounge. Damon's mother, Rasheeda, top, holds down the bar and keeps the laughs and drinks flowing.
With a week left before his Boston fight and deep into his weight cut to get down to 134 pounds, Damon and Pop-Pop head to Mitch Allen Gym for more training. Damon's thoughts on training with Pop-Pop have changed since he was a kid: "Now, I listen... He's been my trainer since I was 8 years old. So me being a kid, I was a little stubborn and just didn't see things his way." Damon chuckles thinking back to when he used to get kicked out of the gym all the time. "Now that he's 90 and I'm 25, I just shut up and listen. He been on this earth for 90 years. I mean he'd been in the boxing game way before I was born! He taught me everything I know."
Pad man and coach Ronnie McCoy, left, and Pop-Pop, right, train with Baby Dame regularly at the rec center. McCoy says, "I'm not just his pad man, I'm also his coach, his friend. He's a real good kid. He took me in his camp since day one." McCoy feels like part of the Allen family, as well. "I was friends his mom growing up and his dad. I knew [Damon] as a baby. I'm proud of the opportunity he gave me because he changed my life. I've been at that gym for so long that I feel like I'm more than just a friend, I'm an Allen myself. My last name is McCoy-Allen."
Rigorous strength-and-conditioning training all year round amps up before a fight. McCoy and Damon finish off a night of training with some ab work by beating a medicine ball into his gut. With little caloric intake and fatigue, Damon is giving it all he's got in the last week of training.
Big Dame trains in the ring with Baby Dame, who Big Dame says is gritty and won't "lay down for you." Thinking back, Damon's father reflects: "At first, we didn't know if he was going to be a boxer or not, but it's like a family tradition for all the guys in our family to come down to the gym and box because my grandfather had the gym for so long. So he [Damon] was the only one out of all of us that has stuck with it."
With two weeks until his Boston fight, Damon spars three different boxers for a total of 10 rounds at Joe Hands Gym. Big Dame, in the corner, recalls that as a kid, Damon "was tough and he always came back [to the gym]. At first, he used to spar and get beat up. He'd be like, 'Dad I want to go back to the gym.' He didn't want to lose, he always had that determination."
After the sparring session Damon takes a moment to look in the mirror. He has been fighting at about 135 pounds since he was 15 years old, though as a grown man now walks around at about 155 pounds.
Two days before his Boston fight and the morning of weigh-in, Damon is in the hotel's fitness center in Quincy, Massachusetts, working on losing those final few pounds. Damon collapses after jogging on the treadmill for 20 minutes. He hasn't eaten or had much to drink in two days. Pushing his body to the extreme limits is nothing new. "It's a little rough making weight, but those are sacrifices that we have to make as a boxer if that's what you want to do."
Damon and his camp arrive at the Marina Bay Sportsplex in Quincy, Massachusetts. He had his traditional dinner -- chicken parmigiana -- the night before, and he's ready for his lightweight fight against Alex del Bosque.
Two hours before the fight, Damon gets stretched out by his strength-and-conditioning coach and cut man, Danny Davis. The "locker room" is a curtained area in the rear of an indoor turf field and is shared with other fighters. Damon zones out with some music, has his hands wrapped and warms up with some pad-man action as Pop-Pop sits tight through it all. Damon's great grandfather wants to keep coaching to see Damon win a title. "You cannot sit back and think about what you did," Pop-Pop says. "You got to think, 'I'm going forward.'" Pop-Pop has also said coaching a family member "is the hardest damn thing in the world."
Moments before walking out to the ring for his lightweight bout, Damon has help putting on his Eagles-green boxing robe. Mentioned on his Instagram feed, "Since I'm in Boston had to go Eagles Green on them, LOL." He says after 200 amateur fights and 14 professional ones, there's no nervousness felt at all, he just tries to stay cool and chill out before a fight.
Once in the ring, Damon turns on his instincts and battles del Bosque for eight rounds. About facing his opponent, Damon says, "There's no fear, no nothing. He's a man just like I'm a man. Bleed like I bleed."
Damon and del Bosque put on a great lightweight fight that lasted all eight rounds.
Damon raises his arm in victory after winning by decision in eight rounds.
The stress put on Damon's body physically to make weight for this fight might have been the toughest to date. This might be his last fight at 135 pounds. He says after his fight: "At that weight , I got the advantage, and I do well, I've got power, I'm speedy, but my body just can't do it anymore. This was the fight where my body told me I can't do it. I got sick."
It wasn't an easy fight or win this time around. Pop-Pop was still pleased and said that he "would put in the book" and believes Damon will win the welterweight title. After his 15th win, an undefeated Damon Allen Jr. gets some ice and words in his ear by Bernard Hopkins, a Philly boxing world champ.
After winning the bout, Damon poses with his advisor Shahid Malik, left, Big Dame, right, and Bernard Hopkins, second from right. With 17 years of competing under his belt and boxing "24/7, 365," Damon can say "boxing is part of me now."