“He said to me, ‘Vyron, you can be angry, you can be sad. But understand, he’s not going to come back. He’s living through you now. Imagine if something happened to you. Do you want to see your momma cry a second time?’ I thought no. I can’t take seeing my mom crying. I don’t want to see her crying over me. I have to be smarter. I’m going to try and be smarter.”
For Vyron Phillips, those were the very words that changed his life. Those were the very words that helped him go from being a hot-headed youth, destined to be a statistic for a life of violent crimes, jail time, or worse, death, to the all-star basketball player, turned pro Mixed Marital Arts (MMA) fighter that he is today.
From Northern Minneapolis, Phillips’ childhood can be summed up in one word: devastating. A victim of his environment, Phillips struggled to overcome the poverty and distractions in the social surroundings he was born into. He grew up in a single parent home with his two brothers and one sister, each with a different biological father. His father, who was also his younger brother’s father, was rarely involved in Phillips’ life. “My father wasn’t around. I’d see him around the neighbourhood and he would stop and say hi to me and talk to me. He would walk away and my friends would say, ‘Isn’t that your dad? Isn’t he going to take you with him or give you a few bucks?’ My response was ‘Nope.’ Me being young and seeing all of my friends with their dads, it kind of hurt.” When his father chose to be involved in his life, he would make arrangements for Phillips to spend the weekend at his house, only then to abandon Phillips and his younger brother at his house. “I’d sit at the window watching for him to come back. He wouldn’t come back. Or if he actually came back, he’d leave me with friends of the family or at my cousin’s house.”
Lacking a father figure, Phillips turned to basketball, football, and street fights to vent his frustrations. He looked to the street people and hustlers to learn how to be a man. “My mother tried to raise me into a man alone, but I needed an actual man to show and teach me things, from how to shoot a jump shot to dealing with rejection. I was getting different perspectives on life and different ideas of how to be a man from different individuals. How to treat a woman, how to gain respect, and how to deal with problems. I was highly influenced by drug dealers and pimps. I was around these individuals a lot growing up and I felt their perceptions on things was the way mine should be. Say what you want about it but I actually learned so much from them. These people were my biological family members. My big cousins and uncles engraved the mentality to take no shit from anyone and get your money. These men would drive to my basketball games to watch me play basketball, pulling up in the most expensive cars and flyest clothing with women on each arms. I looked up to these guys. I don’t agree with a lot of it today, but then, I didn’t know better. I am not calling them wrong or me right but the life I live now is much better. But to each their own. They will have to stand before God and answer for everything they’ve done.”
His mother, today, is one of Phillips’ biggest fans and supports Phillips. From his earliest days, she always tried to take care of him and his siblings. “My mom was a good mom. But with four kids and you’re not working, we’re struggling, and you’re trying to keep us all straight. She did her best. She took care of us. She taught us respect. We couldn’t leave the house with wrinkled clothes on. We couldn’t leave the house without being fed, or not brushing our teeth, or not taking a bath.” And with only a sixth grade education, her opportunities for employment were quite slim. But despite not having a high school education, Phillips’ mother works hard and is very intelligent in his eyes.
Despite her best efforts, Phillips’ older brother stirred from the remainder of the pack, and got into trouble. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade and today is serving jail time. Phillips hasn’t seen him for eight years. Over a dozen of Phillips’ cousins and uncles are also doing 40 plus years of hard time behind bars.
At only six years of age, Phillips knew his future was bleak. Not one member of his family had ever gone or graduated from college. He wanted to change that. “I fell in love with basketball and thought that was my ticket out.” As a young child, Phillips would go to the local basketball courts and shoot hoops for hours, sometimes from 8:00am until 10:00pm. “I wanted to graduate high school and play basketball in college. I could get a scholarship and do that. I knew I could. If I’m really good at basketball, they’ll pay for me. That was my motivation all those years.”
Luckily, Phillips matured to look like a naturally-born athlete, filling out to be 6’2” at just 12 years-old. He also had natural talent in the sport, proving to be a shooting threat with vicious monstrous dunks and a solid jump shot.
His commitment to basketball kept him busy, and stopped him from straying interests including girlfriends, partying, and drugs. However, the better he got, the more people took notice, including what Phillips deems “very, very bad people.” If he sank a trick shot, onlookers would invite him to a party, where he later learned how to shoot dice and bust down women. He also got into fights, as he had to earn respect of older crowds, who used the courts to sit and drink beers. “If you were an athlete you weren’t respected. You weren’t considered tough since you weren’t street. So I had to fight them to show them I was tough and I wasn’t to be punked. That’s where I earned the nickname of Baby Knockout.”
Growing up in Northern Minneapolis, Phillips witnessed violence and criminal activity on the daily. He was only nine-years-old when he saw his first dead body and was 10 when he held his first gun and experienced his first drug house raid. “SWAT burst in with guns and tied everyone up including me. I remember my dad looking at me the whole time saying, ‘Son, it will be okay.’ But I was crying and scared.” Eventually, things didn’t seem out of the ordinary to him. He grew up wearing blue since that was the colour of gangs in his area, the Crips and GangDisciples, also known as GDs. “I’ve had cars drive by and start shooting just because of the wrong colours or for mistaken identity.” Gangs and clicks segregated the two high schools in his hometown, which were located over North Minneapolis. Phillips and one of his best friends even had the trigger pulled on them when they were robbed at gunpoint; luckily, the gun jammed, saving their life.
Gang violence came to a head when Phillips was 12 years-old. His youngest brother, who was only 11, was killed by a gang member’s bullet on the front yard of their childhood home. “One day, this guy came up to me asking if I wanted to make some money by doing a fundraiser. This was the time that PlayStation 1 was coming out… I was going to use that money to buy my little brother a PlayStation 1. I told him that. I promised that. The last time I seen him, I said that,” he says, tears swelling in his eyes.
“I came home with McDonald’s for my brother to eat. My brother was playing Super Nintendo. I remember saying to him, ‘You’re playing my game! Don’t erase it! Don’t erase where I’m at! Don’t delete my history, I’m far!’ And I went downstairs and left the house. When I came back, I remember getting out of the van, and I seen my dad, my uncle, everyone in front of the house. I thought, man, I don’t want to go to my uncle’s house. I had made just enough money to buy that PlayStation so I wanted to do that right away. I didn’t want to go to my uncle’s. I was too excited,” he pauses, wiping his eyes.
“I remember getting out of the van and it was raining. I remember looking up and the clouds had this ray of light coming through them. I kept walking. I walk up and everyone’s heads are down. And I’m like, ‘Whatsup dad?’ He told me to go talk to my mom. At first I thought it was my older brother. A week before then, a car had come by and just starting shooting and he was outside and took off. So I went in the house, and I remember it to this day. My mom was sitting and my auntie was sitting right beside her, crying. I remember the words. She said, ‘Nookie got shot. He’s dead.’” Tears flow as Phillips recalls that tragic day that continues to haunt him 21 years later.
After the brutal murder of his younger brother, Phillips’ life began a downward spiral. He became violent with rage and anger and got into countless physical altercations. “After that I went really, really far south. I was angry at everyone. I was fighting. I was around the wrong crowd. I never did drugs or got caught up in alcohol but I was with some really bad people. I just didn’t care. The worst thing that could happen to me was that I would die and I would get to see my brother. So I didn’t care. So there were times when I would be walking down the streets, and bullets would rang out, and I had my earphones on, the bullets would go over the trees, and I would just keep walking. Gunshots would randomly ring out down the street and people would be screaming telling me to watch out. And I just didn’t care.”
In the midst of his rage and anger, Phillips met Dennis Joyner, who he today, credits to having saved his life and helping steer him onto the path of goodness. Phillips met Joyner one day while playing basketball; Joyner himself was refereeing a kids’ game and took note of Phillips’ raw talent.
Joyner quickly became Phillips’ stand-in father and made Phillips’ life and future his absolute priority. After the death of his younger brother, Phillips was kicked out of his house and forced to live on the streets. “At the same time, Dennis was going through a divorce. He didn’t care. He said, ‘Wherever I lay my head, you’re going there. You’re going to stay with me.’ He never said, ‘I’m going through my own stuff, I don’t have time for you.’ He made sure I had a roof over my head and food. I went back school, and kept playing ball because of him.”
Yet despite Joyner’s best efforts, Phillips’ still had anger problems and struggled to cope with the unexpected death of his brother. Before graduating from public school, Phillips snuck into his prospective high school to see what he had to expect. Unfortunately, while there, he got into a brutal fight, punching and kicking a senior, inducing a seizure. “I just remember hitting him. Thinking about my brother, he fell, and I kept hitting him. He started shaking. I kept hitting him. Someone speared me off of him and I’m glad that person did that. My life would be so different if that person lost his life because I didn’t care. I just didn’t care. All I could see was my brother and I just kept going.”
Because of the altercation, Phillips was not allowed back on school property the following year and was forced to attend an alternative high school.
It was around this time that Joyner began to work seriously with Phillips on helping him channel his anger and rage. He also put Phillips’ life in perspective, warning him that if he continued down this road, his mother would have to visit another of her sons behind bars, or worse, bury another one of her children. Not wanting to put his mother through such heartache, Phillips vowed to change.
Upon graduating from high school, Phillips was scouted to play varsity level basketball. He received hundreds of scholarship letters and phone calls from high to middle level Division 1 schools but settled for North Dakota State College of Science (NDSCS) because he failed the ACT exam. Without hesitation, Joyner packed up his car and drove Phillips to the college to attend his first recruiting visit. Together, they spent the day on campus.
In the end, Phillips committed to play ball for the Manitoba Bison with the University of Manitoba in Canada. Phillips was a standout on a team with a losing record, which forced him to consider other options after only one year of play. Head Coach Thomas Cory of the Algoma University Thunderbirds saw Phillips playing while attending a scouting trip, and offered him a position on his roster. Although the thought of moving to Sault Ste. Marie, a small town in Northern Ontario, scared him, he accepted the offer.
Despite his initial hesitations, Phillips thrived in the small town community. Coach Cory was adamant that no matter what, Phillips would receive a quality education from Algoma U, and that his love for basketball would come second. “Thomas didn’t care that I was the guy that everyone was talking about. He wanted me to get an education. He knew I wanted to play ball in Europe and he promised me he would help me get the looks I needed to play there. But he said first, I have to get the education.”
Phillips went from being a C and D level student with Manitoba to a Dean’s List student at Algoma. After four years, he graduated cum laude from Algoma U with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. Although he struggled to fit in at first, noting that he was the only one with “a deep accent, baggy pants, Timberland shoes, shirt down to here, do-rag on, hat backwards, and pants sagging,” he has grown to love the Sault and today embraces it as his second home.
On the court, he also excelled. He was a starting guard, often led the squad in points, was a member of the OCAA silver medalist team, and was dubbed an all-star. Although he was considered a scrappy player in his first season, known for getting in the faces of the opposing team and the referees, he became the big brother of the team, the one everyone aspires to be.
In his four years with the Thunderbirds, Phillips never returned home. When classes ended in the spring, he stayed north, putting in time at the gym and on the hardwood. He also helped out in the summer camps, teaching youth the sport of basketball. Phillips didn’t want to return back to Minneapolis and risk falling back into old habits. And when he graduated, he opted to stay north of the border. “Algoma helped me mature and learn to be the Vyron Phillips that I am today. The other parts of me were because of situations. Society can create a personality. It’s your job to figure things out. Society can make you someone. You’re a product of your environment. And this environment here is good. It’s a good fit. This will always be home for me.”
Today, Phillips still resides in Sault Ste. Marie. He remains close ties to his alma mater and with Coach Cory. He frequents the George Leach Centre (GLC) daily, often two or three times a day. “I didn’t want to leave the Sault. I could have, but I chose not to. People have embraced me here like I’m one of their own. You don’t get that feeling anywhere.”
After graduating, Phillips became a youth worker with the Summit. He also became a foster parent to four girls. While he valued his time with the Summit, he is unsure if he can ever return to work in that vicinity after having saved one of his foster children via mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, after she became unconscious from a drug overdose. “People don’t understand when you work somewhere like that, you can’t turn it off. I couldn’t turn it off. So one of the kids came home and was doing some drugs and lost consciousness. I was seeing this little girl and kept saying, ‘God don’t take her.’ I had to resuscitate her. And I did. But doing that, but when you’re breathing air into somebody and it feels hollow – I’ve seen people get shot – but me seeing that, it changed me. It scarred me. A piece of me, I feel like my spirit is in her, and after that I said you know what I can’t do this. Not right now. Maybe when I’m 40 but not now. I’m too young to be seeing this and doing that. I don’t want to see that again, I don’t want to go through that again.”
Although Phillips no longer works to receive a steady paycheck, he is now free to commit himself fully to his MMA dream of becoming a champion. He trains six to eight hours every day. From cardio, weight training, to maintaining a strict diet and watching hours of recorded footage of other fights, Phillips takes his new career choice very seriously.
On Sunday, he will take part in the biggest fight of his life to date. Through a contest put on by URShow.TV, Phillips was selected out of 800 applicants to fight former World Champion Ray Jones Jr. in a boxing match in Phoenix, Arizona. If he wins by knockout, Phillips will receive $100,000 in cash. He plans to use that money to buy a house for his mother. It was both he and his little brother’s dream to always buy their mother a home to live in that would forever change her life.
Until he wins his fight, however, Phillips is scrapping together toonies and loonies to fund his journey to Phoenix and outfit himself in proper boxing gloves, shoes, and shorts, since he doesn’t own any of these vital pieces of equipment. To help fund his boxing match, please visit his Go Fund Me page.
Whether he wins or loses on Sunday, one thing is for certain – Phillips is already a champion. “I’ve worked hard to be here today. I’ve worked hard to put old Vyron behind me and become who I am today. I’m a good person. I’m a gentleman. This is my story of a champion. It’s a story of someone who came from where I did and succeeded. I’m a champion of Northern Minneapolis. And I hope there are more of us. I hope I can inspire more people to try hard, really, really hard, to break free of that environment and achieve their dreams.”
You can cheer Vryon on at Algoma University’s Speakeasy this Sunday at 7 p.m. $5 gains entry to watch the Vyron go toe to toe with Roy Jones Jr. on the screen with all proceeds going to Vyron’s GoFundMe account. Check out the event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/191365551239893/