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West Hempstead's Kayo Boxing helps two with traumatic injuries

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When former professional boxer Michael Corleone, of Franklin Square, opened his gym, Kayo Boxing, in West Hempstead in 2018, his goal was to help others become well-rounded individuals through boxing.

Over the past month, his gym has attracted attention thanks to one of its boxers, Lorenzo Thomas. Thomas, 26, was hit in the head in by a stray bullet in Hempstead in August 2013. He was taken to NYU Langone Hospital–Long Island, in Mineola, and survived despite having suffered a traumatic brain injury. After starting rehab that October, he returned home in December, but many of his motor functions were affected. His mother, Stacey Tucker, said Thomas had to relearn simple things such as walking and talking.

“He tried to do many different things as part of his recovery,” Tucker, of Roosevelt, recounted. “He tried playing the piano, the guitar, but then he decided to take up boxing a few years ago.”

Tucker said that Thomas, who lives in Suffolk County, looked up numerous boxing gyms on Long Island before he stumbled on Kayo Boxing in 2019. Corleone acknowledge that when Tucker began training there, he was reluctant to take him on, because he didn’t want to make false promises.

“I didn’t know what to expect, and I don’t want to take someone’s money if I can’t provide the services that I promised,” Corleone said. “Now he’s walking over to the speed bag, the double-end bag, and he’s talking to everyone in the gym.”

Corleone began posting videos of Thomas’s progress on the gym’s Instagram page last year. Last month, one of the videos went viral on social media after it was reposted on ESPN SportsCenter’s social media accounts.

“We’re humbled by this experience,” said Tucker, who is an independent contractor. “I didn’t even know until Mike told me, and then my other son told me that Lorenzo is all over social media.”

Corleone’s step-by-step approach, Tucker said, helped Thomas improve his motor functions. Thomas, who was a senior at Upper Room Christian School in Dix Hills at the time of the shooting, didn’t finish high school due to his injury, but he still has hopes of earning his GED.

“He was already walking without the walker at times,” Tucker said, “but now he’s gotten a little bit stronger through boxing with Mike. Lorenzo has been an inspiration to many people, and he’s even pushing his siblings and I to stay active and to better ourselves.”

Thomas’s viral video has attracted other boxers to Kayo Boxing, including 18-year-old Donovan Maldonado, of Brentwood, who is also recovering from a traumatic brain injury. His parents, Laura Garces and Matthew Maldonado, said that Corleone’s patience with Thomas drew them to the gym.

“We were nervous, because of the brain injury, about putting him in something like that,” said Garces, an administrative assistant in Syosset. “Then we saw the video of Mike working on Lorenzo one-on-one. He was very careful in dealing with Lorenzo’s balance and hand-eye coordination. Something as simple as turning your shoulder when you’re jabbing, it’s a lot for people with a brain injury.”

Maldonado was walking home from North Middle School in January 2016 when he was hit by car while crossing a street, and landed on his head. He was taken to South Side Hospital in Bay Shore, and was later transported to Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park. Similar to Thomas, his motor functions were affected, and he was legally blind at one point.

As his health slowly improved each year, Maldonado said, he had an interest in taking up boxing or martial arts. “I’ve always wanted to learn how throw a punch,” he said, “and now I’m glad that I actually know how to punch correctly thanks to Kayo Boxing.”

“I became a big crybaby watching his progress every day,” his father said. “From being told that your child isn’t going to make it to now seeing him hitting the pads and throwing combinations, it’s just a blessing.”

Maldonado, who works in the linen department at South Side Hospital and as a night custodian in the Brentwood School District, said that his family was concerned about some of the state’s proposed budget cuts. They include seven Care Coordination Organizations/Health Homes that were created in 2018 to support people with intellectual disabilities. Maldonado is among the thousands of New Yorkers with developmental disabilities who would be affected by the cuts.

“We’ve learned that the more stimulation they get, the better they recover,” his father said. “Everything that’s happening now at Kayo Boxing is bringing awareness. It’s a constant battle. They’re sick, they’re healing and we’ll get them back if everybody plays their part.”

Matthew Maldonado added that he would like to create a facility or clubhouse on Long Island in which people with physical disabilities could socialize and grow with one another.

His son graduated from Brentwood High School last year, and hopes to attend college.

As for Corleone’s newfound popularity, he told the Herald that he had finally found his calling in life. “To find the joy in training somebody who is just looking to be better than they were yesterday, that’s the best,” he said. “It brings me joy, but I don’t want to take credit or let my head blow up and let people think that I’m the next messiah. I’m just the vessel that’s carrying them along.”