By day Venroy July enjoys a spectacular view of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor from his office at Hogan Lovells, where he is a corporate associate. But most evenings his second career as a professional boxer takes him to gritty gyms in neighborhoods where people are struggling and where some of his sparring partners are literally fighting to improve their lives.
“Most people don’t go into boxing unless they have no other choice,” he said in a TEDx talk at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last February. But July appreciates the perspective he gains and the friends he’s made in the two distinct worlds of boxing and corporate law. “I get to hear their concerns and see their conditions.”
Sometimes July’s fellow fighters ask him for advice on managing money and going to school. “The fact of the matter is that boxers often lose their money quickly because they never had anyone to teach them about things like finances,” he says in a subsequent interview. “I know I serve as something of a role model because they can see it’s not all about boxing, but about going to college and becoming a professional.”
July got those lessons from his parents, who moved his family from their native Jamaica to the South Bronx when he was 11. His father also introduced him to boxing.
“I remember being a kid and watching matches with him,” says July. “Boxing became a significant part of our relationship.” But long before July stepped into the ring (with his proud father watching his fights whenever possible), his parents pushed him to succeed in school — and planted the idea that he might someday become a lawyer.
“In Jamaica and in many immigrant populations, there is this view that there are a couple of respected professions, like law and medicine,” he says. “As far as I can remember, I would argue and my parents would always tell me, ‘You’re going to be an attorney!’ It stuck.”
Encouraged by his parents, July left his admittedly rough neighborhood for The Taft School, a boarding school in Watertown, Conn., where he succeeded both academically and athletically, winning a state wrestling title and earning all-state honors in wrestling, football, and track. His academic achievements helped him win a Morehead-Cain Scholarship to UNC-Chapel Hill, where he majored in political science and economics, and wrestled as a Tar Heel after redshirting his freshman year.
July also wrestled for the Blue Devils during his first year of law school, but switched to boxing soon after, having taken up the sport during his 1L summer. “Boxing and being active helped to break my days up and helped me study — I wasn’t just reading cases day after day,” he says. He trained throughout his time at Duke Law and following his graduation, when he joined a Washington, D.C. law firm, competing, quite successfully, on the side. In 2009, he won the Novice Golden Gloves Championship of D.C. That made him consider taking his hobby further, even though he was nearing 30.
“I figured I’m old, let’s go pro and see how it works,” he says. Since 2009, he has accumulated a record of 16 wins, two losses, and three draws. He is currently ranked in the top 20 nationally in the cruiserweight class.
While July keeps his two professional endeavors quite separate, he credits boxing — and the healthy habits that are essential to his conditioning — with keeping him sharp, refreshed, and relatively stress- free in his practice. Likewise, he brings the mindset of the lawyer to the business side of sports. His expertise in transactional law helped him realize that the standard terms of boxing contracts often weren’t fighter-friendly. “I rejected certain agreements that people had proposed to me initially,” he says. “It made me realize how easily people can get taken advantage of in this sport.”
As he crafted a strategy to advance his own sports career, July saw an opportunity to help other fighters in Baltimore find fights in their weight classes that had financial terms that met their best interests. Last year he formed his own promotion company, Hardwork Promotions, also spotting a business opportunity in Baltimore’s somewhat nascent market between much bigger boxing scenes in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York. “I understand how these contracts work and how to put deals together,” he says. “I thought that I would give it a shot.”
Soon after, July found a way to help the broader community while building a boxing fan base. When a fraternity brother mentioned that high ticket prices for a fight discouraged him from bringing his son, July recalled how he and his father, who died in January 2013, had bonded over boxing.
“Those memories of watching matches with my father were so influential on my life,” he says. “I wanted to provide that opportunity for other boys.” Through Hardwork Promotions he launched the “Bring Your Boys” program, which reduces general admission ticket prices to $10 from $40 for fathers and sons attending fights.
“You hear in the news about the absence of men,” July says. “I want to create an atmosphere where fathers feel comfortable to bring their boys, have a good time, and get to see them enjoy themselves.”
In and out of the ring, July actively tries to reach young people through his sport and his story.
“I use boxing to capture kids’ attention,” he says. “I speak with kids in schools and organizations because I know it’s impactful for them see a black male who isn’t just a jock but also an intellectual. The concept is that being smart is not cool, but they think I’m smart because I’m a lawyer, but also cool because I’m a professional boxer. That message is important, especially for young black men to hear.”
July ended his TEDx talk last February by reiterating how his daily journey from the nicest parts of Baltimore to “some of the worst parts of town” has enabled him to build friendships in both and sparked an understanding of what he can do in the face of race and class disparity. He challenged the young people in his audience to similarly engage with people of different races, backgrounds, classes, and cultures, and to have honest and possibly difficult conversations.
“That’s how we move the ball forward” on issues of race and class, he said. “You have to force yourself to be uncomfortable. You have to force yourself to have this perspective.”
— by Avery Young