Editor’s note: This is the cover story of the April  20 edition of the LocalSportsJournal.com magazine, which is available at retail outlets throughout the area.

By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Terry Markowski spent several decades training young boxers at the Muskegon Athletic Club in the Jackson Hill neighborhood.

He mostly did it out of love for the sport and a desire to work with kids. He never imagined training a fighter with the talent to become a professional champion, until Raeese “The Beast” Aleem came along.

Muskegon native Raeese Aleem, who is currently the WBA’super bantamweight champion.

Aleem is a 30-year-old Muskegon native who recently won the World Boxing Association super bantamweight championship in a fight viewed worldwide on the Showtime cable television network.

But years before that, he was just a small, talented kid who wanted to learn boxing, and was fortunate enough to meet Markowski.

Markowski remembers the day that Aleem first walked into the Athletic Club. He was 12 or 13 at the time, and came with his father.

Aleem had already earned his black belt in karate a year or two before, and at that tender age was looking for a new sport to master.

He was immediately impressive, and it didn’t take long for Markowski to discover his incredible potential.

“His dad brought him into the gym, and he did well right from the beginning,” Markowski said. “You could tell he was something special at the time. He was kind of head and heels above everyone else. Other people expected the same thing out of him. Everybody expected him to do what he’s been doing.”

Aleem also remembers that first day at the gym, when he put on the gloves and got into the ring for the first time.

“After I got that black belt, I wondered what was next,” Aleem told LocalSportsJournal.com. “My dad took me to the boxing gym and I was naturally good, because I already knew how to fight. That’s where I first met Terry. I sparred with one of the kids one day, and I kind of beat him up, even though I didn’t even know the basics at the time.”

A young Aleem during his amateur boxing days. witj local trainer and close friend Terry Markowski.

Aleem eventually became a pro, left Muskegon and moved to Las Vegas, because he was having trouble finding quality opponents and building his career here. After a few impressive bouts out west, he was signed by a reputable management firm, promoter and publicist, and has several top-of-the-line trainers working with him on a daily basis.

He’s an up-and-coming star in the boxing world, with all sorts of opportunities, and a very good income, knocking on his door.

But he has never forgotten Markowski.

Whenever Aleem has a fight, Markowski travels to the site and works in his corner, serving as his assistant manager and secondary coach.

Unfortunately Markowski couldn’t make the last two fights, including the championship bout in January, due to the challenges of COVID-19, but plans to be back in the corner when Aleem fights again this summer.

Aleem wouldn’t have it any other way.

“He taught me all the basics,” the boxer said. “We talk pretty much every day, and he’s still part of Team Aleem. When you relocate you leave everyone behind, but I’ve always kept him a part of everything I’m doing.

“He’s the one who told me all of this was possible. I was just a kid from Muskegon, and what did I know? It only takes one person to believe in you, to help you reach your goals and dreams.”

‘I’ve been hit so hard I saw stars’

Aleem spent his earliest years living with his family in the city of Muskegon and attending Angel and Moon elementary schools in the Muskegon school district.

When he was still young, his father, who was also his karate instructor, moved the family to Ravenna, so the kids would avoid the kind of trouble that occurs in some neighborhoods in the city.

Aleem also spent some time attending Oakridge schools, before finally moving back to town and graduating from Muskegon High School in 2009.

A very young Aleem during his days of boxing at the Muskegon Athletic Club.

Aleem decided as a teen that he wanted to be a professional boxer. He didn’t have any Olympic dreams, and never considered pursuing one of the more modern forms of professional fighting, like cage fighting or mixed martial arts.

Markowski knew Aleem’s goal was achievable, and started working to find him the best available competition for sparring and amateur bouts. That meant driving all over the state and Midwest, with Markowski footing the bill, to find opponents who could challenge Aleem and help him develop his skills.

“Even back at that time we started traveling around to find the best sparring he could get,” Markowski said. “We did a lot of traveling as he got older. We were spending weekends in Detroit, Chicago and Toledo.”

Aleem was extremely successful on the amateur circuit, winning five Michigan Golden Gloves championships, and finishing in third place in two national Golden Gloves tournaments.  

He also had his share of setbacks as an amateur, finishing with a 59-10 record, but his losses all came against more experienced fighters, and he learned something from each of those defeats.

“I was fighting guys who were national champions,” said Aleeem, who went to school and worked at several local Meijer stores while he was fighting as an amateur. “I only lost to top guys. I’ve been in positions where my feet were literally in quick sand, but I plowed through and still won. I’ve been hit so hard I saw stars, but I kept fighting and won. It all prepares you for the pros.”

Aleem turned professional in 2011 at the age of 20 and had success right away, winning his first seven bouts by knockouts. But it soon became obvious that he was too talented for the competition in the Midwest. He started having trouble getting bouts, and went the entire year of 2013 without a fight.

Finally the situation became intolerable, and he decided to pack up and head to Vegas.

As one boxing writer put it, “If you’re an aspiring film actor, you go to Hollywood. If you’re an aspiring boxing champion, you go to Las Vegas. Not a week goes by without a young fellow turning up here to test his mettle in one of the many local gyms with the hope of attracting the eye of one of the major promotional firms.”

Markowski knew it was time for Aleem to become one of those “young fellows.”

“The move out there made him better,” Markowski said. “He’s working with world champions and ex-world champions.”

Becoming a world champion

Success didn’t come overnight for Aleem. He was an unknown quantity in Las Vegas, and he had to scratch out a living while continuing to train until the chance came to demonstrate his abilities and gain attention.

“I did it all by myself,” Aleem said. “I had no family, friends or support system there. When I first came out here I had no coach, no gym. I had to find all of that. The first job I worked at was a pawn shop, then I got a job in security. I trained myself for the first year and a half.

“Then I got a chance to fight an undefeated fighter, I dropped him in the first round, and that started a domino effect.”

Raeese Aleem lands a devastating blow against Victor Passilas in the title fight.

Aleem’s professional record speaks for itself. He is currently 18-0 with nine victories by technical knockout and six by unanimous decision.

He won his last three fights by TKO, including the most recent one, which was by far the biggest of his career. He fought undefeated Vic Passilas on Jan. 23 for the interim World Boxing Association super bantamweight championship at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. It was one of several bouts televised live that evening by the Showtime cable network.

Aleem won the championship bout easily, finishing Passilas off in the 11th round of a scheduled 12-round fight. A written description of the fight, provided by BoxingInsider.com, explains how dominant he was.

“The first round was a high octane affair,” the article said. “With that in mind, Aleem appeared to be the somewhat sharper of the two in the opening three minute chapter. Pasillas went down in the final minute of the second. The southpaw was able to get up and survive the round, however. Still, the man was truly getting beaten up.

“The third saw Aleem asserting himself, as did the fourth. By the fifth, it was clear that Aleem’s high level of energy was impressive, for he kept up a fast pace. Pasillas went down in the sixth, but got up. Aleem, however, controlled the round. Aleem made it look easy in the seventh. By the midpoint of the round, Pasillas appeared to be almost out on his feet.

“Surprisingly, Pasillas performed better in the eighth than he had perhaps throughout the fight. He came on strong in the ninth, but was then dropped by Aleem once more. Pasillas kept fighting in the tenth, but it was clear he’d need to stop his man in order to win. An absolutely thunderous shot rocked Pasillas in the eleventh. A follow-up shot from Aleem put him down and out.”

After the fight, a jubilant Aleem did a televised shoutout to Muskegon – “Hey, Muskegon, Michigan, stand up!” – and announced with confidence that he was ready to take on anybody.

“I was dominant,” Aleem said, according to FightNews.com. “I wanted to put an exclamation point with this performance. It feels absolutely amazing. It just confirms what I knew in my head, that I have elite power. He’s one of the top fighters in the division so to knock him out, it means I’m a true threat.”

Later on, when talking to LocalSportsJournal.com, a more subdued Aleem admitted that he wasn’t completely satisfied with his performance.

“He’s a really tough fighter,” Aleem said about Pasillas. “He was undefeated as a pro, and he was coming off a knockout victory. He wasn’t a pushover, but I got the job done.

“I made a lot of mistakes in that fight. I still have room to grow. I haven’t hit my ceiling yet.”

Aleem was awarded the championship belt in his weight class, a coveted prize that he keeps in a special case at home in Las Vegas, and is eager to show off when he gets a chance to come back to Muskegon to visit family and friends.

“It was pretty exciting,” he said about winning the championship. “There are fighters who go their whole careers and never have the opportunity to fight for a belt, let alone win one.”

“I could hear the smile on his face’

Markowski could have made the trip to Connecticut for the championship fight, but that would have required him to spend several weeks in Las Vegas first, being tested for COVID-19.

Instead he stayed home and watched the fight on TV, and intensely followed every punch and jab.

“I thought about it for a minute, but I’ve been trying to take care of my health, so I stayed home,” Markowski said.

Aleem lands a solid left hook to the face of Vic Passilas in January during their WBA super bantamweight championship bout.

“I was probably clapping my hands and punching my fists,” Markowski added about watching the fight from his home. “I expected (Passilas) to be tougher. I wouldn’t say I was surprised. I had no doubt Raeese would win. He ended up knocking him down four times.

“He called me probably within 20 minutes after getting out of the ring. I could hear the smile on his face.”

Markowski, who grew up in Muskegon, was an amateur boxer as a youth, and fought fewer than 10 bouts. But he never lost his love and fascination for the sport. After spending a few years in California as an adult, he moved back to town and started training local kids at the Muskegon Athletic Club around the year 2000.

Markowski came up as a coach under the great Kenny Lane, who had several pro championship bouts during his career, then started the youth boxing gym at the Rec Club before passing away in 2008.

Markowski and Lane became great friends, but they didn’t train their boxers the same way, Markowski had ideas of his own on how to work with kids, and he followed his own philosophy.

“Me and Kenny did good together,” Markowski said. “We were close. That’s who I worked with when I first started coaching. But I kind of did my own thing. I studied a lot of tapes and had my own style and kind of went at it that way.”

Markowski said he can’t even begin to guess how many young boxers he trained over the years. Only two of his students ever went pro – Raeese and Johnny Garcia, a Holland native who posted a 19-6 record before hanging up the gloves in 2017.

Aleem with his WBA title belt after finishing off Passilas back in January.

Developing a professional champion was never a goal for Markowski. He simply liked working with kids. Many of the youngsters who came to the gym over the years had been in trouble at school or with the law, and he used the sport to try to get them back on the right path.

Others pursued boxing for a hobby, and Markowski loved working with them, as well.

Markowski’s priorities changed when Aleem came around.

“The whole thing just kind of evolved with Raeese being as good as he was,” Markowski said. “It was not something I was trying to hang my hat on. It was just me realizing this kid can go somewhere. (Coaching a pro champion) wasn’t a goal, but it turned into a goal after being with Raeese.”

Markowski started spending more time away from the Athletic Club as he traveled with Aleem throughout the Midwest for sparring sessions and bouts. It wasn’t long before the boxer became the main focus of his training and coaching efforts.

He admits it was hard when Aleem decided to leave for Las Vegas, but he fully supported the decision.

“He asked me to go with him – he said ‘Let’s do this together,’ Markowski said. “But I had too many ties here in Muskegon. I had a parent still around at the time, so the move wasn’t for me.”

Aleem and Markowski remain very close, and talk on the phone at least once a week. Markowski knows Aleem better than most people, and says the brash boxer who boasts about his abilities to the media is not the real person. He says Aleem is actually pretty modest, polite and friendly away from the cameras, something others have started to realize, as well.

“He had an interview on Showtime, and afterward (the announcers) said that he is a beast in the ring, but nothing like that outside of it,” Markowski said.

Markowski has total confidence that Aleem will continue to succeed at the pro level, because of his skills and incredible determination.

“He does a good job of it,” he said. “It’s just his ring IQ, his knowledge in the ring, his knowledge of what to do and what not to do. He’s strong for his weight, and he’s a good puncher.

“He’s probably peaking right now, although he could probably get a little better through sparring.”

Markowski said when Aleem is done, his career in the sport will also be done.

“I kind of cut my time back as far as the gym goes,” he said. “I retired to just working with him. That will be it for me when he’s done. I will be 63 in a couple of weeks.”

The dual retirements may not come any time soon, however. Aleem seems driven to accomplish everything he can in the ring, and one of his main motivations is rewarding the commitment that Markowski made to him over the years.

“He was spending his own money taking me to Chicago and Detroit and different places to spar,” Aleem said about his hometown coach. “You can’t just give up when a guy like that has your back.”