Willie Fortune, left, during a fight.
Photo provided by Willie Fortune
Owner and founder Willie Fortune, known as Fortune 500 in the boxing world, began his boxing career over 15 years ago as a youth in the city. Growing up around the sport, Fortune learned the skill and science of boxing early and wanted to use what he knew to help inspire the city and make a name for himself in the sport.
“I was just around it. My father and my uncles, even my mother and grandmother, they were always fighters, so I was actually raised around it,” Fortune says. “I was around a lot of the up-and-coming stars like Tommy Hearns and Milt McCrory. I could go on and on about the locals who actually impacted and influenced me.”
While fighting and winning titles as a middleweight, Fortune began work as a personal trainer. Through his love of fitness and the art of the sport, the boxer established JABS Gym Birmingham. Exclusively Black-owned, the Birmingham location services all levels of fitness. Open for the past 10 years, the gym was Fortune’s way of starting a legacy while still growing in boxing.
“With the momentum of me fighting and constantly getting bigger in the sport, I wanted to open up something to attach to it (boxing) along the way,” Fortune says. “I feel like most fighters open up gyms when they retire. I wanted to do it actually as I was moving so that the people who were a part of the gym could move and grow with me.”
Offering the opportunity to grow physically, the gym’s owner does not stop at fitness. Combining elements of boxing and yoga, the gym also teaches members how boxing can be applied outside the ring.
“The core values of boxing really do apply to everyday life. You don’t have to be a professional fighter or want to compete to learn core values, to learn self-esteem, to learn hard work and good ethics,” Fortune says.
With the success of the Birmingham location, the gym expanded into the downtown Detroit area staking its claim in the city’s historic Eastern Market. 0pening its doors in 2015, JAB’s Eastern Market location was born from the desire to bring the same opportunities from the suburbs to the inner city.
“I know how our city is with trendsetting. I was like ‘if I can survive and make a name in Birmingham then it’ll just translate over,” Fortune says. “Being around the area, I could network and actually talk with other successful businesspeople, get sponsorships.”
Looking to get the city’s youth inspired, the gym provides a tangible example of how hard work and dedication can help make dreams come true. Aside from pro boxer and personal trainer, Fortune can also add mentor to his list of triumphs.
“To be able to accomplish something in boxing and in business, I’m always trying to educate and uplift children and let them know that they can be bigger than just one or two things. If they really apply themselves, they can do anything,” Fortune says.
COVID-19 forced gyms and fitness studios to close due to social distancing measures and stay-at-home mandates. Wanting to help get the city moving, JABS pivoted their business and began offering a new take on their programs. Using social media, the gym began offering some free virtual classes and outdoor workout options to help combat the spread of the virus.
“We switched over and we maneuvered through the pandemic. We did online things. We were one of the first gyms that were actually doing outside class. People were coming from all around just to do that, and they were so grateful and that alone just motivated me to go even harder,” Fortune says.
At the height of the pandemic, the gym also purchased additional space to accommodate its clientele.
“We actually expanded. We bought another 2,000 square feet so that we could spread everything out and make it comfortable for everybody,” Fortune says.
Wanting to positively impact the health of Detroiters in and out the ring, Fortune is using what he has learned in the ring to create lasting results across the board. With Detroit’s reputation of being one of America’s most unhealthy cities, the gym has helped transform lives while becoming a staple in the city’s fitness arena.
“One thing that we’ve done since the JABS locations have opened up, we’ve created an avenue for people to actually get moving. They’re getting started, they’re loving it; they’re loving the workout. It’s encouraging. It’s very powerful for the city and fitness is just getting bigger and bigger,” Fortune says.
With his sights set on the future and more plans of expansion, the pro boxer is hoping to add more locations to the growing brand and continue to be the city’s choice for fitness and training. Classes are available online and the gym is now open for limited capacity workouts.