PHILADELPHIA —“I’m going to be on the Olympic team,” 15-year-old Paul Kroll once said to fellow fighter and future coach Greg Hackett. Kroll was right. He made the Olympic Team, but after qualifying at the international level, Kroll became caught up in attempted murder charge that would render the boxer, once considered a media darling, forgotten.
Kroll’s story could have ended on that Saturday morning, Aug 20, 2016, but it didn’t. When he fights Aug. 10 at Temple University’s Liacouras Center, Kroll knows this season of the Kroll Show is about redemption.
“I don’t want that night to define me,” Kroll said of the night that he and three friends, one only 15, had an altercation over an ex-girlfriend. Over 50 shots were fired at the four friends that evening, and it was the actions of his friend Cardell Hellams that saved his life that night. Hellams now sits in a Pennsylvania State Prison, and is in his second year of a 10-year bid. His younger friend, the son of his first boxing coach, Dirk Gooden, who Kroll considered a brother, ended up being shot, fighting for his life in the hospital.
Kroll hadn’t fired any weapon, but was charged nonetheless. As the case played out in court, Paul was placed on probation for his role in the shootout. Many in the boxing world wondered what had happened to the promising fighter after that night. A google search turns up news of his arrest, but then the trail goes cold.
Kroll’s story started like that of many fighters–humble beginnings, growing up in North Philadelphia’s Blumberg Projects, which were plagued with drive-by-shootings, assaults and drugs before they were unceremoniously demolished in 2016. It was during this time that Kroll showed an affinity for fighting, albeit not in any boxing ring. Kroll’s family was close. At eight years old, he began helping his father in the general contracting business, and grew up learning the trades–carpentry, electrical, flooring.
“One of the most important things my dad taught me is to work hard,” said Kroll, who, in addition to investing the hours training as a professional boxer, is an electrician, who volunteers his time to help people from the gym with issues at their homes.
When he was 14, Kroll’s father bought a house near 29th & Lehigh, and, away from the chaos of the projects, Kroll was drawn to a local boxing gym. He first snuck to the gym when he was 15, meeting Hackett and devoting himself completely to learning the sweet science. Hackett, who was his peer but would later become his coach, was amused when Kroll announced his Olympic plans, but noted the determination in the young man’s eyes. At 15, Kroll was starting his amateur career late as compared to most other Olympic hopefuls. Kroll won his first fight, and his parents got on board once they realized that boxing was not only Kroll’s passion, but it had drastically improved his grades and behavior in school. They were all-in, shuttling him to events, and making sure he had equipment. Kroll credits them with his success so far: “I wouldn’t have made it as far as I did without their support. I have a great support system and I’m very grateful to them.”
He quickly began to make a name for himself, ending his amateur career with 140 fights, 17 losses. He lost his first bout in the US Olympic Qualifiers, but made his way through the tournament via the Challenger’s Bracket and won a spot on the Olympic team, a feat that had only been accomplished before by Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Evander Holyfield, Gary Russell, Gary Russell Jr. and Roy Jones, Jr.
The media was enamored. Kroll was headed to the Olympic Trials. He lost in the International trials, and the US team would go on to compete without a boxer in his weight class. It was a turning point for Kroll. It was time to take his talents to the professional ranks. It was this loss that changed Kroll’s path–had he won, he might not have been in the streets on Aug. 20, 2016.
Paul is quietly confident. Those who have seen him but not spoken to him describe him as quiet, focused, intense, and seemingly unapproachable. Some who have seen him in the ring highlight his “killer instinct.” His coaches, Hackett, Myke Melvin and strength and conditioning coach Ronald Johnson work in tandem to hone his skills and focus his intensity on his in-ring foes.
“He’s willing to die in that ring, and take whoever is in there with him,” one gym mate said. Hackett knows another side of Kroll: “Paul will do anything for anyone. If someone needs help on their house, he helps them. If someone needs help in the gym, he helps them. His heart is almost too big.” Kroll is known for his work with the younger fighters, and is as invested in their success as his own, wearing his heart on his sleeve as he works with them.
Kroll displays his softer side when talking about his family, especially his 18 month-old daughter Jasmine: “I don’t have regrets about what happened. I’m sorry that people got hurt, but anything that happens that’s bad comes with a lesson. I wouldn’t have reconnected with Toya if not for that day.” Toya Gordon is Kroll’s girlfriend and Jasmine’s mother. “You really learn who is in your corner when something like that happens. My mother and my father, who is my role model in life, were there every step of the way. That unconditional love – that’s how I want to love my daughter and my family.”
Kroll knows that day could’ve turned out differently. “I could have died. I live my life now, setting an example for the young kids in the gym. I talk to them about surrounding themselves with the right people, and I am focused on my goals.”
Kroll has some specific goals and Hackett believes that he has the work ethic and talent to achieve them: “He’s in the gym every single day. He’ll fight and then be in the gym the next day.”
Kroll isn’t waiting for anything to fall in his lap. “I want to unify belts in three different weight classes–140, 147 and 154. I want to go down in history as one of the best defensive boxers to ever step into the ring. I want to make my family proud, and win a title for Cardell – he made me promise that I’d be world champion by the time he was out of prison. I want to make enough money so that I can build houses. I have knowledge of the construction field and would love to reinvest in the new north Philadelphia.”
He also has philanthropic aspirations. “I would like to invest in a gym to give younger kids a place to go rather than drugs and violence. I would also try and get a soup kitchen going out of the same gym. So many younger kids are walking around hungry everyday.”
As Kroll dotes on his daughter, spending every stolen moment between work and boxing training with her, the attempted murder charge and subsequent probation feel a world away. His goals for his career and family may be lofty, but Kroll’s coach, Greg Hackett, has seen Kroll shoot for the stars before. “If that’s what he says he’s going to do, that’s what he’ll do. He’s going to be a champion.”
Paul Kroll fights Saturday, Aug. 10, at the Liacouras Center on the campus of Temple University, and live on ESPN+. Promoted by Top Rank, in association with Peltz Boxing, tickets, priced at $100, $55 and $35 (not including applicable fees), are on sale now and can be purchased at the Liacouras Center Box Office and www.liacourascenter.com, or by calling Peltz Boxing at 215-765-0922.