It’s a pre-pandemic Father’s Day at Community Baptist Church in Englewood, N.J. Black, brown, and white faces stand together offering shouts of amen and hallelujah as Pastor Lester W. Taylor rouses them with his words of inspiration. In the crowd of about 700 on this Sunday morning is Monte Barrett, a native of Jamaica, Queens, who once fought for boxing’s heavyweight championship of the world. The congregation knows him as a handsome, proud Black father, husband, and athlete. A Hall of Fame boxer who grew up in the streets of New York and proved himself in the ring, Barrett is a tower of strength and a humble servant.
As the pastor signals his followers to take their seats, the tone turns serious. He begins to talk about “unresolved scars and the hurt and pain we as men carry in our lives.” He tells them of his scars, sharing his story of being molested as a child, the trauma it caused, and how it impacts him as an adult. Words from a preacher can make you feel like he’s speaking directly at you. That’s how Monte Barrett, 49, felt that day. The pastor’s revelation pierced his heart and unleashed his inner truth. Reflection, condemnation, anger, and redemption flooded his senses. Amid the hushed silence, an unrelenting impulse surged through his soul. Suddenly, Barrett stood amongst his peers and declared in his loudest voice:
“It happened to me, too! I was molested, too.”
The congregation now fixed its eyes on someone viewed as the strongest of men, a fearless heavyweight warrior who fought against champions, but now struggled to fight back tears. Then just as he was about to sit down, another Black man rose and declared, “I was molested, too.” And then another. “I was molested, too, Pastor.” And then another. One by one, nearly 20 grown men, some crying, stood to reveal that they were molested as children or had other unhealed scars. By the end, shouts of hallelujah filled the church again.
To hear Barrett reveal his unresolved scars served as a release for other men in the room. It empowered them to acknowledge the hurt and pain they experienced during their childhood. In truth, standing in front of that congregation took more courage than Barrett fought with as a boxer, where he compiled a pro record of 35-11-2, with 20 wins by knockout. His career spanned 18 years. He claimed the World Boxing Council’s Continental Americas title and the World Boxing Organization’s Asian Pacific belt, but lost his two chances to win a world championship. He never backed down from a favored foe, even though he was undersized for a heavyweight. His brawling style and durability earned him the attention of major networks like HBO, ESPN, and Showtime. His career and local roots were enough for Barrett to earn election into the New York Boxing Hall of Fame in 2019.
Some boxers have an abundance of natural talent. Some fighters feed off emotion and personal issues, past and present, to find motivation. Anger fueled Barrett’s fire in the boxing ring. In each of his fights, he wasn’t battling his opponent. Instead, he was fighting his 5-year-old self, the child that couldn’t protect himself against being verbally, physically, and sexually abused from ages 5 to 9 by relatives entrusted to protect him.
“The molestation almost became normal,” Barrett said in an exclusive interview. “But I grew up angry. That’s why I was so good at boxing. I had so much frustration and anger. Sometimes I don’t know how I made it through life without killing someone.”
According to the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, there are more than 42 million survivors of sexual abuse in the United States. Yet, between two-thirds and 90 percent of the victims never tell. While there is growing attention on domestic abuse and sexual abuse among children, research is scarce regarding the long-term impact on victims who are now adults, especially men.
According to 1in6, an organization supporting men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences, 1 in 6 men have experienced sexual abuse or assault. But, there’s virtually zero discussion of the subject in the macho world of athletics. Given research by the Crimes Against Children Research Center that shows 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are victims of child sexual abuse, there are possibly hundreds of current and former professional athletes dealing with similar issues of child molestation without proper resources. All professional athletes, like Barrett, were kids once, living in someone’s home. National statistics indicate 90 percent of child sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator.
Monte Barrett knew his predator. His mother came from a family of six girls and three boys. She was 15 years old when Monte was born in Greenville, N.C., on May 26, 1971. When he moved with his mother to New York, her youth and a cocaine addiction led to young Monte staying with various aunts and cousins. The damage inflicted during those visits was devastating.
When he was five years old and staying at the home of one of his stepfather’s sisters, Barrett alleges he was raped by his cousin Joyce. She exposed him to things no grade school child should endure. “She damaged me,” Barrett said. “When she became my babysitter, she abused me bad.”
She wasn’t the only abuser. The man his mother began dating soon after arriving in New York, and the primary male figure in Monte’s life, offered no help. Barrett called Morris Cook his stepfather, though he never actually married his mother. But Barrett says Cook was a physically abusive alcoholic. The two reconciled and became close years before Cook died last March. “You think of kids growing up and going to school and going to college,” Barrett said. “But I wasn’t handled the right way. I was a vulnerable kid. I was beaten with rulers and wet towels, belts, and hoses. I didn’t say anything to my mother about the abuse. She was all over the place and didn’t know what was going on.”
Barrett is estranged from his mother, Percell Barrett, 67, who is living in a senior citizens building in the Bronx and could not be reached for this story. “My mother has to heal from a lot of things she went through,” Monte Barrett said. “She’s still in denial.” One living aunt is in a nursing home, while a message left with another aunt, Doris Johnson, who lives in Queens, was not returned.
Beryl Aiken, a cousin, grew up with Barrett in Queens, was molested by a family member until she left home at age 16. Aiken and Barrett didn’t share their stories until they were adults. “Back then it was all hush, hush,” Aiken, 59, said. “But I’d guess every other house down the street was going through it.” Aiken confirmed Barrett’s mother battled a cocaine addiction. “She was a good provider,” Aiken said, “But cocaine was her drug of choice. That’s when things she started to do went left.”
Abuse, drug addiction, and dysfunction ruled Monte’s early life. Barrett spent his youth strolling through crack houses selling the drug at 11 years old, while passing crack addicts having sex. Once his body turned to muscle, he fought off his predators and anyone else who threatened him. He played football as an outlet for his anger and earned All-Queens and All-City honors during his junior high and high school years. Later, he tried the Marines, but that didn’t work out. Once back in New York and needing money, he became an organizer for a Queens community coalition, looking to get jobs for area residents. But even that seemingly noble task led to dangerous confrontations and sometimes violent situations.
“It was just guns, drugs, violence, and abuse,” Barrett said. “You’re either a sheep or a lion. Every day for six years, I had to walk out of the house with a gun because there was a lot of killing going on. There was a lot of extortion and illegal activity to force contractors to put our people on the job. So on one side, I was boxing. And on the other, I was a criminal to the police. I just became adapted to it.”
Few knew of Barrett’s life outside the ring when he began boxing. The masculine culture surrounding the boxing fraternity is not a comfortable environment to share stories of childhood abuse. Barrett used his padded fists to unleash his rage. After going 37-3 with 24 knockouts as an amateur, he turned pro in 1996. At age 25, he was a late starter in the fight game, but he became a crowd favorite, winning 21 straight fights, mostly slugfests that went the distance.
Ranked among the top 10 contenders, Barrett attracted bigger fights. On Dec. 6, 2003, he lost a majority decision to the undefeated and overhyped Joe Mesi at Madison Square Garden. Still, he rebounded with consecutive wins over undefeated and favored fighters Dominick Guinn and Owen Beck. The victories earned him a shot at an interim heavyweight title against Hasim Rahman. Barrett, whose moniker is “Two Gunz,” lost another close decision but got an unexpected chance at the World Boxing Association heavyweight championship held by Nikolai Valuev of Russia.
Valuev, the tallest and heaviest champion in heavyweight history, was 7-feet tall and weighed 328 pounds. He towered over Barrett, who was just 6-3, 222. It was the widest weight margin ever for a heavyweight title fight. Initially targeted for Madison Square Garden, the bout took place in Chicago in October 2006 before a national television audience. The challenger showed plenty of bravery but couldn’t overcome Valuev’s size advantage. Valuev knocked down Barrett three times before Barret’s trainer stopped the bout in the 11th round. After losing fights in 2012 and 2014, Barrett retired from boxing.
While he enjoyed a respectable career, the ramifications of the abuse he suffered as a child never left. His relationships with women were often dysfunctional and violent. He began a pattern of physical abuse toward women as a teenager and continued into adulthood. “My high school girlfriend told me it was fitting I went into boxing, because she was my first punching bag,” Barrett said with remorse. “I have trigger points. When you start calling me out and calling me names, it makes me feel like I’m not protected. You become my predator. It took me a while to understand that after being abused, I had turned into an abuser. It’s something I regret and have worked hard to prevent from happening again.”
Barrett says he hasn’t abused a woman in 11 years. His moment of revelation came while watching the movie Antwone Fisher with his second wife. The film is about a young man who suffered years of physical and emotional abuse from his foster parents and was molested by their adult daughter. Suddenly, Barrett was five years old again. “I started crying like a baby,” he said. “Here I am, Monte Barrett. I’m certified in the streets. I’m certified in the ring, and I’m straight bawling like a baby. I think she was the first person I told what happened.”
He underwent therapy and more therapy, followed by a talk with the aunt whose daughter had “damaged” him. Cousin Joyce, Barrett’s babysitter, shot herself in the head years earlier, ending a life riddled with drug use. “My Aunt Ruby (who is deceased) told me she was sorry I had to go through that in her home because of her daughter,” Barrett said. “She told mem ‘Maybe that’s why Joyce killed herself. She had so many demons. Not just from you, but the drugs.’”
Barrett says he still struggles with other impacts of his molestation. A 2005 study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine titled “Long-Term Consequences of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Gender of Victim” cited an increased risk of substance and alcohol abuse, psychiatric disorders, suicide, depression, anger issues, and numerous health and social problems. Guilt, shame, and blame are also lingering issues, as well as intimacy and relationships. “I had a problem having sex,” Barrett admits. “I couldn’t have oral sex on me. To this day, I can’t get past that. It’s something I have to deal with. I’m still living with insecurity and abandonment issues that are still there from the time I was molested.”
The revelation Barrett was molested as a child and grew up in constant abuse was unknown to his closest friend, Craig Felder. They grew up together in Jamaica, Queens, where Felder admired Barrett for the way he stood up for those who needed protection. “He might pick on you, but he wouldn’t let anyone else pick on you,” Felder said. “Him talking about the abuse that happened to him as a child is a good thing, because a lot of people looked up to him and if he can say, ‘This happened to me’ it will help other people to speak up about it and not feel like they should be ashamed of anything.”
Barrett is going public with his story to empower other men and athletes who were molested as children to help heal the scars that remain with them as adults. He continues to undergo therapy and seek advice from Donna Hylton, the author of “A Little Piece of Light: A Memoir of Hope, Prison, and a Life Unbound.” Hylton suffered abuse as a child from those who were supposed to love and protect her. She later spent 26 years in prison for kidnapping and second-degree murder. She is now one of the nation’s leading advocates for prison reform, women’s rights, and abuse victims.
Barrett had nurturing grandparents who let him know there was good in the world, and he now shares a PG version of his life to kids who might be going through a similar situation. The father of eight children, he lives in New Jersey with his wife, Shanequa. “I’m very fortunate to be living,” Barrett said. “The stuff I was exposed to at a young age was incredible. But I’m not the only one going through this.”