Posted on June 13, 2011

Knockout King: Kids Call It a Game. Academics Call It a Bogus Trend. Cops Call It Murder.

John H. Tucker, Riverfront Times News, June 9, 2011


“Jason” considers himself a typical fourteen-year-old. “I got a good family background,” he asserts by phone from his mother’s house in St. Louis County, on a morning when he decided to skip school after oversleeping.

Jason, who asked RFT to use a pseudonym, recently moved to the county from south city, where he attended Fanning Middle School, near Grand Boulevard and not far from the Nguyen household. It was during his middle-school years that he was introduced to Knockout King.

“I always hit ’em hard,” he says. “If you don’t hit ’em hard, they don’t go far.”

Jason is talking about a ritual–those who participate call it a game–that has been adopted by young teens across the St. Louis area. Once an elusive phenomenon that flew under the local radar, the game exploded onto the collective consciousness with the media reports that followed the attack on Hoang Nguyen.

Along with a generalized sense of fear, there was befuddlement: What would drive a young person to sucker punch a defenseless stranger purely for sport?

“It was just a little game,” says Jason. “We used to walk to where a lot of people be at and hit ’em. If one of the homeboys didn’t knock him out, then the other would come. Whoever knock him out would be king.”

The rules of Knockout King are straightforward, according to Jason and other former players interviewed for this article. A lead attacker is chosen from among a group of boys, usually young adolescents. Next a target is picked out. Then the attacker either charges the unsuspecting victim or motions for his attention. When the target turns or lifts his head, the attacker strikes. If the victim is felled by the punch, the group usually scatters. But if the target withstands the blow, other members of the group may follow up with their fists to finish the job. “Some people kick, but I ain’t used to kick,” says Jason. “I just punched.”


“I’d say maybe ten to fifteen percent of kids play Knockout King,” says Aaron Davis, who’s eighteen and lives in south city, adding that he never took part. “It’s not a whole school, but it’s a nice percentage.”

Some former participants maintain Davis’ estimate is too low.

“Everybody plays,” says eighteen-year-old Brandon Demond, a former participant who provided only his first and middle names for publication.

“It’s a game for groups of teens to see who can hit a person the hardest,” explains Brandon, who’s standing with a group of friends on Grand Boulevard as a police officer listens nearby. “It’s a bunch of stupid-ass little dudes in a group, like we are now. See this dude walkin’ up behind me?”–Brandon gestures to a longhaired man walking toward him on the sidewalk–“we could just knock him out right now.”


Kids list various motivations for taking part: glory, boredom, peer pressure and showing off one’s toughness. For most the game eventually loses its luster. “It got old on me,” fourteen-year-old Jason says. “I’d been playing for a long time–I can’t even count.


All but two of the ten victims RFT interviewed were white (one was black and was Latino), and all of the players were black. But Knockout King does not appear to be bounded by race. Jason, from St. Louis County, says two white friends were part of his punch-out crew. {snip}

Rather than sweep the race issue under the rug, Saint Louis University criminologistNorman White says Knockout King should be viewed with a broader lens that captures the social disparities of the city. The issue, he says, is less about acts of physical violence than it is about the dearth of opportunities for disadvantaged–and mostly black–youth. He calls that population “our blind side.”