When the final bell rang in Dylan Barber's fight at Way of the Warrior 2 on December 7, he looked at his trainer and took a sigh of relief.
Barber stood in the corner of the ring in front of a packed Broadway Ballroom, awaiting the results of his first-ever boxing match. At that moment, he was able to look back at his life and see how far he'd come.
The 26-year-old Alexandria resident has a troubled past. When he was a teenager, he dabbled with drugs that led to an opioid and methamphetamine addiction.
"I pretty much tried everything," Barber said. "When I was using, I wasn't with the best people. I was homeless at one point and didn't have contact with my family. I truly hit rock bottom."
Barber committed to getting clean when he was 21. He went to treatment before enrolling in the LifeRight Outreach program. It was then where he found his faith.
"We worked in groups and prayed a lot," he said. "I owe a lot of my recovery to God. I don't go to church as much as I would like to, but I feel a connection with my faith now that I didn't before. That's the best thing LifeRight did for me."
Barber got the helping hand he needed to get back on his feet. He moved in with a friend from the program before a tragedy sent him spiraling.
His roommate passed away in a fatal car accident. Shortly after, a different friend committed suicide. That's when Barber started abusing alcohol.
"I drank more and more each time. Then it became a problem," he said. "I had a good job that was accommodating. But it got to the point where they couldn't keep me there because of my drinking problem. It was a tough time for me."
After getting clean again, Barber started working his current job at Garfield Truss. However, he felt like he was missing something in his life.
"I had a coworker that wanted me to try this boxing gym with him. I didn't want to go, but I went because of him," Barber said. "I showed up, and he didn't. It was one of the best decisions of my life."
The gym was the Nordic Warriors Boxing Academy in downtown Alexandria. His skepticism turned into enthusiasm in a matter of one session. After strapping on the gloves for the first time, he was hooked.
"They took me in like I was one of their own," Barber said. "It has a family atmosphere, and they really supported me with the stuff I was going through. I was able to register as an amateur boxer within two months of training there."
One of the most significant differences Barber's training did for him was his weight loss. At one point, he was over 300 pounds. His cardio workouts in and out of the ring made him feel more comfortable in his own skin.
LifeRight was a place that helped Barber get back on his feet, but his trainer is a shoulder for him to lean on to keep him upright. Corey Thompson, the owner and operator of the gym, has gotten the most out of Barber in the short time he's been training.
"I look at Corey as more than a trainer. He's like a mentor to me," Barber said. "I've talked with him about some real-life stuff. He's also an incredible coach. I don't think I would've been ready to fight in under six months if it weren't for Corey."
Barber's rigorous training not only helped him stay clean for 18 months and counting but also earned him the chance to fight in a heavyweight bout against Chaz Stonez at Way of the Warrior 2.
"Doing to the fight was a big step for me because I also struggle with anxiety," Barber said. "I actually had a panic attack the day before. For me, the biggest win was stepping outside my comfort zone and getting in that ring in front of 800 people."
Barber landed several punches throughout the three-round fight. Stonez was able to counter with jabs of his own, but by the time the match ended, it was clear who the winner was.
"I kind of knew I won," Barber said. "I looked at Corey, and I could see it in his face that he knew I won. I didn't think it was going to be by a unanimous decision, but it was, and it was one of the best feelings in the world."
When Barber hit rock bottom, he didn't have a connection with his family. When the official raised his arm in the air declaring him the winner of his first match, his loved ones were there to see his triumph.
"Dylan's fight was amazing," Thompson said. "The guy made mistakes and really got his life together. Boxing has provided him with a positive outlet, and he's making the most of it. His family was there to watch his victory. He was so proud."
For Barber, boxing has given him stability. Not only for himself but for his family as well.
"I have a 15-year-old brother that had to watch me go through that stuff," Barber said. "I hated that he saw me like that. It means everything to me to be connected with my family. I proved that I am bigger than my problems, and I hope other people can too. Boxing has changed my life forever."