Knockout King: Kids call it a game. Academics call it a bogus trend. Cops call it murder.

The Nguyen attack in particular seems far removed from play activity, given the ages of the alleged attacker and the victim. Most kids say Knockout King mainly involves younger teens whose preferred punching bags are twenty- and thirtysomethings. Murphy is 18 (far stronger than a seventh grader), Nguyen, 72 (much frailer than most pedestrians).

Former player Brandon Demond says that during his Knockout King days, old men were off-limits. "The new generation is doing it stupid, 'cause they hit old heads," Brandon scoffs. "You're supposed to hit young people or people in their mid-twenties."

Fourteen-year-old Jason, too, was surprised when he heard about the attack on the Nguyens. "We ain't never hit no old person," he maintains, adding that killing isn't the purpose of Knockout King.

In the months that preceded the attack on the Nguyens, Elex Murphy (at Valley Springs Youth Ranch) had reinvented himself with falsehoods, telling acquaintances that his mother was dead, that he was from Atlanta and that he attended Washington University.
In the months that preceded the attack on the Nguyens, Elex Murphy (at Valley Springs Youth Ranch) had reinvented himself with falsehoods, telling acquaintances that his mother was dead, that he was from Atlanta and that he attended Washington University.

"That wasn't Knockout King," Brandon says of Hoang Nguyen's murder. "That was plain, straight-up dumb."

While some middle schoolers say Knockout King is still played around the city, crime statistics do not indicate it's a rising trend. None of the victims RFT interviewed was attacked during 2011; most incidents they described occurred during 2009 and 2010. Several sources point to one school, Alternative Education–South, in Carondelet, as a onetime Knockout King palace, but it shut its doors last year.

Nationally, youth violence is down significantly from previous years, while misdemeanor youth assaults have held reasonably steady, according to FBI data.

In response to a public-records request, St. Louis police provided Riverfront Times with spreadsheets containing complaint logs from September 2003 through May 2011. During that period there have been 1,315 instances in which a lone male was the victim of an assault perpetrated by one or more males aged sixteen or under. Victims ranged in age from 4 to 81; the median age was 24. Only 29 of the victims were over age 60.

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. One Dutchtown woman, agreeing to speak on the condition that her name not be published, says police caught her son, who is white, playing Knockout King two years ago, when he was sixteen. He and some friends had been hiding between buildings on Gravois Avenue, and he popped out to club a bicyclist who'd come rolling along.

"It's not a black thing, it's a kid thing," the woman says. "It's teenage kids trying to be cool. My son's as white as can be. He doesn't have a black bone in his body."

Rather than sweep the race issue under the rug, Saint Louis University criminologist Norman 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."

"It's the place we can make fun of and talk about, but not really pay attention to," says White. "I talk to my students in the context of it being like a Third World country. Until we recognize the magnitude of that deprivation, the crimes in this city won't get better."

Others agree that juvenile sucker punchers aren't the root of the problem. "Kids are stupid," says Melissa Sickmund, chief of systems research at the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Juvenile Justice, who doesn't seem fazed by a description of the phenomenon. "That's why we don't let them do things like sign contracts."

Chris Ferguson, of Texas A&M, isn't surprised by Knockout King either, but he cautions that such behavior shouldn't be considered normal. "People who assault strangers tend to be psychologically different from the average teen," Ferguson says. "In general they tend to have mental-health problems, particularly depression. They're not well-adjusted, they're not the physics majors taking time off from AP class to go beat people up. They're aware of the harm they're causing, but they just don't care."

At eighteen, Elex Murphy should have known better, agrees Sickmund. But she and others question whether the state's social-services system adequately did its job. "If he's spent the majority of his time in state custody, is the state not culpable for his behavior?" she asks. "Probably a little bit."

As a child growing up in the West End, Elex Murphy frequently got into fights at school. At twelve, his single mother, Anissa McCuller, turned him over to state custody. That same year he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which was treated with a cocktail of medications including lithium and antidepressants.

At group homes Murphy showed a different side, staying out of trouble for the most part and making several friends, who still portray him as a kindhearted, if conflicted, kid with creative talents, a love for animals and loyalty as a confidant.

"He was a pretty good guy, an honest guy," says Dakota Counts, who befriended Murphy at Valley Springs Youth Ranch in the eastern Ozark Mountains. "A lot of people with personal issues would talk to him. Socially, everyone got along with him."

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