If it weren't for the stories he tells about himself, the only
giveaway about Nate Jones's past would be the ugly,
half-dollar-sized scar that's visible on his left shoulder blade
when he boxes. "Gunshot wound?" he is asked.
"Knife fight," he says with a shrug.
Jones is 23. He never thought he would live this long. But here
he is in Atlanta, the U.S. entry in the Olympic heavyweight
boxing division, with a second-round bout today against Fola
Okesola of Great Britain at Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Felix
Savon, Cuba's five-time world champion, is favored to repeat as
the heavyweight gold medalist, but Jones, at 6 feet, 201 pounds,
is undaunted. He stood up to the powerful 6'6" Savon in a dual
meet last November and kept after him before losing a decision.
He has heard the whispers of boxing cognoscenti who say the ring
wars are finally catching up to Savon, now 28. And remember
this: Nate Jones has surprised people before.
Growing up in the grim Cabrini-Green projects on the west side
of Chicago, Jones didn't see boxing as some stairway out of the
hell he was living through. Not at first. He and his twin
sister, Natalie, were born in the seventh-floor apartment they
grew up in because Christine Jones thought there wasn't time to
get to the nearest hospital to have her 10th and 11th children.
The lullabies Jones heard were wailing sirens and the crack of
July 24, 1996
By the time he was a teenager, Jones had lost one best friend in
a fatal shooting. Another had gone to prison for murder. Jones's
father, Henry Johnson, left the family when Nate was 12, came
back when Nate was 14 and then died 18 months later from
complications related to diabetes. One of Nate's older brothers,
Thomas, who had moved out of the projects, returned for a day,
oddly insisted on an impromptu family party--then killed himself
two days later with a shotgun. "He'd just found out he had
cancer," Nate says.
The high-rise Jones lived in was controlled by a gang called the
Cobra Stones. He joined the gang in 1987. "Coming into my
building we had to have flashlights and guns because we never
knew who was in there," Jones says. "The other gangs would come
in when nobody was around and lurk in the dark hallway, waiting.
They'd ambush you just for the hell of it. Or payback, I guess.
I did the shooting and all that, but I never hit anyone--not
that I know of. Where I grew up, that was all routine."
And boxing? That was just something Jones was good at before he
became a gang member. He dropped out of a youth boxing club, the
Matadors, after he started doing odd jobs for drug dealers and
heisting cars. He would hurry a stolen car over to a chop shop,
pocket the cash and still have time for a night on the town.
In conversation, Jones volunteers unforgiving details like that
all the time--the folly of his choices ("I was stupid"), the
20-month sentence he began serving at 18 for robbery and car
theft. He watched the 1992 Olympic Games on a black-and-white TV
at the Western Illinois Corrections Center. When light
heavyweight Montell Griffin appeared on the screen, Jones
exclaimed, "Hey! I used to box with him!" Another inmate
replied, "Man, shut up."
While he was in prison, Jones completed his general equivalency
degree and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. But when he
was released in May 1993, he says, his attitude was: "I'm going
to keep doing the same old things--just better. Then five months
later I caught a drug [dealing] case, pled guilty, got probation."
That brush with a second trip to prison--he couldn't shake the
memory of jail doors slamming behind him, "that clang. I hated
that"--made him realize he had erred when he gave up the
Matadors for the Cobra Stones four years earlier. Every so often
he would run into his former coach, Tom O'Shea, an imperturbable
Irishman who learned the sweet science from priests in Dublin.
O'Shea would always say, "Don't throw your life away, Nate. Come
Jones was nine when he first met O'Shea, who on weekends drove
10 to 20 of the Matadors to far-flung tournaments in a donated
van with a leaky windshield. The coach was disappointed when
Jones quit the club, but he remained steadfastly loyal to him,
once testifying on Jones's behalf and writing to him after he
went to prison. "He'd write things, just touching things, things
that made me think," Jones says. "At the end of each letter he'd
write, 'Stay off the ropes and out of the corners.'" To Jones,
who wrote back faithfully and "felt like a nobody" coming out of
prison, the faint echo of how good he had felt when he had boxed
for O'Shea struck a chord.
It was a start.
Though O'Shea and two of his younger brothers each won Golden
Gloves national titles after moving to the U.S. in 1953, he is a
teacher at heart. He taught English literature full time for 27
years before retiring in 1993. In many ways, he's an iconoclast.
Three months ago at the U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials in Oakland,
the 58-year-old coach padded around the arena in knockoff
Birkenstock sandals and a faded Earth, Wind and Fire T-shirt. He
carried the cornerman's usual tools of the trade--spit bucket in
one hand, white towel slung over one shoulder. But engage him in
a philosophical discussion and he's liable to cite existential
theory or quote anyone from Shakespeare to Hemingway, Joseph
Campbell to Jake LaMotta. He has the patient smile of a man who
has seen a lot yet remained sweetly uncynical.
"You know how Campbell says, 'Follow your bliss'? Well, this is
my bliss," O'Shea says. Told that his boxers all say his
integrity is unimpeachable, he shrugs and says, "Well, they know
I'm strictly amateur boxing. I don't take any money. And I won't
go with them to the pros. To me, boxing is more than clubbing
people or making money. It teaches kids good, healthy living.
It's good men sitting around the gym and talking about life.
We're all out there swinging at something."
Jones was just a third-grader, bright and precocious and already
headstrong, when he first walked into the Matadors' gym. "By the
time Nate was nine or 10, you could see the streets were already
pulling at him," O'Shea says. "In the last 10, 11 years, we've
had nine boxers killed. Nate easily could've been among them. I
remember many times when he'd stop by the gym after running the
streets all night. He'd tell me, 'O'Shea, I almost went off the
deep end last night.'"
In many ways Jones is typical of the kids the Matadors attract.
"They've usually been through a lot at home," O'Shea says.
"They've been hurt, and they have low esteem. They tend to be
loners, mavericks. They feel stupid or left out or angry. They
may struggle in school. Then they find this something they want
to do, they work at it and do well, and it changes many of their
"They're called out to the center of the ring, people clap for
them as their hand is raised, and these kids feel this
magnificent thing has happened to them--they find love. There's
no team captain saying, 'We all did it together, guys.' In
boxing, you're alone. Victory for boxers is that much sweeter."
O'Shea sees that sense of gratification in his fighters all the
time. And he sees it now in Jones.
Jones won the 1994 Golden Gloves heavyweight national title just
11 months after his prison release. Few people knew that he had
come home weighing a corpulent 240 pounds, and he spent the
first two months of training, he says, "getting beat up every
day" by 178-pound Anthony Stewart, who hits like a sledgehammer
and came close to making the U.S. Olympic team himself.
"There were many days when Anthony would dig a punch in Nate's
fat stomach, and Nate would drop to one knee," O'Shea says.
"We'd have to stop. Wait. Nate would walk around the ring until
he could spar again." But Jones persevered.
In '95 he added another Golden Gloves title, and last April he
entered the Olympic trials as the nation's top-ranked amateur
heavyweight. His opponent in the final was a recent nemesis,
Davarryl Williamson, who in January had denied Jones a third
straight Golden Gloves title, but by the end of the second round
Jones could hardly contain his excitement. "I told O'Shea, 'I'm
winning!' and he said, 'Just keep doing what you're doing,
Nate,'" Jones recalls. "So I said it again: 'I'm winning! I'm
winning!' And O'Shea still wouldn't say it. But I could tell he
wanted to. So I kissed him. Kissed him right on the cheek."
Jones did win, advancing to the Olympic Box-offs in Augusta two
weeks later. After he clinched his Olympic berth, by decisioning
Williamson again, Jones leaped for joy in the ring. Then he
bear-hugged O'Shea and told him, "I did it for you."
"No, Nate, it's for you," O'Shea said. "A lot of people didn't
believe in you. So that was for you, Nate. And there's more."
That is how O'Shea and Jones wound up in Atlanta for this one
Olympic run--the boxing coach from across the sea and the street
kid who stepped out of the shadows that still threaten to
swallow him. Jones is too brutally honest to declare all his
troubles behind him just because he made the Olympic team. He
still fears the pull of easy money, the whispered entreaties
from old friends. Occasional work as a club deejay is the only
real job he has ever had. He sometimes has spasms of shame about
Moments after he made the Olympic team, Jones stood in a hallway
of the arena and emotionally murmured, "I don't deserve this, I
don't deserve this. I didn't sacrifice enough." It is only now
beginning to dawn on Jones that, already, he has done a
He mentions the hundreds of boxers who have been Matadors. He
knows that somewhere nine tombstones mark the graves of kids who
passed through the same gym that he did. And he says, "No matter
what happens from now on, I can always say I gave O'Shea his
He is asked if he can think of anything that could keep him
straight in the days ahead. All he says is, "This."