Starting Out: A Young Boxer’s Story
To follow the career of a young promising boxer is to be an eyewitness to history at its inception. It is to be a privileged observer of the forces that shape a young fighter’s life long before it is touched by the trappings of success, or sullied by the disappointments of defeat. A boxer’s beginning will always be that one thing that helps explain how he carries himself through the dramatic twists and turns of a professional prizefighter’s career.
Such is the purpose of this series on Jude Franklin, an undefeated lightweight from Brooklyn, New York, who, at 22 years old, is looking to break into the top ranks. Franklin’s story is every boxer’s story. Boxers’ careers begin long before they are exposed to the glitter of stardom and the glare of media lights. Boxing careers are built on long years of training and sacrifice that are rarely documented, and hardly understood outside boxing gyms. Franklin’s story will be told over four weeks of preparing for a scheduled May 20 bout in Raleigh, North Carolina, each week giving a glimpse of the life of a young boxer on the cusp of a career milestone.
Four Weeks to Fight Night
It is April 22, nearly four weeks to fight night. Franklin’s trainer and manager, Elmo Serrano, arranged for me to meet with Franklin at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. It is two days short of a full month before the No Turning Back World Championships in North Carolina and I was curious how he was feeling. As it turns out, it’s also the 14th month anniversary of his pro boxing career.
“Does it feel like only yesterday? Or does it feel like forever?” I ask.
“It feels like yesterday,” he says after a short pause. “It feels like yesterday because I still have the same feelings, the butterflies (in my stomach), my heart pounding, as in my first fight.”
Franklin’s first year as a pro boxer has been nothing but promising. Since his pro debut in February 2016, he has maintained a perfect 6–0–0 record, with five knockouts. Boxing fans love a knockout, but the fighter who does it carries it in his heart forever. And thanks to larger smartphone memories, he shows me a video of his favorite fight, a first-round knock out of his third opponent.
What would make this record even sweeter is a chance to fight in New York again. He points out the fight poster of his fight in Queens on April 9, 2016, his second professional bout, and his only fight in his home city to date. The goal is to fight in New York again, but it has been challenging to get an undercard slot. New York state’s insurance requirements have shut out smaller sized boxing promoters and, effectively, young boxers who are starting out in the pro ranks and are not yet backed by well-funded promoters.
In the meantime, he prepares for his seventh professional bout at the Raleigh Convention Center in North Carolina on May 20. It is intended to be a Universal Boxing Federation (UBF) title fight and would be a milestone in his young career. His fight posters are already out, but he is yet to find out his opponent.
“People don’t understand that you gotta prepare mentally and physically for your opponent,” Franklin said. In training camp, a fighter and his coach tailor preparations based on the opponent’s style. Sparring sessions are arranged with partners with the same fighting style and athletic attributes as that of the challenger. But without knowing whom he will be fighting against, Franklin will have to train for all types of boxers.
Uncertainty is a reality in a young boxer’s career. Undercard fights can take time to be matched, leaving fighters in suspense. An undercard bout can be finalized as late as the week before a fight. Even more frustrating is the possibility of opponents pulling out in the last minute, forcing the cancellation of the bout.
But in a way, Franklin is luckier than some because he got to fight every two or three months since going pro. Others train for fights that may not come, and trying to remain in fighting shape at all times can drain even the most motivated boxer.
A Life in Training
The boxing gym is a boxer’s second home; fellow boxers and trainers become the second family. Franklin has trained at Gleason’s for six years and says he is happy there. It has given him more experience and exposure to high quality fights. As he starts shadow boxing, another boxer offers him an energy drink. People come up to chat during the one-minute break between rounds. A trainer wraps his hands. A friend takes a video of his bag work for social media.
As he pounds a heavy bag, two trainers come up like uncles keeping a watchful eye on a nephew while his dad is away. One tells him to tighten and shorten his uppercuts. They also get him to do more lateral movements and create more angles. All great boxers have mastered the art of creating angles. Manny Pacquiao throws punches at the weirdest angles, knocking some opponents along the way. Guillermo Rigondeaux’s pivots left the former pound-for-pound king Nonito Donaire out of balance and punching at shadows.
Boxing is a discipline of routine and repetitions; each repetition intended to instill muscle memory. It demands the strongest of emotional, mental and physical commitment to master the sweet science and produce winning results. For this reason, boxers, especially those in training camp, live close to a monastic life. “Boxing is the only thing he does,” Serrano, his trainer for the last eight years, told me a couple of weeks ago.
While young men his age hang out with friends and girls, Franklin typically spends three hours in the gym, and then goes home to rest in the afternoon. Repeat for six times a week. This routine amounts to 18 hours a week, 72 hours per month, and 860 training hours a year, at the minimum. When he is in training camp, training time increases.
The time spent in the gym does not even include his daily cardio routine.
“Why do you run at midnight?” I ask.
It started as a form of competition. “While he (the opponent) is sleeping, I’m working,” he explains. It eventually became second nature. He gets up at midnight, literally, runs to Williamsburg and back, then goes back to sleep.
“When I run at midnight, there’s no one around, the streets are quiet. It’s calm, it’s me and the streets.”
Keep calm, stay loose. This is something one hears from boxing trainers all the time. It’s easier said than done, but it pays dividends. And Franklin says keeping calm is the biggest lesson he has learned in his first year in pro boxing. “When you’re tense, you get tired, the punches don’t come out,” he says. “Calm is king.”
It is an important lesson in a sport where an athlete is expected to demonstrate skills in front of people who will examine his every move, judge his every punch, and witness either his triumph or annihilation. The fear of being hurt in front of an audience can paralyze even the most highly trained fighter.
But this is boxing, the so-called hurt business, and getting hit is half of the game. “You just have to embrace it,” Franklin says. “Once you embrace it, you can cope with it a little better. If you think there’s a chance I’m gonna get hit, then you know what to expect, and its not as bad.”
At one point during his routine, we start talking shop.
“Did you hear about Broner getting arrested?” I ask.
Adrian Broner, a four-division title-holder, was arrested in Kentucky on April 21. Broner is no stranger to controversy, his talents eclipsed by a rap sheet of robbery and assault charges as well as silly on-ring antics. But because boxing has been forgiving of brutes, he continues to be offered opportunities that other young boxers like Franklin are fighting for.
“I want to make a difference in the sport,” Franklin says. “I don’t want to be public enemy.”
By talking about the latest eye sore in boxing, we end up reflecting on legacy. Boxing is a sport where legacies live on for much longer than a fighter’s career. Boxers create legacies unique to their generation and Franklin’s desire to inspire and make a positive impact on boxing is the voice of a millennial.
You may dismiss it the idealism of youth, or you may also view it as respect for the sport. At 27, Broner too is a millennial, but unless he shifts gears, he is dangerously close to leaving a legacy of being “The Problem” in more ways than one.
Franklin wraps up a light morning training session shortly before noon. The next day, Sunday, is a well-deserved rest day after a hard training week. By next week, he hopes to find out who his opponent is. If that happens, the uncertainty ends and training camp truly begins.
(Also published in The Grueling Truth)