Nate Jones knows what it takes to fight — and win. He’s the kid from Cabrini-Green who won two Golden Gloves heavyweight titles back-to-back and an Olympic bronze medal within three years of being released from prison.
“It’s fighting for your life,” Jones, 49, said as he stood outside the entrance of the Austin Boxing Club (ABC) where he now trains a new generation of athletes.
“Boxing was the only thing that made me feel special.”
As Jones talks about his journey through boxing, he often ties his memories back to his coach, Tom O’Shea. According to a 1996 Sports Illustrated story, Jones told writer Johnette Howard that O’Shea was a constant figure in his life. He met O’Shea when he was 9 years old, at a youth boxing club, the Matadors. Though Jones dropped out of the club and became involved with a gang, O’Shea stayed on him. And when Jones landed behind bars, O’Shea remained, writing letters, closing each one with “Stay off the ropes and out of the corners,” Howard reported.
“I miss him. … He taught me about life and boxing,” said Jones about O’Shea, who died in 2020 of COVID-19 during the first wave of the pandemic.
Inside the club, 5915 W. Division St. in the city’s Austin neighborhood, pictures of boxing legend Muhammad Ali and fight posters of local boxers hang on the brick walls next to signs that read “Unity in Community” and “Put the Guns Down.”
Many at ABC see Jones the same way he saw O’Shea. To them, he’s a living legend whose story feels all too familiar, and battle scars come with a plate of lessons. He’s a mentor, a cheerleader in the corner — the guy who isn’t afraid to say that your biggest opponent is yourself.
Those messages rang true for at least two ABC members, Zachary Harris and Gabe Ford.
“It kept me out of trouble,” Harris, 24, said. “I used to have anger problems as a kid and just having an outlet to relieve that stress, it just kept me out of trouble.”
A former basketball player, Harris said he was used to being on a team where he worked with others to reach common goals, but boxing was different. Inside the ring, it’s just him. Training for a match taught him discipline, consistency — to “[show] up every day.”
“It’s not giving up even when it’s hard and pushing yourself beyond your limits, always ready to go, always staying sharp,” said Harris, a 2015 graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School.
Gabe Ford, 16, echoed Harris. The OPRF junior, who is on the high school’s wrestling team, opened up about the way boxing has changed him. Though wrestling is an individual sport like boxing, Ford said that, as a wrestler, he only thought of himself — how he could get better.
“I rewatch the videos, see mistakes that I made and improve by my next match,” he said.
“With boxing, I do this for the community, and I’m also fighting for my family.”
Ford, who credited his teacher Anthony Clark for introducing him to ABC, said the club has given him the opportunity to think about the “good things I can do with boxing.”
Clark, who has known Jones for the last 20 years and grew up just blocks away from the club, said boxing was key to his health and well-being. It’s a sport he loved watching with his father and an activity he took up to stay in shape, but now it’s taken on a whole different meaning. The 39-year-old said boxing has become a tool to fight for his mental health.
“Boxing has saved my life,” Clark said.
Back in the club, by the front door, there is a sign on the floor, listing ABC’s rules. Most are standard, reminding fighters to drink “water only,” not bring food in the gym, and wipe down the equipment after use.
The last rule, however, stands out: “Leave your ego at the door.”
“When you come in here, no one [is] bigger than no one else. … This one-on-one time is about learning the game. It’s about learning life,” Jones said. “One thing I tell my fighters is you don’t lose. We call it an ‘L’ — a learning lesson.
“You showing up every day, you’re winning.”