He could be Philly’s next great boxer.
For anyone used to the Mike Tysons, the Floyd Mayweathers, the B-Hops of the world, Jones’ attitude might seem unusual. It’s definitely refreshing. Jones is soft-spoken, friendly and exceedingly humble. He’s a Philly guy through and through, content to be a regular Joe with blue-collar sensibilities. Until last year, he worked part-time as a forklift operator at a Home Depot in Cherry Hill, N.J. Now that fight paydays have gotten better, boxing has become his full-time profession, and he treats it like any other job. “You gotta show up, work hard, do what you’re supposed to, listen to what people tell you to do,” he says. “A lot of people count on you.”
When he’s not training at Joe Hand Boxing Gym in Northern Liberties, or going for a run on Kelly Drive, Jones is a virtual hermit, holing up in his Frankford home. Family is everything to Jones. He says a perfect day is hanging out on the couch watching TV with his two daughters from a previous relationship—7-year-old Myana and 5-year-old Alyza. He also helps look after his father, Mike Sr., who suffers from diabetes and has had two strokes in recent years, keeping him mostly confined to bed in the Mt. Airy home where Jones was raised. Jones says his freakishly strict diet and fitness regimen, which keeps him at the 147-pound limit to fight as a welterweight, is also partly influenced by watching what his dad’s gone through. “I’d eat right and train hard even if I wasn’t into boxing, ’cause I want to be alive and healthy for a long time.”
It was his lone-wolf attitude, and his dad’s encouragement, that got Jones into boxing in the first place. He mostly played basketball as a kid, but at 15 he began to crave the one-on-one nature of boxing. “You’re responsible for yourself. There’s nowhere to hide, there’s no timeouts. You’re gonna win or you’re gonna lose,” says Jones. He starts to laugh. “I was trying to burn off some of that teenage anger, too. Turn the aggression into something beautiful.”
Jones asked his father to take him over to Joe Frazier’s Gym on North Broad Street so he could learn how to box. “He said, ‘If you wanna fight, then you gotta get on the bus and come down here and train hard every day and get ready for these fights and fight your heart out.’ So that’s what I did.”
Frazier and his son, Marvis, trained the young Jones to punch, and punch hard—the same bruising style that helped the elder Frazier become heavyweight champ. But they also wanted him to skip amateurs and turn pro while he was still a teenager. “[Jones] said he wasn’t ready for that ... so he left,” says Nowicki. Jones pursued amateur boxing, fighting 70 times and amassing a record of about 60-10, he estimates. Three years after graduating from Martin Luther King High, he decided to go pro, and linked up with Nowicki, Jackson and Peltz. “One of the first things I said to him was, ‘I hope you’re not one of the guys who wants to rush to the top—I want you to get seasoned, and you’ll always be put in with someone who’ll make you fight,’” says Nowicki.
Jackson taught Jones how to really box, to augment the hard punch he’d picked up from the Fraziers. “He had the skills, the body frame ... he’s strong, he’s got heart, good habits,” says Jackson. “He learned quick.”
Jones says it’s the nuances of the sport that he appreciates the most. “Boxing is a real art. The idea is not to just go in there and slug and get all crazy MMA [mixed martial arts] style. You’re supposed to think in there, you’re supposed to paint a picture in there, and that’s what I try to do.”
Still, he’s as visceral a boxer as he is cerebral. Jones’ first pro fight was a slated four-round affair at New Alhambra (now South Philly Arena) a week before Christmas 2005. He was 22. His opponent was Jason Thompson, a Golden Gloves winner from New York. “It was unreal,” Jones says of the night. “When I got in [the ring] it felt like I was exploding—all that energy and emotion, the butterflies, the first time being in there. I was like a caged lion walking back and forth.”
“[Thompson] came down with piss and vinegar,” says Nowicki. “He had no idea who Mike Jones was.” Jones knocked Thompson out in the second round for his first win. “Then the word was, ‘Whoa, who’s Mike Jones?’” says Nowicki. Jones scored knockouts in all but one of his next 11 fights. He fought in Las Vegas, in Niagara Falls, in Washington State, and by 2009 Jones was fighting (and winning) regularly in Atlantic City, with almost all of his wins coming by way of knockout.
His biggest test came last November, when he fought Jesus Soto-Karass in a featured undercard match before the Manny Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito title fight at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. There were 40,000 fans in attendance—by far the biggest crowd Jones had ever fought in front of—and millions more watching on HBO pay-per-view. He wanted to make a statement that night, to show the world who Mike Jones was, and in the second round he thought he had Soto-Karass hurt and primed for an electrifying knockout.
Jones pounced on his opponent with several stinging combinations, got him against the ropes, and wailed on him for a good minute, landing close to 60 punches as the crowd roared. But the notoriously tough Soto-Karass, who’d never been knocked out in his 33-fight career, somehow withstood the barrage, and Jones eventually ran out of gas, unable to throw a punch. His corner was furious at him—they’d instructed him to methodically break down Soto-Karass instead of go for the quick kill. Sapped of energy, he’d have to find a way to get through the next eight rounds and maintain his undefeated record. “I was pretty much a dead man walking,” Jones recalls. “I had nothing, had no legs at all.”
But he dug deep and managed to get his second wind by the 7th round, and ultimately won a controversial majority decision, infuriating Soto-Karass, who later called it “robbery.”
“Oh man, it was a big relief,” Jones says of the win. “After that I was like, never again, I’ll never be that stupid. But I think every fighter has to go through something like that to become a great fighter, you know?”
Due to the controversy, Jones quickly granted Soto-Karass a rematch in Las Vegas in February. The 12-round affair went the distance—Jones again came out victorious, waging a much more poised fight as he bloodied Soto-Karass en route to a unanimous decision.
Nigel Collins, editor-in-chief of Ring Magazine, says he was impressed with Jones’ growth between the two Soto-Karass fights. “He was very lucky to get the decision in the first one, but he dominated the rematch, and that shows improvement and potential,” says Collins. But, like some other boxing pundits, Collins is skeptical of Jones’ prowess since he’s yet to fight any Top 10 welterweight talent—formidable foes like Andre Berto or Shane Mosley, or Britain’s Kell Brook. “Until he steps up to fight legitimate contenders it’s hard to assess how good Mike really is,” says Collins. “It’s kind of ridiculous to talk about fighting Pacquiao until then.”
Jones says he’s eager to take on some of those big-name boxers. “I wanna fight these guys that the world wants to see me fight. I’m not scared of anybody. “
Nowicki says he’d like to get Jones in the ring with top contenders, too, in order to build up his global name recognition and, ultimately, his marketability and viability as far as challenging a guy like Pacquiao in a big-money, pay-per-view title fight. But landing those build-up fights, says Nowicki, isn’t easy, in part because of Jones’ significant height advantage over most welterweights. “If [other promoters are] building their guy up, they don’t want to put them in with someone like Mike, who’s a threat to knock them off and damage their chances of a title fight,” says Nowicki.
Savage Love: Sondheim is solace