By Rudy Mondragón
The night of the fight was finally here. July 30th marked the day that Jonathan Walley would raise his arms in victory. This was the plan. What transpired, however, was the beginning of Walley’s biggest pugilistic struggle.
I drove to Van Nuys early in the afternoon to pick up my tickets for the KO Boxing With The Stars event from Jonathan. Instead of receiving tickets from him, I was greeted at the door by his older brother. From the doorstep, I could hear Walley’s voice and the shower head running. I looked over to the bathroom window and saw an excessive amount of steam exiting. Jonathan was still trying to cut weight.
Unlike professionals, amateurs are expected to make weight the day of the fight. Rather than resting, focusing, and relaxing before his fight, Walley was forcing his body to make weight to remain eligible for his evening contest. Jonathan’s day started with a 6am run in the gym while wearing his sauna suit. After his run, he went into the jacuzzi and steam room to force himself to sweat some more. He then went home for a nap and when he woke up, he went straight to the bathroom to create a steam room like environment in his home (this is when I came to pick up the tickets). Next, Walley showered to freshen up, put his sauna suit back on, and went back to the gym for another run. From the gym, he walked home (3 mile walk) in his sauna suit under the summer sun to sweat off more weight. On top of all this work, Jonathan still had to fight.
I arrived to Los Angeles Valley College and found a seat in the old school wooden bleachers of this community college’s basketball gym. It definitely was a night of stars, as notable figures were in attendance. Obba Babatunde (The Notebook, John Q, and Philadelphia), Laila Ali, and Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav to name a few. Amongst the stars were parents, family members, and friends supporting the many amateurs who were scheduled to fight that night.
After a couple of exciting matches, it was time for Jonathan to fight. Originally scheduled as the co-main event attraction, there were some last minute schedule changes that moved up Walley’s fight sooner than expected. Obba Babatunde, the emcee for the night, announced Jonathan, prompting his entrance to the ring. Nothing happened. The crowd looked towards the locker room entrance, but Jonathan was not walking out. After a second announcement by Babatunde, Walley finally appeared. He seemed to be in a rush, still trying to put on his head gear for the fight. From my perspective, it seemed like something was off. Walley looked physically ready to fight, but looked flustered and mentally uncomfortable.
Jonathan fought three hard rounds. At times it seemed like his mind was working faster than his body, not being able to execute his game plan, falling short of his abilities and skills as a counter-puncher with power. Maybe the hard work to make weight over-fatigued him, or the schedule change threw him off mentally. Whatever it was, Walley was not performing like his usual athletic, skilled, and intellectual self. Something definitely wasn’t right.
The final bell rang and it was time to hear the judge’s decision. It was a close fight. Judge’s scorecards called for a split decision, in favor of his opponent, Ivan Beltran. This wasn’t what Jonathan envisioned. He came to win, yet the reality, on this night, was Jonathan experiencing his first career defeat.
Boxing is not like any team sport. Boxers don’t compete in three-game series or on a weekly basis. On a sports team, you have a collective community you compete with and a shorter amount of time to think of defeat as you are expected to get back on the court/field to perform. For Jonathan, athletes in team sports have “shorter memories of defeat.” He states that in boxing, you are alone and therefore, “you hold on to that shit.” This is what I call the arc of redemption* in boxing, which is the traumatic time a boxer experiences between defeat and their next match. For boxers, the arc of redemption can last months, even years, before they are able to step back in the ring to correct their career paths.
I sat down with Jonathan five months after his first career defeat. For the most part, he was in high spirits and energized every room we walked into. As we began our conversation, the first thing Jonathan shared with me about his defeat was that going into the fight, he felt he was better than his opponent and that he did not expect to lose. He went from being a confident fighter to all of a sudden feeling emotionally drained and alone.
He originally had plans to hang out with friends after his fight. He felt that things changed as a result of losing. “I lost and then there was no party… there was no party… everyone went out to eat and my phone was dry as fuck.” At one point, Walley questioned whether his friends would have given him love had he won. Maybe his friends just didn’t know how to support him at this crucial moment in his life. Either way, Jonathan’s mind, the mind of a fighter, went towards a dark space where loneliness sank in, and feelings of abandonment felt real. Jonathan occupied a mental space at the extremes of sadness and anger.
The days that followed were extremely difficult on his overall wellbeing. He had a hard time sleeping, didn’t want to talk to anyone, and despite draining himself to make weight for his fight, Walley did not have an appetite. Jonathan explained to me that, being the food lover that he is, it was especially difficult feeling hungry and not having a desire for a meal.
In an effort to turn his struggles into a positive, Jonathan decided to leave the state of California to get away. At this stage, Walley was avoiding people and wanted to process defeat in isolation. When people asked where he was, he would tell them he was in Las Vegas, including me. The reality however, was that he was in Arizona reflecting on his defeat and life.
Even though he wanted to be alone to process, Jonathan realized that he needed words of affirmation and validation from his loved ones to help him overcome this vulnerable period of his life. Although he did receive some, he also recalls the negative energy he felt from his critics and the silent voices around him. “It wasn’t about the things they could’ve told me,” Jonathan said, “it was more the things that was said not to me, and then, the things that wasn’t said at all.” In other words, Jonathan found out people turned on him and spoke negatively about him behind his back. He also wished people would have been more vocal and attentive about his struggle instead of remaining silent.
Although Walley feels like he has learned from his first defeat, he doesn’t feel like he will ever fully recover from it. When it comes to experiencing his first defeat, Jonathan feels that “you can’t play it off and say you don’t care.” Defeat in a boxing context is still a new thing for him and a day doesn’t go by that he doesn’t think about it. He had a tentative match scheduled for the end of January, but with the unstable nature of amateur boxing, that fight was called off, further prolonging Walley’s opportunity at redemption.
In the mean time, Walley has to sit with the thought of his first defeat for six months, maybe more, before he can step back in the ring for his chance at redemption. What does a boxer do during that long time frame to physically, mentally, and spiritually heal? Talking about it with people is a good start. Talking about defeat and the emotional rollercoaster one goes through is not a sign of weakness. If anything, it is a sign of strength. Strength because Jonathan displayed vulnerability in sharing this experience of struggle with me. Opening up to one person about hardship is a brave act, but a willingness to share one’s story of defeat with the rest of the world is a manifestation of courage.
Jonathan’s road to recovery is embodied in stic.man’s hip hop track titled, Joe Louis from The Workout album. This track is about the famous black boxer, Joe Louis, who is considered one of the best heavyweights of all-time. One of the bars in this song states, “If you stay ready, you ain’t got to get ready,” which is what I see Walley doing as he waits for his next scheduled match. That is what he knows best. Staying in the gym keeps him feeling alive, ready, and prepared in case he is asked to fight on short notice. At this point, to overcome this difficult phase in his career, Jonathan manifests stic.man’s lyrical hook in Joe Louis: “I train to live, I live to train. It’s go hard or go home, no pain, no gain.” There is no quit in this young man. Healing through boxing and training is a one day at a time process.
As difficult as it was for Walley to open up, what I admired the most was that he made no excuses of his defeat nor belittled his opponent. He respects the decision. He respects Ivan Beltran. He accepts defeat and welcomes the ups and downs that come with it. One things for sure, Walley is eager and ready to rise up again.
*Special thanks to Dr. Samantha Sheppard for helping me think through this idea of temporal struggle in boxing to construct the concept of boxing’s arc of redemption.
The photos below are of Jonathan Walley training at the Roy Jones Jr. Fight Academy in Las Vegas, Nevada the morning before our conversation