Nicholas Jefferson was eight years old when he first walked through the doors of the Al Davies Boys and Girls Club, home of the Tacoma Boxing Club, just as Olympic and world champions – Leo Randolph, Sugar Ray Seales and Johnny Bumphus, to drop a few names – had as kids before him.
It’s an old story. Boy laces on gloves, boy falls in love.
“Man, you can get in a fight and not get in trouble?” he marveled. “Where do I sign up?”
Now, a good many of those old love stories don’t have legs. Boxing careers get derailed by the first punch to the face, the first set of wheels, friends, school, jobs or, alas, jail. Not to mention for-real love.
Nicholas Jefferson seems to be one of those boxers who understands that going the distance takes more than just the punch-lust that brings most of them through the door, and the dream – of Olympic gold or professional riches – that eventually takes hold. In that respect, Tom Mustin’s message must be getting through.
In his 41 years as a coach at TBC, Mustin has seen hundreds come, stay, go and come back again, and has seen his club go from a hub in producing champions for a thriving American amateur boxing culture to just another outpost trying to fix What Went Wrong.
The next stab at that comes Monday with the opening of the 2014 USA Boxing National Championships, set for a six-day run at the HUB Sports Center and Northern Quest Casino.
Among his many distinctions, Mustin was head coach of the 2000 U.S. Olympic boxing team, the last group of American fighters to claim more than two medals. The nadir, of course, came in 2012, when no U.S. male medaled, and only a gold by Claressa Shields and a bronze by Marlen Esparza in the fledgling women’s program prevented a shutout.
From Mustin’s vantage point, ability isn’t necessarily the issue.
“I think the talent is at the level (it was in the 1990s),” he said, “but the thing I saw was, too many different coaches have their hands in it. If we could get people on the same page, I don’t think we’d have the problems that we have had.”
As USA Boxing tries to address that issue, clubs like Mustin’s tackle it at a grassroots level – by trying to keep their young boxers on the same page, and in the gym.
Finding more Nick Jeffersons would be a start.
Mustin has been in his corner for 13 years now, ever since Jefferson followed his brother to TBC, unaware of the stature of the coach or anything other than the wonder of not just being allowed to mix it up, but encouraged.
“Not saying I was constantly getting in fights,” Jefferson said. “But it wasn’t long before I discovered the greatness of doing something you actually love and take pride in and work hard for.”
Not that it’s been a steady line on the old progress graph.
“Like a lot of guys, when he got into that 14-to-16 age, they get other interests – like girls,” Mustin said, “and they don’t train as hard. But by the time he was 17, he started wanting to be a winner again. And when that happens, you have yourself a pretty good boxer.”
Some of that promise was realized in Spokane last year when he won the silver medal in the light welterweight division, dropping a 2-1 decision to Jose Alday of Odessa, Texas. His reward: a trip to the World Combat Games in St. Petersburg, Russia, and a bronze medal in his first international event.
He has no intention of it being his last. Though he’s 21 and holds down a full-time job as a janitor at Medline Industries, he’s in no hurry to make this a paying gig.
“Nothing I’ve done in 13 years says I’m a pro – I haven’t accomplished anything yet,” he said. “When I was 15, I told myself I wanted to be No. 1 in this sport – not the pros, this. I’m going to the Olympics. I know I can make it.”
If so, he’ll revive a great Tacoma legacy launched by the likes of Seales and Randolph, both gold medalists, along with Olympic team members Davey Lee Armstrong and Bumphus.
“That would be nice,” he said. “We’ve lost a lot of fighters. A lot of times, we have great potential fighters in our area, but a lot of people don’t want to put in the effort. In this sport, it’s all on you. Don’t say you want it and then mess around. I’m still a young guy and I like to have fun – go hang out, whatever. But you learn that being young isn’t an excuse to be dumb.”
Not with a legend in your corner.