Malik Jackson and Shawn Simpson are going the distance, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
In the latest installment of their 144-pound grudge match, Jackson and Simpson staged another outsized performance Saturday afternoon at the USA Boxing National Championships at Northern Quest.
As he did a year ago, Jackson earned a split decision over Simpson and another national title. And just as they did last year, elation and dejection soon gave way to introspection.
After all, the road to Rio is a marathon, and the nationals only a measuring stick. Until they meet again.
“I felt like I won,” said Simpson, a 20-year-old from Chicago. “As you could see, I was very mad after the fight, but I’m cool now. I just need to throw more punches.”
And even with a gold medal hanging around his neck, Jackson felt the weight of expectation: this time he was the favorite, and admittedly came into the bout a bit tight.
“I felt this year was even closer than last year, and he did a good job,” said Jackson. “I knew what he was going to do, but I couldn’t time it right. I have to work on my timing.”
Not that the fans minded the non-stop action. The wild swings and near misses drew the biggest crowd reaction of the 10 bouts in Saturday’s afternoon session at the Northern Quest Pavilion. Even as Jackson and Simpson twice hit the ground, hundreds of fans rose to their feet.
“We’re the biggest rivalry here,” Simpson said. “I’m glad the crowd liked it.”
In contrast to last year, when Simpson was the crowd favorite, the fans were split. As was the decision, one of several.
As the crowd hushed, confidence gave way to nerves as the score was tabulated.
“Worried? I was a lot worried,” said Jackson’s coach, Tony Simmons. “I like the little kid (Simpson), but I thought my kid won the fight.”
Next up for Jackson: the Independence Cup next month in the Dominican Republic. The title is fitting for Jackson, who graduated from high school in Washington, D.C., only last year.
“I’m becoming a man, I’m doing things on my own,” Jackson said. “If it wasn’t for boxing, I wouldn’t be catching a plane on my own.”
Not that he hasn’t gotten help on the way. His mother introduced him to the sport partly because his uncle was a boxing coach. “Sports were hard because of my size,” Jackson said. “But in boxing you’re facing someone your own size.”
Early setbacks fueled his drive. After a first-round loss in the 2009 Silver Gloves, Jackson took the lessons to heart. “He’s a hard worker and a good listener,” Simmons said. “And a great kid.”
Meanwhile, Simpson was visibly upset after Saturday’s split decision, but then this was his third straight loss in the national finals. Two years ago he fell one bout short of a spot in the London Olympics, even while struggling to make weight as a 106-pounder.
He, too, has come a long way.
A few years ago, the boxing gym was merely a safe refuge from the streets of Chicago. His father and brother were boxers, and they saw promise in Shawn.
“I just saw if I had a future in it, that I could be good,” Simpson said. “That made me stay with it.”
And with the Olympics just two years away, nothing will change.