Ring big step up from cell Olympics: Ex-prison inmate Nate Jones walks straight-and-narrow path toward what he hopes is boxing medal.

July 06, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The little black-and-white television set in the community room of his cellblock provided his main source of contact with the outside world. It also turned out to be a magnetic field of dreams for boxer Nate Jones.

It was there that Jones watched the 1992 Olympics, specifically the boxing competition from Barcelona, Spain. "Believe it or not, there's a lot of talent in prison," Jones said recently. "Singers, basketball players, about anything you can imagine."

Jones couldn't really show off his abilities during a 20-month incarceration at the Western Illinois Correctional Institute, a maximum security prison where he was sent after being convicted of auto theft and armed robbery in 1991.

"They stopped having the boxing between different prisons, so all you could do was work out," said Jones, whose weight ballooned from middleweight (168 pounds) range to superheavyweight (240) while he was there. "It was hell being in there. I counted the hours until I got out. The day I got out was the happiest in my life."

But even the programs Jones experienced in prison, which included one that helped him get his high school equivalency diploma, didn't change him. He returned to his old neighborhood in Chicago and to the notorious Cabrini Green housing project in which he had grown up.

"I thought I was even slicker," said Jones.

So slick that he was charged with selling drugs within months of his release. He pleaded not guilty -- "I had a case," he said -- and received probation. The judge told him that if Jones violated the terms of his probation, he would be "put away for a long time."

It is now nearly two years later. Jones, 24, has lost much of the weight he gained in prison and most of the slickness, as well. He is living in Grand Rapids, Mich., and is living out the dream that was part of those endless days and nights in prison.

Nate Jones is going to fight in the Olympic Games.

With his victory in April at the U.S. Box-offs in Augusta, Ga., the 198-pound heavyweight earned his place on the American team headed this month to Atlanta. Jones said he can understand why some might think he shouldn't get that chance.

"I'm sorry for the things I've done," Jones said. "I learned that you can't take things that aren't yours, that you can't hurt people. I also learned that you don't have to be a product of your environment and get sucked into a situation."

But that is how Jones lived for much of his life, at least until he nearly went back to prison for the second time. Asked what types of illegal activities he was involved in, Jones said matter-of-factly, "Selling drugs, stealing, gang-banging. Trying to be slick."

With help from people outside his neighborhood, Jones started to turn his life around. A local coach, Tom O'Shea, brought him into his Matador Boxing Club and started to get him into shape.

When Jones began to spend too much time with his old friends in Cabrini Green, the uncle of fellow Olympic boxer Floyd Mayweather sent his nephew's coach to Chicago to bring Jones back to Grand Rapids.

"When I got there, Nate had been drinking," recalled Don Hale. "I turned around and drove home."

DTC A week later, Jones called Hale, who invited the boxer back to Michigan.

"He came in on a bus this time," said Hale, who runs a hair replacement business in Grand Rapids.

"When he got there, I told him that if he messed up one time, or if I thought he messed up one time, he was going back to Chicago. The thing I saw in Nate was he was way out of shape. The other thing I saw was that, despite being 23 years old, Nate wanted someone to care about him."

Jones is still not in the kind of shape necessary to survive several bouts in Atlanta. And there are still the temptations to go back to his old life.

"Any time I'm home can be tempting," said Jones, who goes back for short visits to see his mother, brother and 2-year-old twins. "Seeing the big cars, the money, you've got those temptations. But you know when to turn away."

Others have gone from prison to the pros, from a life behind bars to one of big riches. Jones sees what has happened to light heavyweight Bernard Hopkins, who spent five years in prison. He knows all about Mike Tyson.

"I can relate to what they've been through," Jones said.

Jones, whose style is reminiscent of James Toney's, has had limited international experience and, until recently, limited success. He lost a 6-4 decision to Cuban world and Olympic champion Felix Savon at a made-for-television event in Connecticut last November.

"I know I can fight with him," Jones said.

So does Al Mitchell.

"With the right bracket, he definitely can win a medal," Mitchell, the U.S. boxing coach, said this week. "He has a great attitude. He's put what happened in the past in back of him, and he goes forward every day."

Jones said he would like someday to meet the person whom he terrorized that night in Chicago five years ago. "I would like to apologize to him," said.

But there is no need to apologize for what he has become. The little kids of Cabrini Green who were told by their parents to stay away from Jones a few years ago now look up to him as a role model. The gang leaders also tell him to make them proud.

"They're still my friends," he said. "I don't turn my shoulder on friends."

He only hopes to turn his shoulder, and perhaps his back, on the past.

Pub Date: 7/06/96

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