A puncher’s chance for Olympic glory

Joyner, Barnes head up ambitious Gray’s Hardcore amateur boxing team

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If there is boxing at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Leroy Gray, against all odds, intends to give willing area fighters a road map to qualify.

That much was evident just over a year ago when Gray, the proprietor of Gray’s Hardcore Boxing Gym, made his first public push to reactivate his youth boxing program after parting ways with professional Austin “Babyface Assassin” Bryant. In addition to “open youth boxing training” and “fitness training” for males and females, Gray announced his intention to start a Junior Olympic boxing team.

As October rolled over into 2018, that ambitious goal didn’t yield fruit. Months passed, but Gray didn’t stop his pursuit of novice prospects. In late June, he found his charter team members in rising Fike High senior Jalen Barnes and Joey Joyner of Spring Hope. Both will take part in a sparring session in Jacksonville on Saturday.

Metaphorically, Gray pulls no punches with this group. While he’s willing to work with any level of fighter, the Olympic hopefuls, although without a single amateur bout to their name, are held to the same rugged standards that adorn the Randolph Street gymnasium. Potential prospects are still welcome. But it was by design, Gray assured, that his stable of Olympic aspirants build slowly.

“It’s a lot of work here,” Gray said. “And if you’re not cut out for it, you’re not going to stay long trying to make the team.”

The time aspect, although flexible in terms of arrival, is non-negotiable.

“You’ve got to put your time in,” Gray said. “Time for an amateur is you’ve got to train for me four days straight. Monday through Friday and you start your running on Sunday. So that’s five days of training. And they’ve got to run for me every day. I’ve got to see him run on my field — not on his own.”

Barnes, 17, was no exception Tuesday. He sparred in the ring with Gray, pounded the punching bag in the adjacent room and proceeded to speed work. Once his exercises were completed, it was out to the gravel pavement for a 10-lap test. Starting from a well-worn curve in the gravel, Barnes ran to the white fence at the end of the property and back, followed by a run around the building that passes the unwritten boxing code of no luxuries.

“I didn’t hear about it until I got here,” Barnes said of an Olympic team. “And (Gray) told me I’d have a shot of making the Olympics, so that’s what got me interested in boxing.”

As a boxer builds his stamina, those laps increase to increments of 12 and 15. Boxers that boast advanced cardio will eventually get a 20-lap ending. Invoking Bryant’s successful run as an amateur, Gray made the argument that his backdrop and style make his pupils ready to box.

“They didn’t make themselves,” Gray said. “I made them. So this is how they had to train. This is how these guys will train in order to go and try for the Olympic team when 2020 comes.”

Both Barnes and Joyner joined Gray and his training regimen in late June.

Barnes, a middleweight attempting to reach super welterweight, attempted to play football at Fike his freshman year, but had to stop due to a heart murmur once attending practices. However, he was eventually cleared by doctors to climb into the ring.

“I’m glad I got told I had a heart murmur,” Barnes said. “Because I wouldn’t be boxing right now if I didn’t.”

Fighters under the tutelage of Gray are notorious for getting to the inside and attempting to attack the body. Barnes is no exception as he tries to build his endurance. Yet the power game is not lacking.

“When I hit you, it’s going to be hard and aggressive,” Barnes said. “But I’m going to calm and wait for you to mess up. (Gray) likes body shots. “He’d rather go to the body and weaken them. You don’t want to go to the third round, because in an amateur fight, you’ve only got till the third round. So you want to end them in the second round.”

In the Olympic ranks, the 10-point must system, identical to professional boxing, was adopted with the 2016 Games in Rio. Professionals were also allowed to compete for the first time.

With Gray assuring that he trains amateur boxers like professionals, there’s no time to wait on the judges.

“People always talk about points, points, points. That’s great.” Gray said. “But if he’s taking your organs apart, then you’re not going to last long in there as an amateur. Do you understand me? That’s how I train. If I know how to train him to shoot you in the liver and catch you like that, then you knocked out, really.”

Like a sponge, Barnes has soaked up the training. He plans to turn pro after high school, even if Olympic qualification doesn’t pan out.

“Jalen is a good even-hand puncher,” Gray said. “He’s got good defense, he’s got good focus. He’s a listener, number one and that’s what makes him so good. He’s got natural ability. I spotted that in him.”

For Joyner, there isn’t much free time to be found as he navigates amateur life as a lightweight.

Working on a farm in Halifax County, the 19-year-old Joyner grew up in Spring Hope, still resides there and attended Southern Nash up until his sophomore year. The fight game, in one form or another, has always appealed to Joyner, who is the father of a 3-month-old daughter, Aubralynn. Wrestling was a pursuit while with the Firebirds.

But it’s Joyner’s commitment to training in spite of such a tight daily schedule with a family — from Halifax to Spring Hope to Wilson — that has Gray intrigued.

“That’s a lot of commitment,” Gray said of Joyner. “I used to have to drive 50 miles one way and 50 miles back. Driving is something that he does, and when he gets off of work, he comes here. He trains at 7 o’clock at night until about 8:30, then going back home. I see that type of drive in him, every day.”

“I’m motivated,” Joyner said. “It’s just that the type of person that I am. I’m just ready to get in there. When preparation meets opportunity, it’s a beautiful thing. All I have to do is prepare.”

However, there’s no guarantee that boxing will be there for both when 2020 rolls around. In February, the International Olympic Committee tasked the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) with making necessary reforms before ensuring its place in the 2020 schedule. As of May, IOC President Thomas Bach warned that boxing still risks being removed from the Tokyo Games after receiving a progress report from AIBA.