Justin Jones in action in one of his professional bouts.
BELLEAIR – When he walked into the gym and told the instructor he wanted to become a professional boxer, the young man was laughed at and told he had a long, hard road ahead and he’d better stop talking and start working.
Ever since that day, four years ago, Belleair resident Justin Jones has hardly missed a day of workouts and has become a professional boxer. Now Jones is getting ready for his biggest bout yet, one he hopes will continue to propel him toward a world championship.
How did the 22-year-old native Californian, known as “Kid Thunder,” find himself living in the serene community of Belleair and practicing such a violent sport? He says it came about because of his own nature and family support.
“I was always a tough guy growing up,” he said. “In fact that was my problem, always trying to prove that I was tougher than anybody else. I was always doing some crazy things. I got into downhill mountain biking; I had to show that I was tough.”
Eventually some of those crazy things led to run-ins with the law.
“I would steal stuff from school, then I’d run away from the police. I was just reckless and stupid,” he said.
A short stint behind bars taught him a big lesson.
“I went to jail and discovered there were a lot harder and tougher guys than me,” he said.
It was then he moved from California to stay with his aunt and uncle, Joan and Sean Jones, in Belleair and he’s been there for the past six years.
“My whole family has been a great contribution to my life. Without them, I’d be a lot worse off. They never once gave up on me,” he said.
When he was 18, four years ago, he decided to check out boxing to see if he’d like it.
“It is actually a funny story,” he said. “My girlfriend at the time never let me do much, so to get out of the house I went to a gym in Clearwater to see what it would be like, and I was hooked.”
That was the day the instructor laughed at him. The instructor was Ron Valicoff of Clearwater Fitness and Boxing on Hercules Avenue. Valicoff isn’t laughing anymore.
“I could see that he was a very ambitious kid,” he said. “I just told him back then to work and get in shape and follow the program, and he did it.”
As a result, Jones had 21 amateur fights then turned pro, and as a junior welterweight has a 5-0 record. Valicoff said Jones’ rise to the professional ranks was quick.
“I wanted him to have 50 amateur fights, to me 21 wasn’t enough. But the decision was his and he’s done well.”
It didn’t start so well however.
“He lost his first amateur fight because he lost focus,” said Valicoff. “His girlfriend and his family were in the crowd and before the fight he was going around talking to them instead of concentrating on the bout. But even after he lost, he regrouped and came back and won fights and now he’s a professional.”
Once he turned pro, Jones had to leave the Clearwater gym. Valicoff said he wasn’t equipped to train professional boxers.
“I’m strictly an amateur coach. I’m not set up for pros, we train average people,” he said.
Jones now trains at the Gold-rush Gym in Tampa under Coach Larry Barryan.
A junior welterweight has to fight at between 136 and 140 pounds.
“Walking around day to day I weigh about 150,” said Jones. “It is tough to get my weight back down when I’m training but if you are disciplined you will be all right; you have to watch your diet.”
Of his professional wins, three were by knockouts and the other two were decisions. Jones said it isn’t easy.
“I haven’t even made a thousand dollars yet,” he said. “But better days are ahead.”
The first of those better days will be on Jan. 25 in Hinckley, Minn., at the Grand Casino. He’s scheduled to fight R.J. Laase and it is the co-main event. Jones expects a tough fight but said Laase is in for a surprise.
“This is the first time that I’ll be going eight rounds,” he said. “Up until now all my fights have been four-rounders. Laase is the hometown boy with a 9-1 record. They think they have signed me to use me to build him up, but I’m going to make sure that’s not the case.”
Jones said he’d get $3,000 for the fight, by far his best payday yet.
No matter what happens on Jan. 25 Jones says boxing has saved his life.
“I love the sport of boxing; it has definitely turned my life around. I can’t do anything but enjoy it,” he said. “I have traveled and met so many people who have done a lot for me. I love boxing; there is no other way to put it.”
He admits he’s had to come a long way.
“I really sucked when I first started boxing,” he said. “I was awful, but I worked hard and had people watch me and give me tips.”
His first coach agrees.
“Justin never gets discouraged. He’s had setbacks, but he keeps on working,” said Valicoff. “Even if he loses this upcoming fight, it will be a big setback but he’ll be fine.”
The Jones name in boxing may not stop with Justin. His younger brother Josh, 18, who lives with him in Belleair, is also a boxer. An amateur right now, Josh often spars with his brother.
“They always end badly because he wants to win so bad,” said Josh of Justin.
The future? Jones says he aspires to be a world champion.
“Anybody in this game who does not want to be world champ should not be in it,” he said, despite having a nose that has been broken more times than he cares to remember.
The girlfriend who stifled him and forced him to find that gym just to get away is long gone. Right now, he says he has no girlfriend and is not looking for one.
“You might say I’m married to boxing,” he said, laughing.