James Wilkins has been to hell and back
On Friday night, from the Firelake Arena, in Shawnee, Oklahoma, James Wilkins will go out in front of the world when he makes his national TV debut on “ShoBox: The New Generation” against undefeated junior lightweight Misael Lopez in a scheduled eight-rounder. As Wilkins makes his ring walk, the shadows of a dank laundry room in the basement of a project tenement in the Park Hill section of Staten Island, New York, will accompany him.
“Crunch Time” will think about the wooden folding table where he slept a month ago and the empty suitcase by his side, containing, in the front zipper pocket, four bottles of water, a few slices of Wonder Bread wrapped in plastic, half-a-jar of peanut butter and a few packets of Herbalife. That was dinner – for a week. His hunger spasms were so great, he would run in the wee hours of the morning to quell the stomach pain.
Friday night might also broach the countless times when the world ignored Wilkins, when he was a homeless, faceless vagabond lying by a department store dumpster, curled up on a pile of toilet paper in the corner of a hotel bathroom, sleeping in the Park Hill gym ring or stretched out on the back seat of a bus, one of the street ghosts people pass every day without a thought as to whom they are.
It’s why the 5-foot-7, 22-year-old fights the way he does. It’s why his trainer Sherif Younan has to constantly yell at him to stop, when he’s pounding on sparring partners with a blind fury in his eyes. It’s why Wilkins (5-0, 5 knockouts) will look through Lopez (8-0, 4 KOs) and see his life unfold, as if splashed across a flat screen.
That’s because he’s punching at his past.
“And I’m never going back to it,” Wilkins vows.
Friday night will mark a special time for the Staten Island-based fighter, who’s managed by Jonathan “Baca” Hernandez and can count Paulie Malignaggi, Roy Jones Jr. and Dewey Cooper among his most ardent supporters.
Not only will Wilkins be making his national TV debut, he’ll play a significant part in the Showtime documentary “Cradle of Champions,” which chronicles the journey of Wilkins, Nisa Rodriguez and Titus Williams through the 2015 New York Golden Gloves tournament, one of the country’s most prestigious amateur boxing events. Cradle of Champions (8 p.m. ET/PT) will appear before the ShoBox card (9:45 p.m. ET), featuring the 10-round Jon Fernandez-O’Shaquie Foster junior lightweight main event – with Wilkins appearing on the undercard.
And to think, just over four weeks ago, Wilkins was pawing at a bus window wondering where he was going to sleep and what he was going to eat that night.
“One night, he sent me a picture at three-something in the morning in a text that said, ‘Boss, I want to be honest with you. I sleep in a laundry room most of the time at night and, when they kick me out of the building, I sleep on a bus,’” recalled Hernandez, 35, who signed Wilkins in August and manages 67 businesses and has over 1,100 clients. “I was like, ‘What?’ I told him to pack whatever he had and to come to my house in the city.
“He had a suitcase with him and I thought it was full of clothes. In the zipper part were bottles of water, some Herbalife and a couple of slices of bread. He told me it was his food for the whole week. He soaks the bread in water so it expands in his stomach and makes him feel full. After I heard and saw that, I told him that I needed to know everything.”
As he listened, Hernandez began to tear up. He told Wilkins that it was no way to prepare for a major fight. He demanded Wilkins get some rest, on a real bed, in a place where he didn’t have to fear being kicked out. Then he put Crunch Time on a weekly stipend, so he could budget his money. Hernandez called his mother Lydia Concepcion and made arrangements for James to stay there, explaining that it was a pit stop.
“It broke my heart; it really did,” Hernandez said. “James is trying to live his dream of one day being a world champion, while worrying what he was going eat and where he was going to sleep. That’s insane. We spoke about two hours that morning. I started to lock up but James wasn’t ready to completely open up. He was embarrassed because he didn’t want to ask for help.
“I spoke to James about fixing his life outside of boxing, where it can help him inside the ring. This started, James told me, since he was 13. The family bounced around everywhere and James saw everything. After the fight (against Lopez), we’re looking at some low-income housing, where he can live alone and train. For the first time in his life, James is happy. For the first time in his life, he’s finally gotten stability.”
Wilkins was raised in the Shalin section of Park Hill. It’s an area that possesses those great monikers like “Killer Hill,” by G Street. His father has not been a part of his life. Wilkins, the oldest of six, was raised by his mother. The family were transients, bouncing from house to house, never staying in one place particularly long.
One relative’s house was a crack den. In another place where the family stayed, there was a woman who would cook her crack in the same pot that she would make soup for Wilkins and his family. The children grew so hungry that they would resort to stealing from local grocers. They would eat square ramen noodle bricks uncooked because they didn’t have hot water to boil them.
“There was never a rock bottom for me because my whole life has been at rock bottom,” Wilkins said. “Sometimes we would live in the car; we stayed at relatives’ and cousin’s houses. My mom did what she had to do to always keep a roof over our heads. She worked three, four different jobs. She tried her best. I just couldn’t take staying at certain places when I got older. I had to get out on my own.”
What also deeply affected Wilkins was the suicide of a friend Felicia Garcia, who was 15 when she jumped in front of an onrushing train, seconds after asking James to hold her bag.
“I watched her kill herself,” Wilkins recalled. “She looked at me like an older brother. When we got to the train that day, we were on the platform and she asked me to hold her bag real quick. I joked with her, ‘What do I look like, a coat hanger?’ She put her bag down and smiled, then leaned forward like she wanted to enjoy every second of the final seconds of her life. I watched the train run over her body. It was like she was falling to freedom. I couldn’t take a train for a year-and-half after that. I remember trying to pull her out from under the cars when the cops arrived.”
Recently another close friend Tairiq Matthews was shot and killed on June 30, 2017, in Park Hill. He just turned 19 on June 6.
“Tairiq was waiting for me in broad daylight when he was shot,” Wilkins said. “Tairiq and I were going to get out. That’s what we promised each other. I felt if I was there, he never would have been shot. So you wonder why I fight the way I do?
“There’s rage there. I go around fighting my own demons all of the time – fighting the way I live. I’ve never been embarrassed about my story. What’s there to be embarrassed about? I would rather grow up with nothing than have daddy’s money and be handed everything, while never working to have anything on my own. That’s more embarrassing to me. What’s embarrassing is all of those kids who I went to school with, who drove their daddys’ Mercedes, are working a 9-to-5 right now. I was taking the bus and I had nothing and I let people know that I had nothing.
“The next time they see me, they see the growth I’ve made. I made sure I went back to the stores I stole from and paid them back. I embraced my life.”
Malignaggi is impressed.
“It’s James’ character that’s always saw him through. Here’s a kid with nothing. He’s homeless and he’s come back to train the next day and train the next day and train the next day,” the Showtime color analyst and former two-division titleholder said. “I like his chances. He loves preparing and he has a genuine love for boxing. I’ve been around James but I primarily give Jonathan advice. Jonathan is a good man, a genuine guy. This is the best chance James has, being with him.
“James is focused on fighting as hard as he can. But James also has to fight as smart as he can. It’s great James is excited. He needs to be learning something every day. ShoBox opponents tend to be quality fighters. He needs to know why this punch is working and why this move is working. There is a lot of rage there within James. I was angry growing up and learned how to shape that anger to learn. James needs to make the rage work for him and he has to control it. He’s in the process of getting there.”
It’s something Younan is constantly on Wilkins about. Wilkins was in such a frenzy recently, Younan had to restrain him during a sparring session.
“What James experienced is enough to drive anyone to get as far away from it as he can,” said Younan, who also trains his own son, undefeated super middleweight Junior Younan and light heavyweight contender Marcus Browne. “James is really motivated and his past fuels him. He’s coming literally from nothing. He has a great work ethic and he wants to get better.
“For the first time, James knows he has a team backing him up. We’re going to see a kid on Friday night who is ready and determined. We’re ready to unleash the animal. My job is make sure James is under control. There is a fire there. This is a very big deal for James. For James to reach his destiny, he has to have good soldiers around him and he does. A lot of fighters channel their anger in the ring. If he can channel it in the right direction, it can be a very powerful tool. He’s going to prevail. I can’t wait to see how far he’s going to go. ”
Wilkins has already traveled light years in a month, from being homeless, sleeping on buses and in a basement laundry room to fighting on national TV on Friday night – with a warm, comfy bed to sleep on afterward.
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