American heavyweight Jamar Talley bet on himself and his Olympic dream
Three years ago, Jamar Talley was stuck at a crossroads. After finishing second in the U.S. Olympic team trials, and bouncing out of the Strandja tournament in Bulgaria in the first round shortly after, Talley would have to settle for the role of heavyweight alternate on the national team. With his Olympic path closed off, Talley had a tough decision to make. Would he accept the offers to turn professional, or could he exercise the patience needed to make the team at the next Olympics, at Paris 2024?
In the end, Talley says the decision came down to knowing his worth.
“At first I honestly didn’t know what to do. I was contemplating turning pro. There were a couple of offers there but obviously the money wouldn’t have been great. I had to do some thinking and I came to the realization that I need to build my resume’ up and don’t get discouraged,” said the 23-year-old Talley of Camden, N.J.
“I stayed in the program and started working on my skills and just trusting the process. Here I am now, three years later, still in the program. Each tournament I go out and do a little bit better. That just goes to show, bet on yourself, never make rash decisions.”
Talley’s patience may be rewarded this week, when he competes as part of Team USA at the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile. The tournament, which runs from October 19-27, will serve as the Olympic qualifying tournament for the Americas. The two top boxers in the 203-pound division, which Talley competes in, will earn a ticket to the Paris Games next year.
If Talley can finish as silver medalist or better in Chile, he’d become the first American heavyweight to qualify for the Olympics since Michael Hunter at London 2012.
Instead of going the pro route, Talley ended up at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Col. as part of USA Boxing’s high performance team. There at the high altitude compound, Talley got to spar with world class talent and learn from national team coaches. He also accumulated the international experience which helped him mature as a fighter. After making it to the quarterfinals of the 2021 World Championships in Serbia, Talley earned his first international gold medals, winning the AMBC Elite Continental Championships in Ecuador in April of 2022 and the GeeBee tournament in Finland this past April.
“I feel like I made a name for myself when I was at the World Championships, but I feel like I solidified everything when I won the Continentals,” said Talley.
For Talley, boxing was his key to staying out of trouble in his hometown of Camden, a Philadelphia-adjacent city which is often considered among the most dangerous in the United States. Instead of running the streets, Talley got into boxing at age seven due to the influence of his father, Omar. Omar began learning how to box in the basement of Jamar’s uncle Heem, while Jamar and his older brother Omar II would do their best to imitate what they saw in improvised sparring sessions against one another.
“When I was growing up, I had my father and my mom, I grew up in a two parent household with coaches and family. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I had a good upbringing. I just never got into [trouble], I just pursued my dream,” said Talley, who has three older brothers.
Talley began going to the boxing gym at age 11 but didn’t start competing until he was 15, when he began working under trainer Chris Williams.
That’s when Talley heard the words that would become his life mission.
“Coach Chris Williams was telling me, ‘Jamar, you have the potential to go to the Olympics, you have potential to be on the Wheaties box.’ He was telling me you can be the next world champ, this is in your future if you stay on this path,” said Talley, who has just over 40 amateur bouts.
Talley began taking the sport seriously at age 18, winning N.J. Golden Gloves titles and the 2018 Eastern Qualifier tournament, and making it to the finals of the 2019 National Golden Gloves.
Heading into the Pan Am Games, Talley says he has heard of most of the competition he will be grouped with but has only boxed against Ecuador’s Julio Castillo, who won a decision against him in the semifinals of this year’s Strandja tournament in Bulgaria.
His first bout at the Pan Am Games will be on Friday, October 20 against Julio Cesar La Cruz, the two-time Olympic gold medalist from Cuba. A win against an amateur legend would give him the momentum to make him a medal favorite, and give him the best chance of taking that next step towards getting on the Wheaties box.
“Coming from where I come from, I just want a better life. My family, they motivate me to keep working hard at what I want,” said Talley.
“I want to go to the Olympics, I want to medal and get gold. The sky’s the limit from there. Turn pro, the next Olympics [after Paris] is in Los Angeles, I don’t really know. I just really want to handle business in the present moment, and then the rest is still to come.”
Ryan Songalia has written for ESPN, the New York Daily News, Rappler and The Guardian, and is part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at [email protected].