He was a little boy among big men, just 8 years old, eyes as wide as a tomato can’s punches.
Jermall Charlo (22-0, 17 KOs) is recounting his first forays into the boxing gym, sounding a little like the kid he was back then, his voice riding shotgun with his thoughts on this particular trip back in time.
“I was just like, ‘These are pro boxers,’” he says, his words buoyed by discernible awe.
But they weren’t just any pros.
Charlo’s father was a boxer, his uncle as well, and when Jermall and his twin brother Jermell would join dad at the gym in their native Houston, they’d encounter such legends as Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson and Jesse James Leija, all of whom worked with Hall of Fame trainer Ronnie Shields, who has long shepherded Jermall Charlo’s career as well.
“I was able to see those guys, meet those guys and I just knew that boxing was something I wanted to do,” Charlo says. “I grew up in it. I had to stop all other sports. It just took ahold of my life.”
Seventeen years later, Charlo is a world champion on the eve of his first title defense against Wilky Campfort (21-1, 12 KOs) on Saturday in Dallas (NBC, 3 p.m. ET/noon PT).
But the fighter he’s become had plenty do with the fighters he was around way back in the day when he weighed about the same as Holyfield’s lunch.
Watching how hard they got after it in the gym, how they dedicated themselves to the sport, how they carried themselves in and out of the ring—all of it inspired Charlo. “That’s the level I want to be at,” he recalls thinking. “It just gave me fire.”
Those flames were often fanned on a personal level, with a number of prominent fighters taking the Charlo brothers under their wing.
“Vernon Forrest took me and my brother out to eat. Dominick Guinn was a big mentor for us,” Charlo says of the late, great 154-pound champ and Houston heavyweight, respectively. “My mom and dad couldn’t get us the shoes that we wanted at the time, so [Guinn] took us to the mall, bought us shoes. Juan Diaz, Rocky Juarez—all these guys who were mainstream at the time embraced us and made us who we are now.”
Mostly what the experience did for Charlo was flatten the learning curve for what it takes to be a successful pro.
The results are visible all these years later: Charlo is nothing if not a cool, composed presence in the ring, unflappable and focused, a product of a life spent in the gym in the presence of the type of fighters that he longed to one day be.
So, how do all those former champions view the kid who eventually became a champion himself?
“They probably remember me growing up always saying that I wanted to be a world champion,” Charlo says. “I’m pretty sure they’re watching.”
They’re not alone.
For full coverage of Charlo vs Campfort, visit our fight page.