WORDS BY JESSE SERWER
PHOTOS BY MARTEI KORLEY
This week, our Virgin Islands Nice series on music, life and culture in the USVI moves over to Rock City, St. Thomas.
Julian Jackson is building a boxing dynasty in St. Thomas.
During his own fight career from 1981 through 1998, “The Hawk” was considered one of boxing’s great knockout artists. Even today, he is considered by the sport’s experts to be one of the hardest punchers of all-time. A three-time world champion who won titles in the junior middleweight and middleweight divisions, he was promoted by Don King, and lived in Las Vegas.
These days, however. you can find “The Hawk” on almost any morning, afternoon or evening at the USVI Amateur Boxing Gym in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. The modest facility located within the Paul M. Pearson Gardens public housing project is the home base of both 340 Boxing, Jackson’s promotions company with Lesley Comissiong, Sampson Lewkowicz and Tony Rosario, and a youth development and boxing training program for local kids in the St. Thomas area.
Joining him in the family business are his sons. John Jackson, a super welterweight, and Julius Jackson, a super middleweight, are each rising up the ranks in their respective weight classes. John is known as “Dah Rock,” after Rock City, the common nickname for St. Thomas. Julius, who has a culinary arts degree and his own hot wing sauce, is called “The Chef.” Both recently signed with Al Haymon, the boxing power broker behind both Floyd Mayweather and the sport’s recent return to network TV. When they’re not off-island for a fight, John and Julius are likely in the gym at PMP Gardens, training together and working with their father and older brother, Julian Jackson, Jr., to mentor local youth.
A headline on 340 Boxing’s website proclaims the U.S. Virgin Islands to be “The Boxing Capital of the Caribbean” and, though the territory’s boxing culture doesn’t run as deep as in Cuba, Puerto Rico or even Jamaica, the claim is not hyperbole. Welterweight Emile Griffith, a six-time champ in the 1960s and the subject of the 2005 movie Ring of Fire, was born and raised on St. Thomas. Livingstone Bramble, a contemporary of Julian Jackson’s who twice stopped Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in the early ‘80s, is from St. Croix. But it wasn’t until 2008, when the Jackson brothers represented the US Virgin Islands at the Beijing Olympics, that the territory’s unlikely ascent in the sport became readily apparent.
“We qualified the most athletes per capita,” John Jackson says. “You know how big Canada is? They only qualified one boxer, and we qualified two.”
340 Boxing, which has brought professional fights to St. Thomas six times in the last few years with their Boxing in Paradise series, also represents The Hawk’s nephew, Samuel Rogers, a super welterweight with a pro record of 14-2, nicknamed the “Rock City Cobra.” And it is currently developing several amateur fighters with an eye towards the 2016 Olympics, including The Hawk’s stepson, Clayton Laurent.
“I am known for my punching power,” John Jackson says, explaining the difference in Jackson clan fighting styles. “My brother Julius is known as a warrior, he goes in and puts it all on the table. Samuel, he uses his jab and technique. My stepbrother Clayton is a heavyweight, and he is also known for his handspeed. Some of of us are more gifted in certain areas, but we work with each other”
After seeing The Hawk and sons in Pressure Busspipe’s video for “Virgin Islands Nice,” and catching John and Julius on televised fights on HBO and Showtime last year, we wanted to see what was happening with boxing in the USVI firsthand during our visit to the territory. So, we rang up 340 Boxing partner Lesley Comissiong, and arranged for a visit with The Hawk and John Jackson (Julius and Samuel Rogers were training off-island at the time) at PMP Gardens.
What we found was inspiring. PMP Gardens is a public housing project with many of the same issues of poverty as any such facility in the mainland US. But with The Hawk’s gym at its center, it’s a more welcoming place than one might imagine. In addition to the young kids from the neighborhood in The Hawk’s program, who are taught to extend welcoming hands to elders entering the facility, we also met young professionals who travel from across the island to work out at the gym.
“The program is called the I Believe I Can Fly boxing program,” The Hawk told us. “It might sound odd, but it’s not. No airplanes involved. We believe the sky is the limit, that these guys can go as far as they can, according to where their heart and mind is.”
The fighter once known for possessing one of the sport’s greatest right hands has another gift. He’s a powerful motivator and an inspiring speaker who distills wisdom without preachiness or self importance. So we had him tell the Virgin Islands boxing story, in his own words. Scroll through the gallery below for a look at a night in the life of 340 Boxing HQ, PMP Gardens, as captured by Martei Korley, and narrated by The Hawk.