I was 19 years old when the military deployed me to Iraq for the first time. Fallujah was under heavy fire—this was 2005, the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom—and I spent seven months there as a field electrician in the Second Marine Logistics Group before they sent me back to North Carolina. I had never been so happy to see grass.
When I returned to the States, I decided to try out for the All-Marine Boxing Team. I’d started boxing when I was 15 years old, and by the time I joined the Marines I had already achieved a record of 10–1. I couldn’t wait to get back into the ring. I made the team and began cutting my teeth. For the first time, I had access to top-notch training facilities, and I spent more hours in the gym than ever before. But it was short-lived. In January 2007, President George W. Bush announced a surge of 20,000 U.S. troops in Iraq; they shipped me back over there a month later. My wife was two months pregnant with our first son.
During my second deployment, my unit was in charge of tracking IEDs—improvised explosive devices—which is vastly different from being an electrician. A sergeant trained me to spot environments rigged with bombs—potholes, roadside digging. During our training, I learned that the sergeant was also a new father; his first son had been born two weeks earlier. Later that year, he lost his life to an IED explosion. He never made it home to meet his son.
His death hit me hard. I vowed to take life more seriously when I came home. I didn’t want to face the horrors of war a third time, especially as a father, so I decided to commit to boxing. My focus became competing in the 2012 Olympics in London.
In 2009, however, life threw me another hard hook. I lost my daughter to sudden infant death syndrome two months after she was born. I had spent so much time running from death in Iraq, only to have it follow me home. But I chose to use my daughter’s memory as motivation. I kept throwing the punches toward my dream, in her honor.
After stacking an amateur record of 81–15 and winning three qualifying bouts in Rio de Janeiro, I secured a spot on Team USA. I was the only marine to compete that year. It was a huge honor, but even more meaningful was the fact that the opening ceremony—July 27, 2012—took place on the third anniversary of my daughter’s death.
I lost my first match, by decision, against Kazakhstan’s Daniyar Yeleussinov. I had won the first round, but Yeleussinov, a Youth World Boxing champion, adjusted to me during the fight. It was a tough day.
After the Olympics, I turned to the professional circuit, signing with Floyd Mayweather’s manager Al Haymon and moving to Cincinnati to train with Mike Stafford, who has also coached three-time Olympian Rau’shee Warren. My first pro fight, against Jose Valderrama, was less than six months after my Olympic defeat. I won the match and kept on winning. This February I beat Luis Eduardo Flores, whose number of knockouts outnumbered the sum of my professional fights. I now stand with a 15–0 record and eight knockouts, and in April I was inducted into the 2016 class of the All-Marine Boxing Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, going pro currently disqualifies me from competing in the Olympics. With the 2016 Summer Games under way, it’s rare that a day goes by when I don’t think about what could have happened if I hadn’t turned pro. But I can still play a part in U.S. boxing: I train, speak and spar with athletes, including my friends Claressa Shields and Shakur Stevenson, who will represent the United States in Rio. What’s next for me? To be the next marine to win a world championship, of course.
Boxing has helped me release frustration, stay disciplined and focus on what matters. You have to be smart. You have to adjust to and cope with tough challenges inside the ring, and those principles extend to surviving everyday life. When you compare my career, Olympic defeat included, with everything else I’ve been through, stepping into the ring is the easy part.
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