A chat with featherweight Jalen Walker will leave an impression. First, there’s no way he’s really 19 years old, but the more he talks of his journey from amateur standout to unbeaten prospect, the reality is that he wasn’t born like this, but that his environment made him grow up a lot faster than most teenagers.
In other words, all the movies, albums and television shows portraying South Central Los Angeles aren’t too far off the mark.
“It's not people hanging out on street corners, but if you're wearing the wrong colors you'll get shot up,” said Walker, who grew up in Gardena, lives in Florence District and trains in Compton. “If you're doing the wrong things, you're gonna get shot up, especially where me and my dad's at. It's a pretty dangerous neighborhood. I don't wander too far off the block. You gotta pay attention to cars that are coming by. If you see a car and you see it going slow, you have to really pay attention because you don't know what that car's trying to do. A lot of people call it huntin'; they're probably huntin' for somebody.”
As Walker tells of living in a place where any wrong turn might be your last, there isn’t a hint of panic in his voice, no urgency like most would have to say, “Get me the hell out of here.” In fact, when asked if one of his goals in boxing is to make it to the point where he has enough money to pack his bags and leave, he dismisses such a notion, explaining that while some neighborhoods frown upon the success of one of their own, that’s not the case where he’s at.
“It's not like I want to get to the point that I want to leave because of jealous people,” he said. “I always want to have a connection to where I'm from. The kids over there, the people over there, it don't matter the age, no matter what they do, good or bad, they all support me and they all find inspiration in what I'm doing. People over there, they find it really cool that I knock people out, so I'm giving inspiration to these kids and something to look up to. So I always want to have that connection.”
Seeing a neighborhood kid grow up to do good things, represent his hometown and still want that connection is a bright spot in a place where there are daily reminders that sunshine and rainbows are in short supply. On Sunday, Walker got the news that a friend and former classmate of his girlfriend got shot and killed in a case of mistaken identity.
“He got killed yesterday at the stop light not far from the gym,” Walker said on Monday. “They said it was it mistake - he was in a Camaro, they thought it was somebody else, and they just fired on him and he died right at the spot.”
News like that keeps Walker sharp, always aware of what he’s doing, where he’s going and even what he’s wearing.
“The part that I live at is called Florence District,” he said. “Right there, there's not too many stores and stuff, so you're not gonna want to walk down the street to a store if you're a young guy. No matter really the race, but if you're a young guy that looks like he can carry himself, it's really not safe for you. Like if you're an old lady, you can do what you want, but when you're a guy, you know you got a target on your back, so you've got to be careful with what you're doing, where you're walking, how you're walking, what you're wearing, your demeanor.”
Jalen Walker says all this matter-of-factly because it’s all he’s known. His father, Norman, wasn’t going to let him get caught up in the street life, though, and he had him in a boxing gym at seven. And while it was dad leading the way, the son knew from the start that he had boxing in his blood.
“I can say it came to me naturally because it formed me,” Walker said. “I was never hanging out, so I never missed it. You can't miss what you never had. And it (boxing) was a big part of him, but it was something I wanted to do. The coolest place to go to was the boxing gym. I grew up in the boxing gym, and I would rather be at the gym than be at school. When I was 16, I did homeschooling so I could start training twice a day because I was going to too many national tournaments. So since early on, my main objective was just boxing.”
That dedication matured Walker earlier than most, both in the ring and out of it. Owner of a reported 108-13 amateur record, he turned pro in 2019 and hasn’t looked back since, compiling an 8-0 (7 KOs) record heading into a Thursday meeting with Angel Antonio Contreras that will air on the Twitch portion of the Ring City USA card in West Point, New York. It’s the latest step in a career that many believe will see him one day wear championship gold, but boxing is more than that to Walker.
“To sum it up, boxing is my religion and it keeps everything right in my life,” he said. “It's my singular focus and it keeps me on the straight and narrow, it keeps me out of trouble. It comes with its glory, it teaches you life, it teaches you how to endure the pain. I really consider boxing a religion. People are very dedicated to their religion like Islam or Christianity or whatever, and that's how I consider myself, like a boxing religious dude. It's my lifestyle. It's my way to connect myself to God and the universe. It's a bigger picture.”
That big picture keeps him moving forward with a maturity few his age possess, even though he admits with a laugh, “I do some 19-year-old things sometimes.” But with the kids of his city watching, Walker doesn’t have the luxury to make any wrong turns or bad decisions.
“It's a big responsibility, it feels really good and it's a blessing,” he said of being a role model for those in his neighborhood. “It's something to be grateful for. I'm glad that they look up at me as a role model, so I have to make sure that I stay on my grind. I can't slack or get big-headed. I can't go into these fights thinking it's gonna be an easy fight because of this guy's record. It keeps me ready and keeps me hungry. I feel like a Superhero, like I've got a big responsibility. Everybody's watching and everything I do will be judged.”
If you go by his Instagram, everybody might be watching, as he currently has 157,000 followers on the social media app. Not bad for a kid with eight fights, but while he’s made an impact with the public, he remains humble. How is that even possible?
“Want me to tell you the secret?” he says quietly.
“I go to Wild Card a lot to spar and in that gym, there's nothing but pros,” Walker explains. “And me, I'm the type of guy that when I'm sparring I don't like nobody to get the better of me. So if I'm slacking, those guys in that gym are gonna beat my ass. They're gonna beat the hell out of me. These are pros who come from all across the world, so I always gotta come ready and be level-headed because I never want these guys to get over me. If somebody ever gets over me in sparring, they're gonna brag about it. So it's the competition that keeps me motivated and level-headed.”
“That's the hard part,” he laughs. “I was up there sparring world champions at 122 when I was 17 years old, getting the better of them. I want the title. I know I'm young, so that's just the hard part.”
As far as a superhero’s weakness, that’s not a bad one, so Jalen Walker should be all right. The question is, will he bring his cape to New York this week?
“Maybe a cape and some glasses.”