You could call him “the Tiger Woods of boxing.” According to his father, 11-year-old Joseph Awinongya Jr. is on his way to becoming the biggest athlete to come out of Illinois.
The senior Awinongya should know, he’s been training the four-time national junior boxing champion since he was two years old.
Last year, Joseph Jr. won the national championship in Utah and just a few weeks ago, from the nationals in Utah with the number two spot in the country. “I would like to have finished number one,” Joseph Jr. said, but that just makes me try harder to win.”
His father, Joseph Sr. was a professional boxer. A native of Ghana, he was brought to this country from Italy by the iconic boxing and controversial promoter Don King. After retiring with a string of championship titles under his belt, he devoted his time to training the youth in Joliet in the “sweet science” of boxing.
“I must have trained 30-40 kids in Joliet, including my son. Boxing is not just getting up and doing a bunch of hitting. Its science. Its strategy. You have to know when to back off of your opponent. The objective is to win without taking any punches and by having to expend as little of your own energy as possible.”
In addition to being a winning boxer, Joseph Jr. is also a good student, ranking at the top of his class in Washington Academy on Joliet’s East Side. When he’s not boxing, Joseph Jr. likes to play chess, a game that helps him immeasurably in the ring.
“When my son is boxing, he’s not just throwing a bunch of punches. He’s calculating his next moves and building a strategy. Its a lot like he’s playing a chess game when he’s in the ring.”
The senior Awinongya likens his son to Tiger Woods, whose father began training him in the art of golf when he was just a toddler.
“I started training my son when he was just two years old. Now he’s on his way to becoming the biggest athlete in Illinois. His goal is to make the U.S. Olympic Team in 2024.”
In addition to competing in almost back-to-back competitions across the country, Joseph Jr. is in demand by the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Police Department to travel around the city, giving motivational speeches to youth.
“I visit all the Park Districts and give speeches to other kids my age. I try to tell them to never give up on their goals and not to let anyone try to draw them away from the things they want to do. I also tell them that its important to keep their grades up.”
The road to success is at times grueling. Just a few weeks ago, Joseph Jr. was scheduled to compete in the Silver Cross Regional championships right on the heels of placing in the nationals.
“Both involved a great deal of traveling, so I had decided not to go to the regionals,” the Sr. Awinongya said. “But when we were driving home, my wife turned the car around and started driving right back to the airport. ‘Our son said he wants to compete, and that’s what we’re going to let him do,’ my wife told me. So we got on a plane and went straight to the regionals. My son slept in the car and on the plane. He won, of course.”
With upcoming regional matches in various cities, Joseph Jr. has a lot of challenges ahead. In the spring, he’s fighting in Reno, Nevada, a city that figured prominently in the career of Jack Johnson, the first black boxer to win the heavyweight title. On July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson, who two years earlier became the first black boxer to hold the heavyweight title, beat former champion and white opponent James Jeffries in Reno. Although lesser known, Johnson’s triumph (and seven-year reign as champ) is as culturally important as Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a busy Alabama bus 45 years later. For this reason, Johnson-Jeffries is still regarded as one of the most famous heavyweight title matches in boxing history.
“I know when I box, I have a lot of big shoulders to stand on,” the younger Awinongya said, with wisdom far beyond his years. “I feel the weight of having to win, because when I win, I’m not just doing it for me. I’m trying to show other kids like me that they can do it too.”