GLENDORA, Calif. — Jose Gonzalez told the boss he needed time off. He was making about $400 a week, handing out flyers for a bail bondsman outside the Men’s Central Jail in downtown LA. So what if the guy fired him? Some things you had to do. This trip — to the 2007 Silver Gloves Nationals in Kansas City — was one of them. He was sure of that.
The Gonzalez family didn’t have money for airfare or extra nights in a motel. So Jose borrowed on the credit cards. His wife, Sofia, pawned her gold. Then they piled the kids into their ’89 Ford Aerostar. Sofia was pregnant with Jaylene then. Jayson was 6; Jonjairo, 7; Jajaira, 9, and still locked in a perpetual embrace with her bunny blanket; Jousce, 11; Joet, 13.
The father gave his children distinct names, as he never much liked his own. Jose Gonzalez.
“I don’t want them to be no Jose Gonzalez,” he says, reflecting on his own meager childhood in Guadalajara. “I want them to be different. I want them to make it.”
This trip would be the beginning. Joet was fighting for his first national title.
It was 26 hours from the Glenair Mobile Home Park to Kansas City, but Jose drove straight through, with just a few half-hour breaks at the side of the road or a gas station, where he’d replenish his supply of coffee and Red Bull.
Even then, from the backseat, looking out at the endless highway, Joet understood what was at stake. I can’t just show up and lose, he thought. I must win.
When they got to Kansas City, Joet fought bravely, threw a lot of punches and won the 95-pound title. This is what I’m going to do. I can be somebody in this sport.
Twelve years later, his father still in his corner, Joet Gonzalez is 23-0. On Saturday, he fights for the WBO featherweight title. Once a champion, he’ll buy a house, finally liberating his parents and siblings from the Glenair Mobile Home Park. Again, he has to win.
All that stands between Joet and his dream is a man he despises. Shakur Stevenson is among the most gifted young fighters on the planet. He’s also his sister Jajaira’s boyfriend.
AT 26, JOET is already a seven-year pro. But he remains custodian of the family’s aspirations and enforcer of his father’s will. He’d run the extra mile, knock out another hundred sit ups. Never a complaint.
“I always felt I had to set the example,” says Joet.
“He’s my right hand,” says Jose. “Always been that way. If something happens to me, he’ll take over.”
Four of his six children are fighters. Three were national amateur champions. Two have contracts with Golden Boy.
But it was Joet who’d wake them up to run. It was Joet who made sure they were on weight. And it was Joet, who, if necessary, would beat their asses in sparring.
“He’s the one who controls everything,” says his father. “He knows what they need.”
Visitors to the Asuza Youth Boxing Club in California couldn’t help but notice the ferocity with which Joet and his sister went at it. “Jajaira absorbed Joet’s punches as fuel and wore them as armor,” wrote the AP’s Greg Beacham.
“I like getting bruises,” Jajaira told him. “It makes me feel like I did something.”
That was 2015. Joet, already a pro, might’ve been the surrogate father, but it was Jajaira, still a teenager, who got all the buzz. By then, she’d won two national championships, a couple of world junior championships, and become the first American boxer, male or female, to medal at the Youth Olympics, winning gold in Nanjing, China in 2014. Jajaira was a clear favorite to make the Olympic team for Rio.
So was Shakur Stevenson.
They met in Reno, at the Junior World Team Open. They were 16 and special, boxing prodigies from poor families (Shakur, the oldest of nine from Newark, New Jersey), segregated from normal teenage life by a schedule that took them from China to Bulgaria to Colorado Springs, the headquarters of USA Boxing.
“Me and her won every tournament from juniors to youth, everything,” recalls Shakur.
But it wasn’t until Jajaira suffered a close and crushing defeat to Mikaela Mayer at the Women’s Olympic Trials that they started really talking.
“That’s when me and her started clicking,” says Shakur. “She started venting to me and somehow she ended up crying. I was hugging on her and stuff and then me and her just started texting a lot, started talking every day and we just went from there.”
Venting about what? Shakur was asked.
“I don’t want to say,” he says, allowing that “when you train your whole life for one thing and you don’t get it, that hurts.”
In February, 2016, a distraught Jajaira enlisted in the Army. Her salary would lighten the financial burden on her parents while she continued boxing for the Army team. She’d also be based in Colorado Springs where Shakur was training for the Rio Games. By May, they were dating – something neither of them knew much about.
“I never had a girlfriend,” says Shakur. “Never been in love.”
Then again, he couldn’t diagnose the condition until Jajaira shipped out for basic training and no longer had her phone. “She would write letters,” recalls Shakur. “I would read them and I just – I don’t know, I just – I know I loved her because I would miss her so much.”
Jajaira was still in boot camp when Shakur lost an excruciatingly close bout in the Gold medal round at Rio. If it didn’t make him love her any more, at least he could understand how she felt. “We definitely have that in common,” he says. “I didn’t want to box no more.”
BOXING IS BASED on deceit, on never admitting any weakness. But Kay Koroma, a veteran USA Boxing coach (who still works with Shakur and Mayer), was struck by a change in Shakur after Rio: “He used to sit on the steps all night and talk to Jajaira. He didn’t have to hide anything, didn’t have to hold anything back. They found a bond.”
“She’s the only person I can really talk to and tell everything to and be myself,” says Shakur. “It didn’t have nothing to do with boxing.”
Having nothing to do with boxing was no comfort to Jajaira’s father, who learned of the relationship through social media. Not only did it violate his strict prohibition against boyfriends (Jajaira, he had always said, would be allowed to date at 27, the boys at 24, else it distract them from their boxing missions), not telling him was a grievous error.
“She said he was a friend,” he says. “Maybe she was afraid to get me mad…But she lied to me.”
While the coming months saw Jose Gonzalez make his own uneasy peace with his daughter and her boyfriend, Joet’s position never budged.
“I never liked him since the amateurs,” he says, enumerating the ways of his dislike: “Fake-ass handshake…Loud, obnoxious, disrespectful…The way he dresses, half his ass showing. That ain’t no style. I mean, you think that looks cute? Come on, man, pick up your pants.”
To Shakur, Joet was “a hater” – jealous of his talent and the hype he received as an Olympic silver medalist. Still, on the eve of his pro debut, the week he took a cortisone shot in his left hand, he asked Jajaira to reach out to her family and arrange sparring with Joet and his brother Jousce (then an undefeated lightweight) in California.
“I already knew they didn’t like me,” recalls Shakur. “So I’m like, OK, I’ll go over there and spar these dudes. I’m coming to your territory and getting in the ring with you…In my head, like, they were going to respect me more.”
There are several versions as to how that session went.
“If they told me to choose the title or my family I will choose my family. What’s the point to have a title if you don’t have no family?”
“I sparred him with, like, one hand,” recalls Shakur. “Joet was in there trying as hard as he could and still couldn’t do nothing.”
“I didn’t go all out, and I know he didn’t go all out,” says Joet, who’d been wary of Shakur’s offer and was reluctant to help a prospect in his own division. “He’s skilled. He’s smart. But I was still getting the better of him.”
“Joet was humiliating this boy,” says his father.
Whatever really happened that day, Shakur failed to earn the respect he sought. In fact, things got worse. Not only was Jajaira estranged from Joet (by all accounts, they haven’t had a meaningful conversation in about three years), she was growing more distant from the rest of her family. What’s more, her training had fallen off.
In 2018, a year after winning her last Women’s National Championship, she was eliminated in her first fight. She also quit the Army.
“I lost her,” says Jose, weeping. “She changed.”
“She was the top dog,” says Joet. “Then she got with (Shakur), and she lost her focus. Boxing wasn’t the priority anymore.”
Shakur had a different take. It was her father who made her. It was her father who made her a champion.
“You need to be training with your dad,” he told her.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, while working out in Los Angeles, Shakur showed up at the Gonzalez’ gym.
Again, he wanted some sparring work with Joet. Joet wasn’t around. But the father was.
“It was kind of a bad vibe,” Shakur recalls. “Like he was mad at me or something.”
Jose Gonzalez didn’t like the way Shakur wore his hoodie. He took it as a sign of “disrespect.” He didn’t like the way his daughter’s boyfriend shook his hand, either.
“Not looking in my face?” he says. “That means he’s hiding something.”
“He wants to find out how to beat Joet.”
IN FACT, SHAKUR never wanted to fight Joet.
And as strained as it was between Jajaira and her family, he promised her he never would.
By early July, however, Shakur had leapfrogged Joet in the WBO rankings. They were now ranked No. 1 and 2, with the champion, Oscar Valdez, unable to make the 126-pound limit and about to vacate the title. Still, when asked about any prospective fight, Shakur said he would not fight Joet. He asked his promoter, Top Rank, to find a way around it.
Then, on July 9, Joet appeared on the Talkbox Podcast with Michael Woods. When asked about the prospect of fighting Shakur, he said: “I think I’ll stop him, to be honest. I’ve been in the ring with him… I know what he likes, what he dislikes…My personal opinion, I think he is all hype…When the time comes, I am gonna show the world. Maybe I sound a little arrogant or big-headed, but I just don’t think nothing of him.”
He just mad lil sis love me 😂😂🙄 his feelings gone get him hurt tho https://t.co/9TSkM6ieK3
— Shakur Stevenson (@ShakurStevenson) July 10, 2019
Hearing that unleashed something nasty in Shakur, who DM-ed his girlfriend’s brother on Instagram: “I let u live cause I love ya sister…but now you want clout off my name I’m gone punish you…”
Then he went public on Twitter: “He just mad lil sis love me…his feelings gone get him hurt…”
Three days later, following a knockout victory that left him 23-0, Joet responded in a post-fight interview on DAZN: “I’m a grown-ass man. I don’t fight on social media. Face to face, c’mon, do something!”
A fight that neither man had really wanted became a fight neither could turn down. Few institutions breed more conflict than families and boxing. Here was a confluence of both. The September press conference was a promoter’s dream.
“He’s a b—-,” said Shakur.
“Kid got no class…no morals,” said Joet. “I’m gonna humble him.”
By then, however, even Jajaira, now 22 and trying to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, chose sides in public. “Shakur really is my bestfriend,” she tweeted. “If there’s one person I know who won’t ever turn their back on me, it’s him!”
Just a heads up, he’s lying!!!!!! He hasn’t been supporting me like he says he has. My own blood brother cut me off 3 years ago!!! Stop lying to the media.
— Jajaira Gonzalez (@JajairaGonzalez) October 3, 2019
“I KNOW I’M going to win,” says Shakur, addressing the camera as if it were talking to his girlfriend’s family. “But after the fight, can you all please not be mad at Jajaira? Please talk to your daughter and sister?”
One way or another, he believes Jajaira’s brother and father will remain in his life.
“I know we’re going to end up together,” he says.
Here’s what Joet Gonzalez had to say two weeks ahead of his bout versus Shakur Stevenson, for the vacant WBO featherweight title in Reno, Nevada (ESPN+)…. Video by Steve Kim
JOET DOESN’T SOFTEN. Not now. He’s so close to making good on the dream.
“I got to win this fight,” he says. “A lot of doors will open. More opportunities will come. I’ll get my dream house.”
He has a vision, away from the Glenair Mobile Home Park: “I see myself happy…my hard work paid off.” Who lives there? he is asked.
Is there room for Jajaira in that house?
“That’s on her.”
IN ONE OF their last conversations, Jajaira reminded her father of a sparring session when she was maybe 14. The guy, a kid from the gym, was 17 or 18. He was taking it easy on her.
“If you don’t go harder,” Jose told him, “I’m gonna put you in with Joet. He gonna f— you up.”
The guy was scared of Joet. He went harder. Boom. He caught Jajaira with a right hand.
The father got what he wanted.
“I saw Jajaira kind of wake up then,” he says, looking over a cramped living room in which a figurine of St. Jude – patron saint of desperate causes – is prominently displayed.
“She said I was too hard on her, that I that more care of Joet,” he says. “Jajaira remembered a lot of stuff, things I don’t remember.”
Just the same, it’s been months and he won’t return her calls or her texts.
“She texts every day. She just say loves me. She misses me.”
And you don’t tell her “I love you, I miss you”?
“No…Because of what happened.”
What happened? She’s your daughter.
“She’s my daughter but she chooses that way. So she got to stay there.”
“Sometimes you got to do hard decisions,” he says. “I choose Joet.”
He understands what he’s saying, willfully blind to his own contradictions. He’s not backing down. He wouldn’t know how. Jose Gonzalez came to America and raised champions. Now he’s resigned to the idea that, no matter what happens, his heart will be cleaved in two.
“I lost my daughter,” he says, beginning to weep. “This is killing me.”
One wish. What do you want, Jose Gonzalez?
“I want to have my family together. That’s what I want, together.” He’s breaking now. “If they told me to choose the title or my family I will choose my family. What’s the point to have a title if you don’t have no family?”