Oshae Jones: Tested by tragedy, Toledo-tough USA welterweight guaranteed Tokyo medal

Oshae Jones (red) of the United States reacts after the Women's Welter (64-69kg) on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kokugikan Arena on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Ueslei Marcelino - Pool/Getty Images)
Oshae Jones (red) of the United States reacts after the Women's Welter (64-69kg) on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kokugikan Arena on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Ueslei Marcelino - Pool/Getty Images)

Five days before Oshae Jones learned she'd be fighting for Team USA in the Olympics, she was nearly killed in a fire that destroyed her home. The welterweight contender -- who won Olympic bronze on 4 August -- spoke exclusively to Tokyo 2020 about gratitude, family and her gritty hometown.

“Get out. The house is on fire!”

That’s what the neighbours who kicked down Team USA boxer Oshae Jones’ front door shouted, in a panic, after seeing flames spread in the house’s attic from down on the street. Running up the stairs to the bedroom, they shouted again: “Get out. The house is on fire!”

Jones, a Tokyo gold-medal contender (and guaranteed at least bronze by reaching the semifinals) in the welterweight category, repeats these words, and still seems caught somewhere between disbelief and overwhelming gratitude. She recalls the moment, turning and seeing her house, the one she’d been fixing up over time, collapse in on the bedroom where she and her significant other had just been going about the mundane rituals of bedtime.

She stood there in the street, in only her USA boxing sports bra and pajama pants, while her home burned. All her mementos and gathered objects of meaning burned with it.

Tragic Toledo night and emotional roller-coaster

“As soon as we got out [to the street] and turned to look, the whole roof collapsed in on our bedroom. Where we just were,” remembered the 23-year-old Jones, soldiering on through a pain still near the surface. “If we lived anywhere else, in a regular neighborhood where people mind their own business, we’d be dead.”

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Toledo, Ohio, where Jones was born and raised, has its share of problems. It’s got a bad rap for its high crime rates and poverty, but that night, when Jones said she “collapsed with the house – just broke down there in the street,” the city showed its true colours.

Her neighbours saved her life. And those same neighbours made sure she had a place to stay in the aftermath of the tragedy that left her with nothing, not even a boxing glove.

“It was hard,” said Jones, about re-building her life and carrying on after that night in May of 2021, on the tail-end of an already trying year full of pandemic delays and tribulations. “The USA Boxing people sent clothes and gear to help, but I was thinking, how am I going to go on? I was at my lowest. I was a wreck.”

On that terrible night, when Jones lost nearly all her earthly possessions, she still wasn’t guaranteed a spot at the Olympics that she’d trained toward for years.

“It was a roller-coaster,” said Jones, who answered her phone five days after the fire and accepted the invitation to become the first female boxer from the state of Ohio to compete in the Olympics. “I mean, I was depressed. I was at my lowest. But then the call comes that I’m going to the Olympics, but I still don’t have anything – like not even any clothes! I tried to keep my hopes high and to figure out how I could do it.”

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Young Jones is made of tough stuff.

She’s a shining daughter of the city Toledo, where boxing runs like a life-giving spring through her hometown’s rougher edges. And when she talks about the sport she loves, and the city that made her, she exudes an energy that is quite simply irresistible.

Her father dragged her to the gym for the first time when Jones was just 10. He promised his daughter she wouldn't have to fight. She wanted to train alongside her younger brother Otha Jones III, who she was competitive with from an early age.

A chubby little girl, as she tells it, Jones wanted to drop some pounds and “get skinny” like the other girls at school. But a little way into that first day, her father told her to wrap up. “’You’re gonna’ spar’,” he said.

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A lot of people don’t make it out of Toledo.

But people here are built different...

“I was so scared,” Jones remembered with a shake of the head. “But I got in the ring and, with my jab and my stance, I just beat this girl up. A girl who’d been going to the gym for a few years.”

A natural with boxing in her blood

“I was a natural,” Jones went on. “After that, it was kind of expected of me to box. And when I found a way to stop being so emotional in the ring, you know, desperate to get that lick back after being hit, well then I was unstoppable. I started winning, beating everyone in the U.S., and I was like, ‘oh, this is easy. I think I was meant for this.’”

Jones trains at Soul City Boxing Gym, run by her father, Otha ‘Big O’ Jones Jr. and her brother Roshawn Jones, a former middleweight who helps train his sister. It’s more than a boxing gym, to hear Jones tell it. It's one of those places, in the harder corners of the world, where an open door, a flickering light bulb, and a little direction and attention, can save a life.

Charles Conwell, who competed as a middleweight at the Rio 2016 Games, was the first Olympian to come out of Soul City. Jones, when she made her debut in Tokyo with a pair of wins, became the second.

LAKE CHARLES, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 15: Oshae Jones fights Briana Che during the 2020 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team Trials at Golden Nugget Lake Charles Hotel & Casino on December 15, 2019 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
LAKE CHARLES, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 15: Oshae Jones fights Briana Che during the 2020 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team Trials at Golden Nugget Lake Charles Hotel & Casino on December 15, 2019 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

“It’s a family affair,” she said of the gym that attracts the top prospects in a city where boxing is a rare ticket to a bigger world. “It’s in a kind of bad neighbourhood, but that’s good too because it gets the kids off the streets where they’re surrounded by bad things like drugs, prostitution and other stuff like that. We try to give back however we can while showing a way to reach a higher status at the same time.”

Jones’ pride in her hometown is firm and her status among the ever-refreshing crop of Toledo pugilists is unquestioned. She finished first at the 2019 Pan Am Games in the welterweight division and has amassed a sparkling amateur record of 41-9-0 while taking gold, most recently, at the 2020 Strandja Tournament in Bulgaria and that same year’s Boxam International.

“A lot of people don’t make it out of Toledo – we don’t have a lot of things here,” said Jones, who considers her most dangerous in-ring attribute to be her unpredictability and ability to improvise. “But people here are built different. It’s a real boxing city because you have to fight for your life, you know, so it kind of makes sense.”

USA on her back; Toledo in her heart

With USA screaming across her back and chest in Tokyo, the city of Toledo is quietly in her heart. She knows the folks back home – the ones who saved her and the ones who took her in when she needed shelter – have her back all the way.

“I know they’re rooting for me,” she said with a firm nod before the Games, her long braids giving a quick bounce. “It’s a lot on my shoulders and I just want to make everybody happy and give back with a win.”

It fits Jones’ character that she feels like she “cheated” by not having to “fight for her spot” at the these Olympic Games. The Americas Continental qualifiers in Argentina, for a second straight year, were canceled in April of 2021 due to COVID-19. So the USA Team members’ places had to be based on previous record and ranking.

“But I knew who was going to be there and I beat them all already, so I probably would have got the gold again,” she said, with a half-laugh to let you know she means it. “But I still wanted to fight for it and get that feeling of having my hand raised.

She has that chance, for that one-and-only sensation of victory, in Tokyo now. If Jones beats the People's Republic of China's GU Hong on 4 August in the semis, she'll find herself in the rarefied air of a gold-medal match at the Olympics.

“I’m nervous,” she admitted, not the type to bore you with a bluff. “But so much has happened to me and it’s making me push even harder. It’s like now or never. I feel like I’ve been through everything -- what else can you do to me? What else can I overcome?”