By Thomas Gerbasi
Middleweight great Marvin Hagler famously said that it’s tough to get up and do roadwork in the morning when you’re sleeping in silk pajamas. In the case of Clayton Laurent Jr., it has to be difficult to do that same roadwork while living in the Virgin Islands, where epic views and beautiful beaches are everywhere around him. Then again, that’s precisely what motivates the 2016 Olympian.
“I stay hungry because it is so beautiful,” said the heavyweight, who makes his second pro start Saturday at Barclays Center against Sherman Artis Jr. “I’m fighting for my country. I grew up in the Virgin Islands, I was raised in the Virgin Islands, but people always say that you can’t make it from the Virgin Islands, that you have to leave or you have to grow up in the States to be a great athlete. So growing up here, I stay hungry. I have goals and I have dreams. I want to be heavyweight world champion, I want to unify the belt and I want to be the first Virgin Islands-born, raised and trained heavyweight world champion. That’s my mission, and until I accomplish it, I can’t stop.”
That’s a lot to aim for, but the 28-year-old may actually have the goods to pull it off. Yes, it’s still early, but he did topple highly-regarded German Erik Pfeifer in the first round in Rio before losing to eventual gold winner Tony Yoka in the second round. Plus, he’s got size at 6-foot-5 (he weighed in at 291.6 for the Artis fight), and he’s got the infectious charisma that can allow him to cross over should he make it to the higher levels of the sport.
As for back story, check that off the list too, as his stepfather just happens to be former two-division world champion Julian Jackson. Not that he knew exactly who “The Hawk” was when he first came into his life when he was ten years old.
“I just knew he was my sister’s dad, that’s it,” said Laurent. “I knew he was kind of famous from what people said, but that was about it. I didn’t know that he was a boxer, that he was a world champion, none of that. I found that out later on.”
Maybe even better than Laurent’s tale is the love story between his mom and Jackson, who dated when they were in high school. A daughter was born from the union, but a few years later, the couple broke up. But around 1999, Jackson moved back to the area and Laurent’s mom let him know that his sister’s father was going to be visiting.
“She told me, ‘Your sister’s dad is back and he’s gonna be coming around to spend time with his daughter,’” recalled Laurent. “Eventually, the fire rekindled and they started dating again.”
Now boxing was all around him, especially with his stepbrothers John and Julius both putting the gloves on. But Laurent wasn’t having it, as he spent his after-school time on football and music, as he played the trumpet and sousaphone.
But eventually, “The Hawk” got to his son.
“I never saw myself becoming a boxer,” Laurent said. “My stepdad said you should box, but I didn’t want to do it. But then I did it and fell in love with it.”
And the Virgin Islands loved him back.
“The people respect you and look up to you,” he said. “They say, ‘My son wants to be like you, they want to go to the Olympics, they want to be a professional athlete.’ They see that they can now be something from the Virgin Islands. And it’s just pride, pride for where we come from. Look at Terence Crawford, he’s from Omaha, and he has a street named after him because he stayed in his city, he repped his city and he carried his city. I want to do the same for my Virgin Islands. My dad did it before me, Emile Griffith did it out of New York, but I want to do it from here.”
It’s a rare attitude to have, but you can hear the pride in Laurent’s voice when he talks about his home. And it’s not just talk, as Laurent’s day job until recently was as a property manager for Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency, which aided those affected by the hurricanes of 2017.
“I was a first responder, giving out food, helping shelters, helping with the recovery of the island,” said Laurent, whose goals go beyond glory in the ring.
“It’s means so much more for kids and for me to leave a legacy behind,” he said. “I was a kid that grew up in a slum, moved out of the slum, became a professional. I was told in school I was dumb and that I wasn’t gonna make it. So I want to change that cliché that you have to leave. You have to be driven, dedicate yourself, and sacrifice and it will pay off.”
Now all he has to do is be able to fight, and after a year layoff following his first pro bout against Wayman Carter in August 2017, he’s ready to get back after it.
“I want to be a champ. I want to show the people of my home that they can do it and I want to prove to myself that I’m a kid with a big heart, a lot of talent, a lot of hard work and I can become anything that I put my mind to,” said Laurent, who has the champ in his corner for his Brooklyn debut. And yes, at 57, one of the hardest punchers in boxing history still looks like he could lace up the gloves.
“It’s funny, man,” Laurent said. “Maybe two years back he finally stopped sparring with the kids. (Laughs) He’s still as smooth as he was back in ’89 when he knocked out Terry Norris. He was slipping punches and he’s still got the power. He’s almost 60 and he’s still rocking a six pack.”
Now I’m jealous.
“Aren’t we all,” Laurent laughs. “I’m 28 and I’m starting to get my six pack.”
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Clayton Laurent Jr. is a likeable young man with the personality to make it big in this sport. Having said that, you hope that fame won’t change him, but that looks like it won’t be an issue either.
“The Olympics changed my life,” he said. “When I beat the number one seed from Germany, I became an overnight celebrity. But you can’t let the experience change who you are. When I lost, the same people that were chasing me two days before for an interview were running away from me. It showed me how blunt boxing and life is. One minute you’re the man, the next minute, nobody wants to be around you. So you have to be true to yourself. You can’t ever get comfortable, never get complacent or feel that you’ve arrived.”