By Thomas Gerbasi
If all goes well in James Wilkins’ ShoBox debut against fellow unbeaten Misael Lopez, a bout that follows the Showtime premiere of the “Cradle of Champions” documentary that he stars in, life is going to be significantly different for the New Yorker on Monday.
Well, that’s the plan.
“Oh yeah, of course,” said Wilkins matter-of-factly. “That’s what I’ve been working so hard for since my Golden Gloves fights.”
It’s Wilkins’ 2015 run in the New York Golden Gloves that is the centerpiece of the critically-acclaimed documentary, which also features Wilkins’ rival Titus Williams and multi-time NYGG winner Nisa Rodriguez. And over the course of the film, viewers get a deeper look – good and bad – at Wilkins’ journey to that year’s finals. Seeing your life revealed to the world can be difficult, but the 22-year-old takes it all in stride.
“There was nothing bad, I just see my growth and I see how far I’ve changed and learned as a fighter,” he said.
But…spoiler alert…after watching Wilkins slam a sparring partner and then knee an opponent in a Gloves bout, how come he didn’t take himself to mixed martial arts.
“I don’t know,” he laughs. “I think there’s more money in boxing.”
The takedown technique was pretty stellar, though.
“A lot of people tell me that,” Wilkins said. “They say that must not have been my first time doing it, and I said it wasn’t.”
Without question, Wilkins is a scrapper, and an old school one at that. If that costs him sometime down the line remains to be seen, but at the moment, he’s 5-0 as a pro with five knockouts and he doesn’t hesitate to say of himself, “I’m like the new Tyson.”
We all know how that story went, with outside the ring issues and a lack of focus eventually taking down “Iron Mike.” But it was that early hunger and ferocious intensity to succeed and vanquish his demons that set Tyson apart from the rest. Wilkins knows that struggle, coming up hard in various stays in Brooklyn and Staten Island as a kid. And having 23 cousins taught him how to fight.
“My cousins were kicking my ass every day until I got old enough and they couldn’t beat me no more,” Wilkins recalls. “One day they jumped me and threw me out the trailer and I got sprayed by a skunk.”
He was 10. But he can laugh about it now.
“I brought it up to them around two years ago and my cousin was like, ‘Well, we can’t do nothing about it now. We ain’t ten no more.’”
No, he’s not. Wilkins is 22 now, a professional athlete, and there’s a weight to whatever he does. That weight will get heavier if he scores a big win on Friday after introducing his story to the world through “Cradle of Champions.” He’s well aware of what’s at stake, but the way he tells it, he’s been waiting forever for this.
“It’s something that was always meant to be, it just took time,” he said, knowing that he has the potential to make an impact beyond the ring with his polarizing personality alone.
“You have to have star quality and charisma,” he said. “You’ve got to know how to stand out, but people have to be able to relate to you.”
And while many will gravitate to the cocky proclamations Wilkins has an abundance of (He promises “A world-class knockout” against Lopez), his truest fan base will likely come from folks that know his journey, one that includes losing his friend Felicia Garcia to suicide in 2012 and another friend, fellow boxer Tairiq Matthews, to a shooting in 2017. It’s not a topic Wilkins likes talking about, but it’s clear that he will never forget his friends.
“What’s done is done and it can’t be removed, so since I’ve gotta live with it, it just causes me to fight harder,” said Wilkins, who knows he’s not alone. And it’s these kindred spirits that will be with him as he moves up the 130-pound ladder.
“When you come from nothing and you see other people come from nothing, it’s different,” he said. “You understand them.”