One Life or the Other: The Return of Carson Jones

The world is always ready to be amazed, but the self, that lynx-eyed monitor, sees all the subterfuges, all the cut corners, and is not deceived.

—John Banville, The Infinities

***

It is perfectly understandable. Press a man about his life long enough, his story will begin to warp, shift, accrue details that leave those early drafts impoverished by comparison. Why this revision? There is boredom, ever needling our imagination, tinkering as it does with the worlds we construct, with our mnemonic scaffolding. There are the comparisons we draw between ourselves and others, the silent competition with our fellow autobiographers, vying as we do for the most compelling yarn. And the audience plays its meddling part, in its power to judge, exerting the kind of pressure that shapes and reshapes, setting before us the image we think we should present while leaving the fabrication to us.

The product is never something less dramatic⁠—the chef tastes intending to season⁠—and so our moments of weakness, our struggle, even (and especially) our flaws are exaggerated to improve the story. After all, the greater the challenge, the greater the triumph.

There are exceptions: people who hold firm to the truth, speaking plainly and honestly even about themselves; people who, in their bearing and speech, seem above or beyond the urge to fictionalize at all. What could explain this comfort in the was, and is, and will be?

***

“Let’s go at it like this,” he says, “I didn’t have a hard life.” And with that, Carson Jones sets himself apart from so many of his peers, young men who saw the ring as an escape route, harrowing though it may be. “You know, I was adopted but adopted into a good family. If anything, I was spoiled. You know, most people say, ‘Oh, I was hard because I had a hard life’⁠—I had an easy life, like, I was spoiled.” Jones is speaking on his preternatural toughness, one of his signature traits, and given his inauspicious start in an unforgiving sport, a crucial component of his success. And he is speaking about it honestly. Like his toughness, honesty—blunt and unsparing—defines the Oklahoma City fighter. This much is clear about Jones: he neither denies nor fears the was, is, and will be; the explanation for why is complex as it is compelling.

A chubby fifteen-year-old looking to occupy the time “not really going to school” afforded him, Jones had always been interested in boxing. “I think it was that one-on-one aspect⁠—there is no team, there is no one to help you, it’s just you and that other person. Not to mention, who doesn’t like taking out their aggression and beating somebody up now and again? And it isn’t too bad that someone pays you for it.”

Jones found what he was looking for in the TKOforme gym, opened and operated by a former staple of the Midwestern boxing circuit, Buck Smith. “When I started, I was in the gym every day. The gym was right around the corner, maybe a mile and a half from my house. So I would have my cousin⁠—I had a car at the time⁠—I would have my cousin hop in my car and drive behind me to the gym every day. I would run there and run back. I don’t know, I just kind of fell in love with having a six-pack, to be honest. And I was starting to like girls at the time too, so having a six-pack didn’t hurt.”

The six-pack reference feels like a joke, an element of humor inserted to lighten the conversation between strangers. And perhaps it is, but Jones delivers it like testimony. He is not humorless, but he is serious, and one gets the sense that regardless of the role this reference to his abdominals has on the tone of the conversation, it should be included as part of the narrative. Jones does not make throwaway comments. And he means what he says.

***

Over the TKOforme gym ring is a sign bearing a quote from Napoleon Bonaparte: “He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat.” Its purpose is as clear as its meaning; an example of the fighting propaganda featured in gyms across the globe intended to steel the nerves of people tempting a defeat unlike any they will find in other sports. But even the fearless lose. Jones knows this too well. The limitations of his late start in boxing were not the only ones Jones had to overcome. He fought thirty times as an amateur, “But thirty wasn’t enough for me,” he admits, “because that was like, thirty over four or five years. I wasn’t really busy. And I didn’t really have a lot of good sparring or training around the city where I grew up.”

Despite its limitations, the amateur circuit in Oklahoma was far healthier than the professional one. In the mid-nineties, Oklahoma’s boxing commission was caught in the fallout of political turmoil, culminating with the most active promoter in the state leaving. Oklahoma hosted thirty-nine shows in 1990; by 1998, the number had dropped to one. Jones turned pro in 2004 and fought many of his early fights in Oklahoma, but boxing had a faint pulse in the state by then, and Jones soon started traveling for fights—and losing them. There were the draw and loss to Favio Medina in Worley, Idaho; the loss to Luciano Perez in Cicero, Illinois; the losses to Alfonso Gomez in Sacramento; to Freddy Hernandez in Oroville, California; to Roberto Garcia in Mercedes, California; to Chris Grey in Tacoma, Washington.

“I noticed pretty early on⁠—which is why I ended up switching managers⁠—that I was being thrown in there to make a quick buck,” says Jones. “And it wasn’t even that much money, you know, they were throwing me in there to make five grand or whatever it was. And I was getting chump change out of it. I noticed it early on. It’s why I had so many different managers and losses early on.

How might Jones have been developed were he from California, Florida, or Texas, where the infrastructure for developing prize fighters is proven and established? Jones entertains the thought but offers his own counter, acknowledging that turning pro at eighteen and his lack of amateur experience were obstacles. “I had a rocky start, so I wouldn’t say really I was all that great. But I needed the pressure: it took a few losses for me to get my head on straight. I kinda learned on the job.”

He is pragmatic about those early defeats, finding value in them however much they may have rerouted his career. “These days, one loss in boxing is a death sentence to a career. But those early losses really motivated me to get that much better. And I ended up doing my best work after. Some people, they take a loss and get butthurt, they struggle to get motivated to get back to training.” Consider for a moment how many palliative tattoos follow defeat, how many battles are fought on social media after the one in the ring goes awry. Fighters are supremely confident, irrationally so; the best display a galvanizing arrogance⁠—these are necessary conditions for their success. But fighters are often buried under the rubble when that edifice shatters. For some reason, perhaps because he took to boxing without the grand dreams of a groomed prospect, perhaps because he didn’t know any better, Jones was somewhat insulated against the fallout of a mismanaged early career.

Jones sees defeat as revealing “who is made for the sport. It made me want to go back and fix everything that went wrong … A lot of times, it can just be a case of the wrong fight at the wrong time. Because a lot of the guys I lost to early, like, if I had taken those fights two or three years down the line, those guys wouldn’t have belonged in the same ring as me. A lot of it is about timing.”

***

Timing is something Jones appreciates. Lucrative opportunities for inactive thirty-six-year-old boxers with fifteen losses are few. “We don’t gotta sugarcoat it or anything,” he says, discouraging any charitable analysis of his prospects, “We at the end. We are at the end of my career.” “At my best, I’m somebody who has a really good chance at beating you. And with my name, I still have enough to get decent fights. But I’m no fool: I know I’m not the same twenty-five-year-old I used to be.” He offers this assessment freely, at peace with his inevitable decline but unbowed by it, aware that expectations should adjust for reality. He is also deeply familiar with what he is capable of. “Now, I say that simply because of how my body has been feeling. It’s like, every time I turn around it’s something new,” a dogged ache, recalcitrant tendon, stubborn joint, “and I’m okay with that. But I want to have a couple more fights, see if I can’t get a big one, and see where I’m at. I can’t just call it quits without giving it a second chance.”

A second chance? A second implies a first, so when did the first one end?

***

“I have a fight on March 18th; it’s my second fight in two years. Supposedly, we’re going to do this fight and then do something bigger after that. And really, I don’t want to state the obvious, but I’m trying to make some money before I call it quits too. And the only way to really make money is to fight some good opposition.” A condition that is a reality for hardscrabble fighters like Jones.

The date is significant.

“So, these last three years, when I was on hiatus, I was actually dealing with addiction issues. Alcohol. This next fight marks my two-year sobriety: March 20th is my sobriety date.”

“Two years,” he repeats, not to revel in the accomplishment so much as to document it, as if the time confirms the transformation. “People kind of overlook [addiction] in our sport, but it’s very present. Broner, it’s a whole bunch of other guys in our sport. I want them to know there is help out there and a better life after it.”

“Our sport is saturated,” says Jones, employing a poignant word. “A lot of guys in their off time are doing the same thing I was doing—cocaine, alcohol, you know, weed.” The reasons for this rampant abuse are myriad and reflect a sport that demands profound sacrifice. “Some of it has to do with where people come from,” suggests Jones, who rightly identifies the broken communities and abject poverty that wire men for violence, predispose them to extremes. “Another part of it is all the work we put in, it’s a release [the partying], but then you start to experiment with other stuff, start to like it too much, and that’s what turns somebody to an addict.”

And then there is the loneliness. “[Boxing] is one of the hardest sports, it’s super lonely. You put in hours and hours and hours of your life, and when you start young, you miss out on a lot of stuff. You’re alone so much, it’s the loneliest sport, that’s part of why it’s so tough. So when you make it you want to let loose a little bit and that turns into a bad thing.”

Boxing is patrolled by predators too: think the great whites of False Bay, lurking beyond the shelf, waiting for the sea lions that must inevitably imperil themselves to survive. Promoters, managers, advisors, sycophants⁠—they know the risk and who incurs it in a sport where but a fraction of the daring find success, and they know when to strike. How lonely must the unshakeable sense of being hunted feel.

***

Jones is all-too-familiar with loneliness. To escape the trapping of Oklahoma, he tried moving to Las Vegas, thinking that a new city, one predicated on excess but also one where boxing is very much alive, would right him. The decision brings to mind a timeless question from Socrates: “How can you wonder your travels do you no good when you carry yourself around with you?”

“I tried moving to Vegas, but that was a stupid decision. Running isn’t and was never the answer. I learned that running to Vegas. Vegas was one of the worst times of my life, just a lonely, very dark, very, very dark time. And I’m not saying this just ’cause it was Vegas, but it was harder to stay away from the alcohol there than it was in Oklahoma City. I was training, but I was just so alone all the time.” Anyone who spends more than three days in the bacchanalian current of Las Vegas can understand just how lonely, how isolating, a crowd can be. “I had a condo out there but no friends, I didn’t know anybody, it was just a lonely and dark period. I never even went on the Strip when I went there. I stayed in the gym, but there was just something missing. I didn’t have my family.” So he returned to Oklahoma, to company good and bad, nurturing and destructive.

***

His drinking became a problem after he first challenged Kell Brook, in July 2012, when Jones traveled to Sheffield and nearly upset the then-undefeated Brook on his home turf. “If we had fought in the States, I probably would’ve got that one,” he admits, “but it was super close and I can’t really make an argument.” (This is yet another instance of honesty rare among prizefighters.)

He became complacent, a dangerous state for someone with money, time, and a nagging urge to party. Able to silence that destructive urge when the ring demanded it, for years subsisting in a perpetual cycle of drowning and drying out, drunkenness and discipline, Jones realized he had reached “a point where I wasn’t able to turn it off when I wanted to. I started missing flights, missing training camps, pulling out of fights because I was drinking and partying too much.”

Sobriety for Jones began on March 19, 2021, after he was jailed for an alcohol-related domestic dispute. He had been to jail before, in 2019, after a string of DUIs; a sign of a problem that even Jones, head clouded at the time, could recognize. But not until a toxic relationship and a poisoned mind delivered Jones to the District Court in Oklahoma County and once more into the caseload of Assistant District Attorney, Madeliene Coffey, was he forced to reckon with his problem.

Coffey was the same District Attorney from Jones’s most recent DUI case. “She knew that I had never been in any kind of trouble except for the drinking,” says Jones, “so she worked it out where I could come to rehab as part of my sentence such that if I completed the rehab and did some classes I wouldn’t have to serve my time in prison. I could be a free man.”

***

About thirty miles south of Oklahoma City—and nowhere near temptation—sprawls the men’s rehab facility, Rob’s Ranch. Here Jones entered a ninety-day treatment program and conquered his addiction. “I was in jail for eight months, and once I got out I was on a mission. When I got out I went straight to rehab. I didn’t even go home.” Intaking on October 20, 2021, Jones graduated on January 17. He has worked as a cook at the ranch ever since.

Here you might expect Jones to finally fall back into a familiar pattern, letting the urge to augment his story fundamentally change it. But he refuses, perhaps because what it took for Jones to reach this investiture of sobriety was a degree of honesty most of us can avoid. He speaks plainly of the origins of his addiction, stressing his accountability: “It isn’t really what anyone put me through: it’s what I put myself through when it comes to addiction. Addiction is a disease, but it’s a self-inflicted disease. Nobody did anything wrong to me—shit, I just started drinking and liked it too much. It’s that simple.”

“I don’t miss the hangover, I’ll tell you that,” Jones says of his life beyond the bottle. “It was an everyday thing: I was drinking just to get rid of the hangover. But physically, eh, sadly, I’m starting to feel all my years in boxing.” How many fighters would acknowledge that deterioration? How many would disclose it if they did? This is but another example of Jones’s honesty, one that makes sense considering the function of admission in rehab. Perhaps Jones is so unwaveringly honest because he had no choice: because sobriety was a condition of his freedom, yes, but also because honesty has itself become a type of freedom.

“Mentally, as far as the drinking goes, I don’t even miss it. It’s crazy to me that people would put poison in their bodies. It shouldn’t even be a thing where you’re proud of yourself for being two years sober. But since it is, I am proud of that. I have no desire or want for that life anymore.” His gratitude is profound and extends beyond the staff at Rob’s Ranch, who Jones celebrates as his “biggest supporter. They have my back, they helped me get my career back on track. Without them, I wouldn’t be here.” He also appreciates the companies that have sponsored him: Whitney Roofing and Guttering, Arrow Electric, Freedom Pavement Services, ATF Commercial Flooring, L4 Restored. Like Madeleine Coffey, like the people at Rob’s Ranch, they recognize the good in Jones, find him worthy of support. And that, too, signifies success.

***

“I’m glad I’m able to talk about it without any regrets. It would have been nice to have things been otherwise, but I’ll have other chances, maybe not other chances for a world title, but other chances in life to do something great. And that’s more important,” says Jones, philosophically. “The way I was going, I probably wouldn’t have made it much longer. Even though I had to go to jail, I had to do eight months, that was the best thing to happen to me because I wasn’t going to get myself out of that situation.”

“I got kids I wanna spend time with and raise. They need me here. And the alcohol? There is no room for both. I can live one life or the other. Alcohol has done nothing but steal from me⁠—steal from all the great moments in my life.” He knows that now. And you can only know the truth.

Jones has turned off the partying again. This time for good. This time, maybe a world that is always ready to be amazed should be.

 

About Jimmy Tobin 104 Articles
Jimmy Tobin is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in The Cruelest Sport, 15 Rounds, Undisputed Champion Network, Esquina Boxeo, El Malpensante, The Queensbury Rules, and The Fight Network. Jimmy is the author of Killed in Brazil? The Mysterious Death of Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, published by Hamilcar Publications. Connect with Jimmy on Twitter.