‘Another teen shot dead in Jersey City,’ reads the top story when searching for the second-most populous city in New Jersey, with ‘Jersey City man sentenced to six years in Newport mall shooting,’ resting ominously just below it. Both stories entirely unrelated, but a reminder of what it’s like to grow up tough in the ‘201‘.
Khalil Coe, a former Team USA podium contender, lived and breathed it, describing himself already as his family’s breadwinner without a single professional fight to his name. His recent decision to turn over to boxing’s paid ranks should see him ink a deal with one of America’s top promoters but staying on the straight and narrow must remain his priority until contracts are finalised.
Coe had been basing himself in Colorado Springs with the national amateur squad for the best part of three years, and now that he’s back on his old stomping ground, he intends on keeping his head down. “Right now, I’m just focused on the long-term goal. We distanced ourselves from that certain area where there’s trouble, you know; we change places, people, and things to stop us from getting involved in things like that,” Coe told Boxing Social.
“It’s a rough environment here, but I know the environment; I know the places I shouldn’t be and, if I put myself in that situation, then I know what could happen. This is just the environment I grew up in, you know what I’m saying? When you go outside – all you see is violence. Where I grow up from, you really couldn’t step outside if you couldn’t fight. Someone would bother you; in order to go outside, you had to know how to fight. People would try to take things from you, and you had to stand up for yourself, otherwise you wouldn’t make it in Jersey City.”
Coe closes, with the soft, unassuming tone of a young Mike Tyson: “I was bred to fight – most definitely.”
He added: “I became involved in boxing at first because I was just a troubled kid; I was fighting on the streets and in school and stuff like that. My mom, one day she decided she was gonna put me in boxing. She was like: ‘We’ll see if you still like to fight’. She put me in one day and ever since then, I fell in love with it. But that only gets you so far, so you gotta put in the work to match your talent. There’s people who have that natural talent or the love and they think that’s all you have to do, but you gotta put the miles in and those days in the gym.”
It was watching tape of Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali on repeat that first opened the hyped prospect to the possibility of strapping on his own pair of gloves. Now, his favourite modern-day fighters include Floyd Mayweather Jr, Andre Ward and the ever-controversial Adrien Broner. It’s an eclectic mix, for sure.
Coe, now aged 24, is a student of DVD footage and YouTube clips, locking himself away to refine his fighting style. But despite his own progress and the plaudits earned over his relatively short amateur career, he could still recall that first visit to former Jersey City world title challenger Jimmy Dupree’s gym; he could remember the scents and sounds of the city’s frustrated youth.
“I still remember when I came in, it smelled like leather,” Coe told Boxing Social. “It was a good feeling because it was different; I was excited and I wanted to know what it would feel like to be a boxer. I never watched boxing before, as a kid, I never studied it. But after I stepped in the gym, everything was boxing. I wanted to dress like boxers, I wanted to have their haircuts. Once I’d stepped in the gym and hit a few bags, there was no going back from there.”
Coe’s biggest night in the sport’s unpaid ranks came against an active legend of the light-heavyweight division, Cuba’s Julio Cesar La Cruz, in June 2018. From hopping around the ring literally one-legged against top-level opponents, to capturing an Olympic gold medal and four World Championship golds, the Cuban has consistently been one of amateur boxing’s stars throughout the last decade.
When the pair met, the American was largely unfancied, due to his lack of experience and the unorthodox approach of his Cuban opponent. For context, it was Coe’s first major international tournament. But the team that surrounds the Jersey City man were confident – Julio Cesar La Cruz was the only man they wanted; they knew what it would do for their profile, and they knew they could – and would – emerge victorious.
“That was the big moment. That was the biggest highlight of my boxing career so far,” admitted Coe, the youngest of two boxing brothers living with their parents in New Jersey. “Going into that tournament, he was the only person we really trained for. We studied film on ‘em, because we knew. I didn’t know I was gonna knock him out, but we trained so that we didn’t leave it up to the judges. There was a fight right before, he fought Joe Ward out of Ireland the day before and nobody thought he won the fight – but they gave it to him because of who he is.
“When we started fighting, I knew I couldn’t leave it to the judges. Then, when I got the knockout, it was definitely a surprise, but not to me. People thought I wouldn’t win or that I wouldn’t compete at all because I lacked experience. My coach told me: ‘Okay, you did that,’ but all I did was put a target on my back. Everybody in that weight class was looking at me now, just like they looked at Cruz. That forced me to step up the work and to train harder.”
That hard work has been continuing and Coe has been training with his Jersey City team whilst sparring with former amateur rival Ward as recently as last month. He revealed that he is signed to a management contract with boxing superpower Split-T Management, fronted by David McWater, and the team expect a professional debut in May.
But why now? The delay and uncertainty surrounding the Tokyo Olympics of 2020 (later 2021) certainly played its part – but he feels ready to step up: “There’s people that told me, ‘You’re ready for this, you’re made for that,’ a long time ago when I thought about turning professional. But I did when I felt ready, you see. I think the work ethic [will be different as a pro].
“I do feel pressure to be great, yes. But I’ve learned to deal with that. For a moment, there was a time when every time I fought, they were expecting me to knock the guy out. I had to get past that and just be me; just be comfortable; just box. That’s something I had to deal with early on to prepare myself, so I think I got it under control. Success in boxing looks like being able to put my mom in a house on a hill somewhere with her feet kicked up, with no worries. That’s success for me. The people around me living comfortably. For me, it’s not about materialistic things.”
He wants to be remembered for his time in boxing as a “hard worker,” no more, no less. And the young light-heavyweight prospect is happy to earn his status.
He told Boxing Social about the importance of Islam after following the faith in the footsteps of his father. It keeps him humble, disciplined and full of respect for friends and potential enemies in the sport of boxing. It helps him to remain firmly on the straight and narrow that some of his neighbours or former school friends have deviated from.
With the backing of Split-T Management and whichever promoter they work with, Coe will be hoping to slap Jersey City’s name all over the news and create their own positive headlines in the years to come. Boxing can continue to be an escape for the next generation of kids dragged up in the 201, trapped indoors or fighting on the streets, with their own glittering, new ambassador.