Taking a Shot
In the beginning, Rashiem Jefferson couldn't get any fights. There were no other seventy-pound fourteen-year-olds in North Philadelphia willing to put on boxing gloves and rumble, so Rashiem would fill his pocket with the fight-gym tokens they gave him at school and go down to Joe Frazier's and hit the heavy bag and get his footwork together. He sparred with the bigger guys and waited for his time. Soon enough, everyone told him, when he bulked up and got taller and filled out, he would get bouts. So he was patient, and eventually it happened. He grew. And he started winning right away in Philadelphia, catching the eye of the city's hard-nosed boxing crowd, including veteran trainers Howard Mosley and Vaughn Jackson. In 1998, at the age of sixteen, he won the National Junior Olympic Championship at 95 pounds. Not one of his final three opponents scored a single point against him.
That was it: the birth of a career. "I liked football," Rashiem says. "I hoped to be a running back. But after I won the J.O. nationals, I just started lovin' boxing more and more. I saw it's what I really cared about. What I wanted."
And what he was built for. In 2000, fighting at 112 pounds, he won the first of his three straight National Golden Gloves titles. Still growing, he won the Golden Gloves at 119 in 2001 and repeated that in 2002. Suddenly, Rashiem Jefferson was very much on the radar. Seasoned by a 100-10 lifetime mark, he had developed into one of the toughest fighters in the amateur ranks, a slick, lean 5' 7" boxer who could really bang when he had to but preferred to move in fast, stick his opponents with a barrage of jabs and crosses, and get out again. That way, he almost never got hit. Little wonder that his idol was Floyd Mayweather, as fast and crafty a 135-pounder as pro boxing has seen in years. As a bonus, Rashiem could also switch from righty to southpaw, which confused his opponents and TV commentators alike.
"He's a superb athlete and an excellent fighter," says one USA Boxing official. "What everyone's waiting to see now is how he comes back. How he'll respond to what happened to him."
Most 21-year-olds, filled with the daring of youth and boundless belief in themselves, don't have to think about comebacks. That's for old people. Busted-up fighters and fools. But Rashiem Jefferson has to think about a comeback. Has to fight with all his heart for one. Because late on the afternoon of March 19, 2003, on tough Corlies Street in North Philadelphia -- a neighborhood everyone calls the Badlands -- a young crack dealer pointed a huge automatic pistol at Rashiem Jefferson's head. They'd gotten into an argument a day earlier, after Rashiem had attracted the attention of police by riding a dirt bike through the neighborhood and the cops had rousted the dealers from their favorite corners. That was bad for business. So the next day, one bark led to another, somebody got in somebody's face, and Rashiem decked the crack dealer with a very professional-looking right cross. The dealer got his gun.
And Rashiem got lucky for a minute. Just as his brains were about to be splattered onto the pavement, the clip popped out of the pistol's butt. Then his luck ran out. As the shooter was shoving the wayward clip back in, the gun went off at close range, and a .45 slug tore through the young fighter's left lung and straight out his back, missing his heart by an inch. As Rashiem ran away, fueled by pure adrenaline, four more shots zinged past him, one of them nicking his elbow. At first he didn't even know he'd been shot in the chest. But his companion that day, fellow Philly boxer Wahid Rahim, saw a huge patch of red spreading over the front of his friend's shirt.
It was two days before the young fighter was supposed to be at the 2003 U.S. national championships in Colorado Springs.
"When I woke up in the hospital," Rashiem remembers, "I thought it was all a dream. All these people were working on me, and they had this mask on my face that I kept trying to take off. 'No, no,' they said. 'You need that.' I thought, 'Man, I'm about to die. It's over.'"
A year later, Rashiem Jefferson finally made it to Colorado Springs -- for last week's Everlast U.S. Championships, at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. If he's not quite the same fighter he was before getting shot -- not yet, anyway -- he's definitely a different man. A better man. Second chances don't come along very often, he says, so when you get one, you'd better make the best of it. With that in mind, he's moved in with his grandmother, Myrna Burch James, on what he calls "a more peaceful street" in Philadelphia. He's quit the games that sometimes got the best of him: staying out all night, skipping training sessions, losing focus. Now he goes to church. He prays. Most important, when he's not training, he stays home with his two-year-old son, also called Rashiem, and he thinks about turning pro -- just after the Athens Summer Olympics, if things go right -- so that he can start helping his nine brothers and sisters. "They stuck with me," he says. "Now I want to do something for them."
At the moment, he's getting his strength back, and his confidence. For weeks after wobbling out of Women's Hospital in Philadelphia under his own power, he got winded just climbing stairs, and when he started running again, it was sheer agony. So were those first tentative workouts in the gym. Still, seven months after being shot, he returned to the ring -- too soon, it turned out -- and was beaten in the National Police Athletic League semi-finals. "Guy just kept coming at me," he remembers. "My mind was ready, but my body wasn't."
After that loss, Rashiem gained strength and won six straight bouts. Last week in Colorado Springs he tacked on two more, beating Joseph Santistevan of Ventura, California, and Kevin Hudgins of Pensacola, Florida, on consecutive days before losing in the semi-finals Friday night to a tough New Yorker named Roberto Benitez, who was moving up to 119 pounds for the first time in this tournament. At midday Friday, in the empty boxing arena at the Olympic Center, Rashiem said he was "very, very nervous about this fight" -- because it was not just his first stern test since getting out of the hospital, but a signpost for his entire future. With a win, he would go straight to the Olympic team. Lose, and he would still have to qualify for Athens at the U.S. Eastern Championships January 27-31 -- the road he will now have to take. If he fails there, Rashiem says, he'll immediately turn professional.
Whatever happens, don't question his heart. Not now. Or his will. "I'm extremely motivated since the shooting," he says. "I don't quite know where I am physically, but I approach the ring very different now. I guess I've grown up. Needed to. The main thing, I think about little Rashiem. He goes to the gym with me. He loves boxing. He loves picking up the gloves. 'Daddy, I wanna go see you fight,' he says. 'Daddy, I wanna fight, too.' I hear that and I see it, and I realize that this is not for me anymore -- it's for him."
And that crack dealer back home in north Philly? What about him? "Oh, yeah," Rashiem says. "The cops got him, but I never went to court. I didn't show up, so he's free now." Why didn't he show up to testify? Why wouldn't a young man who almost lost his life in a mad moment on the streets go after his measure of justice?
Older, wiser and more focused, Rashiem Jefferson has an answer for that, too. "Because it's not about him," he says. "Let him be free. I want him to see that I still have what I had before he shot me. I didn't take no losses. He took all the losses. He sat all that time [in jail] for nothing. For nothing. I'm still gonna make it to the top. For my son and my family and for me. And he'll have to see that. That's how I win. And he loses. Nothing's about revenge anymore. It's about winning. And moving on."
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