A strip of tape covered the tattered punching shield, enough to hold it together but not enough to provide hope that the shield would be able to sustain the crushing blows Jaron Ennis was ready to throw.
He is one of boxing’s feared knockout artists, a rising star from Germantown who soon could be Philadelphia’s next world champion with the chance to reach even greater heights.
Ennis’ father, a boxing lifer still chasing his first world championship, is his trainer, and his older brothers — two Philly fighters who found success before reaching their ceilings — inspired Ennis to dream while providing a roadmap of the pitfalls to avoid on his way to the top.
He is the product of a family devoted to boxing, and a win on Saturday will put the Ennis family in line later this year for that elusive world title. And it is in places like this gritty Frankford gym affectionately called “the dungeon” that the boxer’s dream blossomed.
Ennis, nicknamed “Boots,” has been a professional for six years, but his father says his career began before he could even walk. Derek “Bozy” Ennis, who fought six pro fights before becoming a trainer, was hitting a heavy bag years ago when an infant Jaron Ennis rolled over in his walker and mimicked his father’s hands.
Last week, days before Saturday’s crucial fight, the father gripped the taped punching shield as his son cracked it, each blow sending pieces of the protective padding to the ring canvas, the tape to do its job.
Jaron Ennis, the 24-year-old powerful enough to deteriorate a punching shield, will be in the ring Saturday for an International Boxing Federation title eliminator on Showtime against Custio Clayton in Carson, Calif. The winner will become the mandatory challenger for the IBF’s welterweight title.
And Ennis won’t be fighting only for himself.
“He has everybody in him,” his father said.
Philly famous, not world famous
Jaron Ennis is more than 10 years younger than his older brothers, so he was barely a teenager when they were headlining shows in Atlantic City or fighting on national TV. Derek “Pooh” Ennis and Farah Ennis were two of the Philly’s top prospects as they climbed the rankings, allowing their younger brother to envision himself doing the same thing.
“Having them as boxers was everything,” Ennis said. “I always wanted to be like them. They fought on TV on Showtime and ESPN, and I wanted to be like them when I got older. Here I am.”
Derek Ennis, a middleweight, was ranked No. 3 by the IBF and Farah Ennis, a super middleweight, was ranked No. 6 by the WBC.
Like Jaron Ennis, the older brothers had promising careers and title hopes. But the dedication that showed early in their careers waned as the spotlight became brighter. The distractions that came with fame were too hard to avoid.
“My dad said, ‘We wanted to be Philly famous instead of world famous,’” said 41-year-old Derek Ennis as the brothers also were trained by their dad. “That’s what the whole difference is between us and Jaron. He watched our mistakes. All the mistakes we made, he took them and turned them into a positive. He knows that me and my brother were all over. We were running around. I was on the streets playing and partying.”
The brothers avoided serious trouble outside of the ring, but they fell out of shape between fights, believing they could just apply themselves in the weeks leading up to a bout. Their father told them to always stay in the gym, which was easier said than done.
The title shots that once seemed so certain never happened as both promising careers ended as contenders.
“That’s what separates Jaron from us,” 39-year-old Farrah Ennis said. “There’s no distractions. Nothing can distract him from getting to where he wants to go. He doesn’t party. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t chase girls. The gym is where he gets his excitement.”
His brothers inspired him, his dad trained him, and even his mother played a part as she helped coin the name that Ennis wears on his trunks each fight. Sharon Ennis called him “Boops” as a boy, but the nickname was misheard one day as “Boots” when Ennis went with his dad to the gym. And that’s how Ennis is known best in the ring.
“It just stuck,” Ennis said.
Ennis works out during the day, runs a Bucks County track at night, and goes to sleep. That’s about it, he said, and he even stays off social media except to post some things to keep his name relevant. He’s back in the gym within a week of each fight, always staying in shape so he doesn’t have to battle his body the way his brothers did.
“Boots is different,” Bozy Ennis said.
The Ennis brothers, who now assist their father in training their younger brother, don’t have to remind Jaron Ennis about their mistakes. He saw it all himself.
“My brothers showed me the way,” Ennis said. “They showed me what to do, what not to do. They told me to always be in shape because you never know when you’re going to get a call. Stay focused and stay locked in.”
“It’s definitely come full circle. I was at their fights, and now they’re at all my fights. It’s crazy how life changes.”
Surviving the dungeon
The 2,500-square-foot room on Paul Street in Frankford, just a block from the Market-Frankford El, is called Philly 1 on 1 Boxing. But when 66-year-old Bozy Ennis is there, it becomes “Bozy’s Dungeon.”
Ennis has trained his fighters all over the city since starting his career at the old Police Athletic League gym on Seymour Street in Germantown. That old gym was below street level, and a visit from Naazim Richardson — the legendary trainer from Germantown — in the early ‘90s provided the nickname that stuck.
“He said ‘Bo, you better bring those guys out of the dungeon. Those guys are good fighters,’” Bozy Ennis said. “That’s why it’s ‘Bozy’s Dungeon.’ Naazim is the one. Now it’s like my logo.”
The “Bozy’s Dungeon” sign — a white wood sign with black letters — has followed Ennis to various spots across the city, but the environment in those gyms always seems the same.
“The dungeon is hard work, grit, and grind. It’s about always finding a way to win,” Jaron Ennis said. “Everyone comes here to get better, and it’s a great community. We try to make each other better every day.”
The heavy bags inside the dungeon are taped up, the ceiling is wood, and a steel hoist sits atop the middle of the room from when the gym was a trolley repair shop. Fighters train by slamming a sledgehammer against a tractor tire and chopping a log with an ax.
The ring is worn as boxers — ones with promise like Ennis and others who fight on the weekend at local casino shows — are in and out all day.
It is the quintessential Philly gym as visitors know what they’re getting as soon as they open the door.
“I like dirty gyms. I like it when it’s gritty,” Derek “Pooh” Ennis said. “That’s how we always had it. I love when people come in and they look like ‘Ohh.’ I felt like the people who trained in really nice gyms were always soft. They have air conditioning in the summertime. We don’t need that. We’re working out to sweat.”
The dungeon is where Jaron Ennis grew from the baby in a walker to an amateur champion while attending Saul High School to a rising star who seems to do everything right inside and outside the ring.
“I’m different,” Ennis said. “I’m naturally gifted. I fight right-handed, southpaw, or orthodox. I can box or I can bang. It doesn’t matter. I’m like a variety pack. Whatever you need, I can do.”
Jaron Ennis could train anywhere. But he drives 40 minutes every day to Frankford from his home in Horsham.
There’s no locker room, so the fighter pegged by some as the next face of boxing grabs his belongings from the metal locker — the one with “Boots” written on a piece of tape — by the entrance and changes behind the check-in desk. The dungeon is all he has ever known, and it’s where Ennis feels at home.
“You have to be dedicated. You have to be loyal. You have to really want to work,” his father said. “A lot of them came to the dungeon, but a lot of them couldn’t survive a lot of the stuff that we were doing. That’s why I call it the dungeon. If you can’t go through the stuff that I teach you, then it isn’t for you.”
The next star
Ennis no longer has a promoter, but he does have a lucrative multi-fight contract with Showtime, which will help line him up against the premier names in the Premier Boxing Champions stable managed by Al Haymon.
Ennis’ last 18 wins have come via stoppage, including seven knockouts in the first round. That power has made it a challenge to find credible opponents as some see Ennis (28-0, 26 knockouts) as too risky. Even finding sparring partners, his dad said, can be troublesome.
But that shouldn’t be the case as Showtime seems committed to riding Ennis to stardom.
His last opponent was thought to be a step-up in competition, but Ennis knocked out Thomas Dulorme in one round. Clayton (19-0-1, 12 KOs) is 34 years old and unspectacular, making Ennis a heavy favorite. In October 2020, the Canadian Clayton fought Sergey Lipinets to a draw. Six months later, Ennis knocked out Lipinets in the sixth round.
A win Saturday would make Ennis the No. 1 contender for Errol Spence’s IBF welterweight title. Spence is expected to defend his title later this year against Terence Crawford, but Ennis is unlikely to face either of them.
Crawford said he plans to move up afterward to the 154-pound super welterweight class, and Ennis’ dad expects Spence to avoid his son. If Ennis wins Saturday, a likely scenario would be him facing former champion Keith Thurman later this year for a vacant title.
“I feel like I’m getting bigger, but this is nothing new to me,” Ennis said. “I’ve been around this stuff for a long time so it feels normal to me. Boxing has always been fun for me and it still is. It comes naturally. I don’t fight for the money. I fight because I love fighting.”
He could end this year as a world champion and one of boxing’s brightest stars. But none of that happens without a win on Saturday.
His brothers, the ones who inspired him to be better than they were, will sit with him in the dressing room and walk behind him into the ring, feeling the energy at his fights the same way Ennis did at theirs. And his dad, the guy who taught his sons to box and swept the pieces of padding out of the ring after his son punched through that punching shield, will be in his corner.
Jaron Ennis will be alone in the ring when the bell sounds, but his family will be with him. A win will push all of them closer to their dream.
“I’m trying to take my last name to a next level, and I will,” Ennis said. “Me winning a world title, my first belt I’m putting it right on my dad. I’m not even going to take it. It’s going right on him because he deserves it. He’s been around this game a long time. It’s been his time to shine. This is all he knows. He made all of us, basically.”