The first time Nate Jones worked in Floyd Mayweather’s corner, there were some words of reassurance exchanged before the work could proceed. But it was the fighter, not the assistant trainer, doing the talking.
Mayweather was in a much different place then than he will be next Saturday night, when he faces Manny Pacquiao in a welterweight blockbuster at MGM Grand here.
Then, as now, Mayweather had a welterweight title. But his 2006 fight against Carlos Baldomir came while his uncle Roger Mayweather was jailed for six months on a domestic conviction, his father still was training Oscar De La Hoya, and the pound-for-pound king was not yet a household name.
Floyd Mayweather pieced together his training for that fight against Baldomir. Leonard Ellerbe began the fight as chief second, then cut man Rafael Garcia finished it.
Jones, working the corner in a major fight for the first time, was starstruck.
After the first round, Mayweather noticed.
“He came back and told me, ‘Hey, don’t be nervous, it’s going to be OK, you can do it.’ I said, ‘OK, you’re right, I know I can do it,'” Jones said over the weekend. “It was just a surreal moment that I just had to brace myself, and just keep coming to God, saying, ‘Look, get me through this.’
“After the first round, second round, I was straight. It was like I was fighting and I was feeling comfortable all over again. It was cool. Best moment I’ve ever had in my life.”
Nine years after that fight, 11 years after taking employment with Mayweather, and 19 years after they were teammates and bronze medalists on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, Jones will be back in Mayweather’s corner next week for the most anticipated boxing event in decades.
Whether Jones is one of the four seconds approved to work on the ring apron has not been determined. Three of those spots are expected to go to Floyd Mayweather Sr., cut man Rafael Garcia, and assistant trainer and hand-wrap specialist Bob Ware. Leonard Ellerbe and Roger Mayweather also are candidates for the fourth spot.
Regardless, the 42-year-old Jones’ voice carries weight in the Mayweather corner, and in case he doubted that, he said the fighter grasped him by the hand recently and thanked him for his years of service.
“He respects my opinion. He says he listens to me,” Jones said.
Jones boxed professionally until 2002, when diminished reflexes detected by a neurologist forced him into retirement.
He had only a few dollars to his name when Mayweather called him in the middle of the night and asked him to join his team for a 2004 fight against Sharmba Mitchell.
Jones didn’t have much direction at the time and jumped at the offer.
“It changed my life,” he said.
Mayweather was the first to tell him he could make a name for himself as a trainer.
“And it clicked in my head one day, like that’s what I’m going to do, because I didn’t know what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” Jones said. “So I started getting around Roger and Floyd (Mayweather Sr.), and bringing up stuff with Buddy McGirt, and remembering things that Aaron Snowell said, and my trainer Tom O’Shea, and I started really learning the game.
“I had the thirst again. I knew my days of boxing were over, so my thirst to be a champion in this way just drove me to a higher level.”
Jones doesn’t know where he would be without Mayweather’s offer. A return to prison was one option; he did 20 months for armed robbery and auto theft after a 1991 conviction in Illinois. Street life was another, he said.
“I don’t know. I didn’t think I’d be doing this good in my life, and feeling this good about being in the biggest event ever. It’s like a surreal moment,” Jones said.
Everything Mayweather (47-0, 26 KOs) has done in 19 years as a professional boxer has built to this moment.
“His defense, his sharpness, his decision making, everything is sharp,” Jones said. “His feet, his eyes — he’s ready.”
Mayweather has said he does not plan to fight beyond 2015, and members of his team, including Jones, are beginning to make plans for that eventuality.
Jones also trains Fres Oquendo, a 42-year-old heavyweight who last year lost a hotly disputed decision in Russia to Ruslan Chagaev for the vacant World Boxing Association title. A rematch was ordered by a U.S. District Court judge in New York after a successful legal challenge by Oquendo’s team. Jones has worked three years, including one as head trainer, with Oquendo, who three times has lost as challenger for a major heavyweight title. Jones knows Oquendo as well as anyone. They fought five times as amateurs.
Jones also hopes to position himself for full-time work with Mayweather Promotions’ growing stable of fighters after its superstar namesake retires, and said he is considering moving from Chicago to Las Vegas in that pursuit.
First, there is the biggest fight in boxing to get through, and the culmination of a journey that began back in 1994, when Jones and Mayweather both won the National Golden Gloves. Mayweather invited Jones to Grand Rapids, and Jones moved there until their Olympic appearance two years later.
The friendship went through “ups and downs,” but for the most part, Jones has had a front-row seat to history.
“It shows me that he wasn’t crazy when he was young, saying how great he was going to be,” Jones said. “I thought something was wrong, he was absolutely crazy.
“He’s right, he did everything he said he would. He said he was going to beat Oscar, he said he was going to be the best ever, and he’s proved it. He’s the best fighter I’ve ever seen live. He’s incredible.”