A FRIENDLY old bulldog was on patrol at the open gate of J & M Auto, the property next to the PHILLY 1 ON 1 BOXING gym, which was locked down tight with a metal rollup door. The Frankfort neighbourhood is part of what is known as the Badlands, but on that sunny but crisp Saturday afternoon the 4000 block of Paul Street was benign. The biggest danger was slipping on the ice lingering after back-to-back snowstorms.
Soon a white SUV came flying around the corner and parked on the sidewalk. It was Derek “Bozy” Ennis, the patriarch of a boxing family. He was with his youngest son, Jaron ‘Boots; Ennis, an undefeated welterweight of which much is expected.
Boots’ oldest brother Derek “Pooh” Ennis was also with us, but Farah, the middle brother, was a no-show. His father laughed and said he was “still in bed.”
We had agreed to a group interview because Jaron’s story is also his family’s story, a hard fought journey that has yet to reach the promised land. Nobody said it out loud that afternoon, but baby bro Boots is both the best and last chance for the fighting Ennis family to rise to the elite level.
Jaron is scheduled to fight Sergey “Samurai” Lipinets, April 10 on Showtime, a significant moment in the arc of his career. Lipinets isn’t an easy out. A unanimous decision loss to Mikey Garcia in March 2018 is his only defeat, but if Boots is everything he seems to be, the Kazakh is in trouble.
“When most hot prospects build their records early in their careers I often wonder how well they’ll do when they move up,” said Showtime’s Steve Farhood. “Not with Ennis. Even early on, I felt he was good enough to compete with the welterweight elites, and certainly nothing he’s done in recent fights has made me reconsider. He’s the total package, and I have a strong suspicion that when he’s asked to raise his game on a really big stage, he’ll rise to the occasions.”
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Bozy is 65 but looks 10 years younger and still spars, as he will surely tell you. He started as a street fighter with a badass right hand, and it wasn’t until he began boxing that he found out he wasn’t even throwing it properly. He had a modest 4-2 pro career (according to BoxRec.com) and quit when his trainer, Al Styles Snr, died. Since then Bozy has focused on his sons’ careers, while helping other fighters as well. Super-bantamweight Stephen Fulton trained at the 1 ON 1 gym for his recent victory over Angelo Leo.
The history of fathers training their sons is long and fraught with good starts and bad endings. Still, Pooh and Farah stayed the course with their father who guided them to respectable careers. That Boots would eventually join them was fait accompli.
“I was born into it,” Boots said. “I’ve been around it all my life and have seen my brothers fight successfully on Showtime and ESPN. I also got to see my dad train, so it was just a matter of time before I got in the ring to fight.”
Not that the two disciplines are mutually exclusive, but with his gold-rimmed eyeglasses, conservative haircut and shy smile, Boots looks more like a college student than a fighter. Beneath that tranquil demeanor, however, there’s a man who was born to box.
Jaron watched a lot of Roy Jones and Pernell Whitaker growing up, and you can see their influence, but he seems more spontaneous than his heroes at this point of his career. There’s a hectic flamboyance to Boots’ work, the thrust and parry of a fencer, switching his stance from orthodox to southpaw and back again so smoothly you don’t notice it happening. It’s a bold, unpredictable approached backed up by the danger lurking in both fists.
“I love putting on a show and giving the fans a knockout at the end of the night,” Jaron said. “Fans don’t want long fights. They want knockout.”
Boots’ movement and punch selection seem to evolve spontaneously like a jazz solo. That’s because he’s been steeped in boxing since childhood and practice the art until it became second nature, allowing ingenuity to take flight.
The fringe on Boots’ trunks swishes and swirls as he pivots at top speed, creating angles from which to attack or escape. Sure, he misses wildly on occasion, but it shows an inclination to take risks when he doesn’t need to, a dangerous but admirable trait in a fighter who dares to be great.
“I don’t have just one dimension,” said Boots. “I can box. I can walk you down. I can fight right-handed and left-handed. I can be slick. I can be mean. I’m 100 per cent different from other fighters.”
Exceptional speed, superb reflexes and an acute sense of anticipation allow Boots to pretty much do as he pleases in the rings. It won’t last forever, of course, but at age 23 he’s in his pomp and should spend it going hard after whatever he wants.
If Boots has a flaw it’s a tendency to get carried away with his remarkable ability and toy with an opponent. He needs to understand there’s a distinction between putting on a show and being a showboat. There are times between rounds when Bozy has to tell him to stop playing around.
While Boots is the culmination of his father’s vision, it was Pooh and Farah, 17 and 14 years older, respectively, who kept the flame burning while he grew into his role.
Pooh tallied a pro record of 24-5-1 (13) between August 2002 and July 2014, which included winning the Pennsylvania and USBA super welterweight titles. He was a well-schooled, quick-handed boxer, whose finest moment came in 2010 when he successfully defended the USBA belt with a 12-round majority decision over fellow Philadelphian Gabriel Rosado.
Philly vs. Philly showdowns have a rich history, but nowadays most local boxers and their managers shy away from such potentially punishing affairs. Ennis and Rosado, on the other hand, were hungry throwbacks, happy for the opportunity. Not only did they revive a time-honored tradition, their effort was selected as Philadelphia’s 2010 Fight of the Year.
“I took the fight on two-weeks notice and didn’t have no sparring, “ Pooh said. “I got $10,000, my highest payday except for the $12,500 I got for fighting Jonathan Gonzalez in Miami. They gave him a majority decision, but even ESPN said I won.”
Pooh was closing in on 35 when he lost a decision to Caleb Truax in July 2014, and retired. He’s closer to cruiserweight than super-welterweight now, but has stayed in boxing and is doing well training kids and adults. More women than ever have discovered the benefits of a boxing workout, which has been good for business.
Super-middleweight Farah fought from February 2006 until May 2015 with considerable success. He was a cautious, defensive boxer and sharp counterpuncher. He’d only suffered one defeat in 22 previous bouts before losing a 10-round decision to Badou Jack in July 2013. Farah didn’t fight again for two years, and when he struggled to win a six-round split decision over journeyman Michael Gbenga in his first comeback bout, he packed it in again.
“He got lazy and was messing with girls,” Bozy said. “He says he going to come back, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Still, that didn’t stop Farah putting on the bodysuit and pads to help Boots get ready for his most recent fight.
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It was good to be back in a boxing gym for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and in an odd way it was also refuge from the craziness that hit Washington D.C. the very same day.
We had to raise our voices to be heard through our facemasks, but the conversation flowed freely. Bozy talked about the time murderous punching Cyclone Hart hit him on the arm with a left hook during a sparring session. “Man, the sensation travelled all the way to my head.” I recalled when Hart drilled an opponent with a hook to the throat at the Blue Horizon and the guy’s face turned purple.
The discussion moved on to a debate about the origin of the shoulder roll. Bozy brazenly said he invented it and claimed he taught James Toney. I suggested it might have been Georgie Benton, the former Philly middleweight turned Hall of Fame trainer, whose shoulder roll was as subtle as shrug. Somebody mentioned Sugar Ray Robinson, and when Gypsy Joe Harris’ name came up, Pooh thought we were talking about Jersey Joe Walcott. There was, however, unanimous agreement that Floyd Mayweather did not invent the move he made famous.
Boots didn’t say much during the chitchat, other than he’d started to look at Sugar Ray Leonard fights on YouTube. Before I left he repeated something, word for word, he’d said earlier.
“Boxing is fun for me. I don’t do it just for the money. I love it and it’s the only thing I know.”
The auto shop was closed and the old bulldog gone when I took my leave. But on the drive home Boots’ final six words — it’s the only thing I know — kept coming back to me. I couldn’t help wondering if he and his brothers ever had a chance to be anything other than boxers, or whether they even wanted to. Bozy was adamant that he “didn’t make them do it.” He probably didn’t have to. There’s nothing unusual about boys wanting to be like their dad.
With 26 wins, 24 inside the distance, Boots is not only on the cusp of stardom, he’s also carrying the hopes and dreams of his family—and that’s a heavy load.
A few days later I learned that Boots might not be the last fighter in the Ennis family after all. Bozy’s five-year-old grandson, Carter, is already in the gym.