Troy Isley was just weeks from his second professional bout in June when he was contacted about an opportunity he thought had long passed him by. There was a spot open on the U.S. men’s team. Did Isley want to be an Olympian?
The 22-year-old Alexandria fighter wasn’t completely surprised — he’d heard rumblings from former teammates and coaches. But he didn’t want to get his hopes up until an offer was made. Once it was, there wasn’t much to think about.
“It’s definitely a dream come true,” Isley said. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted growing up as a kid. And to speak it into reality is another thing.”
Isley, lightweight Keyshawn Davis (3-0) and featherweight Duke Ragan (4-0) will become the first pro fighters ever to represent America in the Olympics after a pandemic-related change loosened the U.S. team’s eligibility requirements.
The change gave Isley a chance to revive an Olympic dream he thought was dead after a disappointing upset loss in the 2019 U.S. Olympic trials.
He’s determined to take advantage of his second chance when boxing begins in Tokyo on Saturday: Fighting at 165 pounds, he knows that he can become the first American boxer to win gold since Andre Ward in 2004. He understands such an accomplishment would be the perfect launching pad for an unheralded middleweight who so far is only 2-0 with one knockout.
More than that, Olympic glory is something he’s worked toward for as long as he can remember.
“I’m trying to win a gold medal,” Isley said, “and bring USA Boxing back.”
A dream deferred
Back in December 2019, Isley returned home to Virginia after having suffered the worst defeat of his career. It wasn’t just that he lost in the semifinals. Isley spent the trials hampered by two shoulder injuries — a torn bicep tendon on his left arm and torn tissue in his right.
He needed to punch his way to the Games, but his body had failed him when it mattered most.
The outcome left Isley “crushed,” said Kay Koroma, his trainer. Isley was coming to terms with the fact that his friends — the fighters he’d spent years traveling the world with as part of USA Boxing — had qualified for the Games. Isley was suddenly the odd man out.
“I feel like I lost my dream,” Isley said.
Koroma tried to console his pupil, telling Isley that this was now an opportunity to get surgery and finally address the shoulder problems that had been lingering for some time. Once Isley got that fixed, Koroma told him he would be all right. The only downside to the operation was that Isley was sidelined for all of 2020.
During that time off, Isley decided he would turn pro.
Isley then met with Top Rank’s Bob Arum, a legendary promoter who’s overseen the careers of fighters like Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya. Top Rank had expressed interest for over two years, and the recruiting paid dividends. Isley signed a promotional contract — his first fight set for February 2021.
“When we signed him, we weren’t completely clear on what Troy Isley we were getting,” Arum says. “Would it be the Troy Isley that was such a great amateur? Or was it the Troy Isley that was so-so because of the injury?”
After two fights, Arum said the answer looks like it’s going to be the Troy Isley who won bronze at the 2017 World Championships and the 2019 Pan Am Games. And as promoters tend to do, Arum pulled out a lofty comparison to the late Marvin Hagler, the Hall of Fame middleweight whose excellent boxing skills were matched by a ruthless aggressiveness.
Arum said he was “absolutely delighted” Isley was picked for the Olympic team.
“If he wins a medal, particularly a gold medal, those fighters are precious,” Arum said. “They go into boxing, professional boxing, with a proverbial silver spoon in their mouth.”
A ‘curious’ child
Ask those close to Isley how he got into boxing and they’ll fondly share the story of an 8-year-old who couldn’t stop getting picked on at school. Kevin Johnson, Isley’s dad, said his son took his advice to heart: “If someone hits you, hit ‘em back.”
Isley, though, tells the tale a little differently. As a kid, Isley was “curious” — and that curiosity that got him in trouble. He was a self-described class clown, one who liked to make jokes about people and sometimes went a little too far.
Isley isn’t saying he deserved to be hit, but …
“I didn’t know how to control myself before I boxed,” Isley said. “Boxing definitely taught me how to control myself. … I would just say anything out of my mouth.”
That discipline was found in the Alexandria Boxing Club, where Johnson, who boxed as an amateur, took his son. Isley started working with Koroma, who quickly found out that Isley was willing to put the work in and, for example, go on a five-mile run. Isley didn’t even begin fighting in the amateurs until age 11.
The gym wasn’t just a second home for Isley. Isley’s development as a fighter was spurred on by being surrounded by fighters like Shakur Stevenson (silver in Rio, 16-0 as a pro) and Antoine Douglas (22-2-1). They trained and pushed each other, Koroma said.
Isley had support at home, too. Every morning before he’d begin his shift at a local grocery store, Johnson dragged a 12-year-old Isley out of bed at 5 a.m. to go run at a nearby middle school track. That continued through high school: Johnson logged the miles Isley would run. Sometimes, it’d be five, other mornings, eight to 10.
After a shower, Johnson drove his son to school.
“He didn’t come from a broken home,” Johnson said. “Every day, his mother and father were there. We’ve worked all our life. … He had his brothers and sisters there, making sure he was doing the right thing. He definitely came from a loving family, and that’s the advantage that he has over a lot of his friends and a lot of these kids out here.”
As Isley sits in his Colorado Springs, Colorado, hotel room, near USA Boxing’s training facility, to participate in a video interview with The Washington Times, he talks openly about fear. There are plenty of things that scare him, he admits. Heights, for one. He hates clowns, too.
And, currently, he said he’s scared of getting the vaccine.
“I don’t trust it,” Isley said in June, “For sure, I don’t trust it. My family has gotten it, so that made me want to get it, but at the same time, I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’”
On the surface, Isley’s admission is a wild contradiction. Isley, after all, gets hit in the face for a living. There are long-term health consequences from boxing, effects that doctors would surely say are more dangerous than getting vaccinated.
There’s also the risk that if Isley tests positive while in Tokyo — his Olympic dream will be taken away all over again. The Games have already had a handful of positive tests in the Olympic Village and the Opening Ceremonies have yet to begin. There were other prominent Americans like tennis star Coco Gauff and the Washington Wizards’ Bradley Beal whose journey ended before even reaching Japan.
But Isley embraces contradictions. Despite his fear of heights, he loves roller coasters. “Roller coasters are fun!” he says, his voice jumping in volume. And in a fight, Isley said he has never been afraid of his opponent nor is he afraid of getting hit.
He’s willing to take the gamble. He arguably wasn’t supposed to be in Japan in the first place.
But he is now, and he doesn’t plan to come home empty-handed.
Growing up around the District, Isley knows a lot of fighters from the area who have come up short. Douglas, his gym mate, never won a world title. Stevenson is a star on the rise, but left Rio without gold. Featherweight Gary Russell Jr.’s Olympic dreams ended on a scale when he failed to make weight for the 2008 games in Beijing.
“In my city, I want to be the first one to actually reach their goals and become the top,” Isley said. “I just want to be that first person to do that.”