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    Jermall Charlo convinced he’s in a race toward greatness

    Then-welterweight titleholder Kermit Cintron was training for a title defense in 2007 when a promising 17-year-old amateur climbed through the ropes to spar with him.

    Cintron, a 30-year-old veteran at the time, and the young man were exchanging punches in what appeared to be an ordinary session. Then the amateur landed a sharp jab, then another, then – BAM! – he connected with a shot that put Cintron down and hurt him, requiring him to take time to recover.

    That’s when the amateur – Jermall Charlo – knew beyond doubt that he had a future in boxing.

    “He couldn’t believe it,” said Charlo, who defends his middleweight title against Sergiy Derevyanchenko on a Sept. 26 pay-per-view card in Uncasville, Conn. “I hit him so hard with an uppercut. I always knew I was good but that was the moment I knew I belonged.

    “I always wanted to be a big-time boxer. Now I’m that big-time boxer.”

    Charlo’s journey started years before that, as a child in Lafayette, Louisiana. His father used to organize boxing tournaments in their yard and instruct his boys – Jermall and twin brother Jermell – to have at it. As Jermall put it, “I started out by knocking out my neighbors.”

    Jermall Charlo (pictured during a recent workout) faces his biggest middleweight test in Sergiy Derevyanchenko on Sept. 26. Andrew Hemingway / Showtime

    Then, after the elder Charlo ran afoul of the law, the Charlos’ mother moved the family to Houston. And, well aware of the boys’ love for boxing, she found a gym. The rest is a boxing success story.

    Jermall had a stellar amateur career, finishing with a reported record of 65-6. He was on track to challenge for a berth on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team but a toe injury scuttled his plans.

    Was he disappointed? To some degree. He had dreamed about fighting on the ultimate amateur platform but he had a good second option. Jermell had already turned pro in 2007. It was time to join him.

    Jermall tore through the junior middleweight division, winning 21 consecutive fights – 16 by knockout – to set up a shot at Cornelius Bundrage’s IBF 154-pound title in November 2015.

    And he made a loud statement in what should’ve been a significant challenge: Fast, powerful and determined, he put an overwhelmed Bundrage down four times and stopped him in the third round to win his first major title.

    “You never put a dog in the pen with a lion,” he roared immediately after the fight. “I am the future of boxing.”

    The victory, he told Boxing Junkie recently, only confirmed what he already knew.

    Charlo isn’t convinced he’ll win over his critics no matter what he does. Andrew Hemingway / Showtime

    “It was amazing,” he said. “I went home and suddenly I had a lot of new friends. I said to people, ‘I told you I was good. You didn’t listen to me.’ I had been trying to tell them but it’s hard to convince people how good you are.

    “You have to prove your point. I always had a chip on my shoulder. I always wanted to be better than other people.”

    Charlo (30-0, 22) still has his doubters.

    He moved up to 160 pounds after stopping Julian Williams in his third and final title defense, in December 2016. And he continued to roll, winning five fights at his new weight and picking up a secondary title when the WBC elevated Canelo Alvarez to “franchise” champion.

    However, none of his five victims – Jorge Sebastian Heiland, Hugo Centeno Jr., Matvey Korobov, Brandon Adams and Dennis Hogan – had the star power to lift Charlo to the next level, where the stars reside.

    People were asking: When is he going to face an elite middleweight? The answer is now.

    Derevenyanchenko (13-2, 10 KOs) fell short in his two biggest fights – against Daniel Jacobs and Gennadiy Golovkin – but fought both on at least even terms, losing close decisions each time. In the process, he won the respect of pundits and fans alike.

    Charlo said he believes greatness is within his grasp. Andrew Hemingway / Showtime

    The 34-year-old Ukrainian can box and he can punch, much like Charlo, who knows he has to win and look good doing it to win people over.

    “This guy’s gonna be tough,” Charlo said. “If I can’t master being great in this fight, if I don’t look superb, people are going to criticize me. If I know this dude out, they’ll say he was nothing. If I struggle, if it’s a straight out brawl, they’re going to say I’m not ready for Canelo.

    “I really have nothing to lose at this point.”

    Charlo would love to fight Alvarez. And why not? They sit atop the rankings the most-important sanctioning body. They’re both 30 years old, in their primes. The fans would eagerly eat up that matchup.

    And if Charlo were to win? “Then world couldn’t say s—,” he said with a laugh.

    Of course, everyone wants to fight Alvarez. Charlo might be in line but exactly where is anybody’s guess. He also might never get the accolades he feels he deserves. There are no guarantees in an unforgiving sport.

    That’s OK with Charlo. He has dreams of being remembered as one of the greatest boxers of all time but, he said, he’ll be fine regardless of his fate.

    “I feel I’m doing everything right at this point in my life,” he said. “My mom is happy for me. I have a wife and kids. I’ve invested my money. I bought a big mansion. I’m living the best life I can. Thank God for that. I really can’t complain.

    “And I feel that [in boxing] I’m leading the race and finish is right up ahead of me. It’s right there. I just have to be great, to feel great about myself, to be who I want to be.”

    This article was originally published on boxingjunkie.usatoday.com

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