By Yvette Smith, Fort Campbell CourierAugust 8, 2014
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- His jump rope whizzed loudly as it cut through the air, accompanied by the quick "snap, snap, snap!" each time it met the ground. Fading into a barely visible blur, the rope whizzed faster and louder as he picked up the tempo, skillfully keeping the quick rhythm with his feet.
"I don't go anywhere to lose," said Spc. John Hunt. "Never."
That mindset has helped Hunt earn an opportunity to compete at the All-Army boxing trials Sept. 25 at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. The slender-built ordnance specialist, assigned to A Company, 426th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, will report to the boxing trial camp Aug. 17 to train with other hopeful Soldier athletes.
"I'm trying to stay there," said Hunt, as he trained at the Dawg House, a small makeshift gym on post, Aug. 1. "In September we box off to see who goes on. If I win, I go to the All-Armed Forces, which could lead to the World Class Athletes Program -- that is my goal, and that right there is geared to going to the Olympics."
But in order to continue past the All-Army trials, you have to win. Entry into each successive level of the All-Army boxing program is gained only through hard-fought wins.
Hunt has a solid amateur record of 19-5 and will compete in the 152-pound welterweight division, and although trials are just a few weeks away, Hunt continues his training as if it were just another day.
The upcoming boxing trials seem to pale in comparison to what he has already experienced in his life trials.
"I started boxing when I was 12," said the 25 year-old Benton, Ark., native. "I grew up hard but I had a Pee Wee football coach that gave me a job one summer on his farm. I did anything and even if he didn't have something for me to do, I would [find something]. The point really wasn't that he needed someone to work, it was to keep me out of trouble."
Hunt used the little money he made to travel to Little Rock every week, to box.
"My coach would get mad at me for not saving my money, but all I wanted to do was box," said Hunt.
It was in Little Rock that he met his first boxing coach and mentor Kevin Lightburn.
"I grew up with my mother, but he was like a father figure," said Hunt. "I would go to the gym and spend the night and then he would drive me all the way back to school in Benton the next morning. It got to where it became a regular thing. I had a spot at the gym where I stayed and slept."
Life at home with his mother became increasingly difficult for Hunt and shortly after completing middle school, she packed up and moved to California with his younger brother, leaving him behind.
"I didn't go to high school after that," said Hunt. "I pretty much just lived in the gym and boxed -- that's all I did.
"I didn't have a legal guardian to sign me into school," said Hunt. "It was an awkward situation [her leaving] but she knew I was better off with coach, boxing and she knew he would take care of me."
Hunt found out the hard way, however, that Coach Lightburn's priorities for him included much more than just boxing.
"He always called me 'Johnhunt' -- one word -- and would tell me 'Johnhunt, there are enough dumb boxers in this world -- You are not going to be one of them,' so if I didn't go to school or didn't try to get my GED, he wouldn't coach me," said Hunt. "I would just sit in the gym or just hit the bag and he would just stare at me and train other guys, as if to say, 'This is what you could be doing, but you want to mess around.'"
The tough-love approach worked for Hunt. At 16, he passed his GED and with encouragement from his coach, took his ACT and applied for college.
When it came to teaching Hunt life lessons, Lightburn found the easiest way to get through to Hunt was in the ring.
"I remember he had this computer next to the ring," said Hunt. "He would tell me, 'I don't want you eating at my desk,' and so one day I'm eating these Cheetos and I'm on the computer -- and I have Cheetos fingers all over his keyboard.
"He comes, sits at the desk, looks at his computer and says -- 'get in the ring,' and threw my gloves, headgear at me," Hunt said. "He used to be No. 2 in the country -- he was good."
Hunt remembers being hit twice.
"I hit the ground and I rolled out of the ring, so he knew it was over, crying, all over some Cheetos," said Hunt, smiling "Cheetos make me sick now."
Hunt continued to flourish as a boxer with Lightburn. However, his college workload began to prove too much for him.
"I flunked out of college pretty quick -- about a year later," said Hunt. "I didn't have the skills, the study habits. After I flunked out, he quit coaching me."
From there, Hunt began boxing around other gyms in the Little Rock area but things continued to get worse. After landing and then losing a job, Hunt decided it was time for a change.
"I had a car and probably a little under $1,000 to my name, so I thought, what would be the best place to box?" said Hunt. "I didn't have a plan, at all, but I got in my car and drove to California."
His journey started in Sacramento, hitting a couple of gyms there and eventually finding a coach.
"I started to get good again and just as I started to get back sharp, [coach] found out he had leukemia," said Hunt. "That was a rough time."
Hunt ran the gym in the coach's absence, but the gym eventually closed and he continued to face difficulties in the Golden State.
"California chewed me up and spit me out -- financially and socially," said Hunt. "I'm country. I was used to going into a place, show my face, fill out an application and shake someone's hand and California was nothing like that. It was really tough."
It was around this time that Hunt heard from a good friend who had just gotten out of the military. He suggested Hunt join the Army and even offered to let him stay with him in Huntsville, Ala., while he got himself together. With no money, Hunt was forced to sell his car to make the journey.
"I bought a bus ticket and pretty much drank the rest of that money away," said Hunt.
Three days later, Hunt arrived in Alabama and did what he always did upon arriving at a new destination -- look for the closest boxing ring.
"The closest gym was six miles away, so I would run down there and back every day," said Hunt.
It was there that he met his next coach, former first sergeant and All-Army boxer Larry Bright.
"He kept telling me about the All-Army boxing program and told me if I could just get in the military, go through basic, maybe deploy, I could at least have an opportunity to go All-Army."
After three failed attempts at the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, Hunt finally passed and two-weeks later reported for basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C.
In March 2012, after graduating from basic training and advanced individual training, Hunt reported to Fort Campbell's Bastogne brigade, which was slated to deploy. Placing his boxing dreams on hold, Hunt deployed with 1st BCT to Afghanistan.
"When I enlisted, I knew I had to Soldier first, boxing second," said Hunt. "I had to choke that down when I deployed."
Upon returning, Hunt's focus was back on boxing. Hunt took the money he saved from his deployment and flew on leave to San Diego, Calif., to train with former All-Army and Olympic boxing coach Basheer Abdullah.
"I just called him and told him, 'Hey, I'm in the Army, I have money and I can pay you,' said Hunt, laughing.
Upon his return to Campbell, and with the support from his chain-of-command, Hunt submitted his All-Army packet and was selected for trials.
"I have great leadership, great NCOs who really care about my dreams and goals, both in the military and outside," said Hunt. "I am so grateful."
As his unit prepares to head to Fort Polk, La., for training this month, Hunt has been allowed to stay behind and train. Even with the trials in sight, Hunt admits that he has not altered his normal training routine. Boxing is his life.
"This is what I do, everyday," said Hunt. "Nothing's changed. I wake up at 4 a.m., I run, distance, sprints, for about an hour and then two hours of boxing."
When he's not at the makeshift gym, he trains with Coach Darryl Tomlin, owner of Team Tomlin, a local family-owned independent boxing organization in Pleasant View, Tenn. Since training with Tomlin, Hunt has won three amateur fights.
Hunt hopes to represent his unit well at the trials by winning and hopefully earning a spot on the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program's boxing team.
"For my weight class, they already have a guy," said Hunt. "I will have to either beat him out or level with him, I think. I look forward to having the opportunity to compete against him. I want his spot."
After his enlistment, Hunt plans to go pro and return to Arkansas -- back to his first coach and father figure, Lightburn, who now owns Straightright Boxing and Fitness and currently coaches one of the top 10 boxers in the country.
Until then, Hunt is taking it one fight at a time.
Back at the Dawg House, the jump rope whizzing and snaps slow to a halt. Hunt takes a second to catch his breath before heading to his next station. Feeling adequately warmed up, he puts on his gloves and approaches the bright red heavy-bag hanging from the ceiling.
"I'm not going there to lose," said Hunt. "Train, fight, win. Simple as that."