ANDOVER — Jeff Page Jr. has an opportunity to move his boxing career up an important rung on Saturday night.
That’s when the 23-year-old Andover native and former linebacker at Butler Community College will put his 13-0 record on the line in a light heavyweight fight against Topeka’s Dominique Alexander at the Beech Activity Center.
Page is considered an up-and-comer in his division, a proven commodity on the amateur circuit who has made a good impression since going pro at the beginning of 2013 with his father as his manager and fight promoter. His uncle, Jarrod, is his trainer.
Alexander (25-16-1 as a pro) represents their biggest challenge to date, and both the Universal Boxing Federation Intercontinental and American Boxing Association All-America titles will be on the line.
It’s hard to describe the family’s investment in Jeff Jr.’s career as anything but total. New and old, they’re chasing something so big and bold that when they speak about it, it seems more like a mantra than anything else. It invades every aspect of their lives.
“I want to be the world champion,” Jeff Jr. said. “Everything is toward that. This isn’t a hobby or just a fun thing I do in my spare time. It’s my career.”
Jeff Sr. and his wife, Christy, have six children: Jerrod (25), Jeff Jr., Jake (22), Jeremiah (21), Jay (20) and one girl, Hailie, a 12-year-old who seems to be in constant motion, either on orders from her parents or brothers, or on some athletic mission of her own.
“Hailie, get Tuff,” Jeff Jr. tells her as his 1-year-old son, Jeff III, runs up the driveway.
“Hailie, get ready for your volleyball game,” Christy tells her.
“Hailie, go get some tickets out of my car,” Jeff Sr. tells her.
And she does it all without blinking, seemingly scooping up her nephew, grabbing kneepads and handing the tickets to her father in one motion. Jarrod’s daughter, Brooklyn, gets much of the same treatment.
“My brother is fighting Dominique Alexander,” Hailie says, smiling. “Saturday night. Light heavyweight. We want him to be the world champion.”
Every day, Jarrod moves Jeff Jr. through his paces in Jeff Sr. and Christy’s garage, long ago converted into a boxing gym. First they work the mitts, Jarrod barking orders as Jeff Jr.’s grandfather, Herb, sits in a far corner of the garage in a recliner, surveying the workout and catching glimpses of a Royals game on an old TV.
Jarrod, 36, is the one who brought boxing to the Page family almost 20 years ago.
“I was 18, also playing football at Butler, and a guy walked up to me at work and asked if I wanted to fight,” Jarrod said. “Once I got him to explain what he meant, I was in.”
Jarrod and Jeff Jr.’s day starts before dawn, when they meet to run. Jeff Jr. works for his father’s masonry company and tends to the family’s cattle during the day, then meets Jarrod back at Andover Central High for more track work in the evening. They finish back at Jeff Sr.’s house for mitt and bag work, strategy and weights.
“I want him to be a little meaner, to take things a little more personally,” Jarrod said. “I take every little thing as a slight, where he lets it just slide off his shoulders because, ultimately, he knows it gets settled in the ring.”
Jeff Sr. stalks the fringes of his son’s workouts like a grizzly bear. He’s a huge man with thick, bushy eyebrows and a silver-and-brown goatee. When he sits in the back of his family’s house, overlooking a tony lake in a leafy suburb, he seems more Don Corleone than Don King.
He is the one sculpting and shaping his son’s career. Every decision runs through him, ultimately.
“There’s a lot of BS out there in boxing, a lot of half-truths and complete lies … little by little you start to figure out who the good guys are you can deal with and the guys you need to stay away from,” Jeff Sr. said. “We’ve always known (Jeff Jr.) wanted to fight pro someday and see how good he could get. Now our goal is to make him the world champion.
“I’m comfortable with being the bad guy or the person that tells you how it is.”
Jeff Jr. trained with Alexander’s father, Olian Alexander, when he was an amateur, and sparred with Dominique several years ago until Dominique decided that it probably wasn’t a good idea to be sparring with someone he figured he would soon be fighting as a pro.
“The first time I heard about Jeff was when my dad was training him and he would always talk about how hard he worked and his talent,” Dominique said. “”Forget all the stuff about belts or who we get to fight next or any of that stuff … I’m from Kansas, he’s from Kansas. We want to find out who’s the man.”
Jeff Jr.’s last fight, on April 18, drew 1,300 people to Beech Activity Center to see him defeat Jose Spearman in three rounds on a referee’s technical decision. Former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe is scheduled to make an appearance at Saturday’s fight.
Butler defensive coordinator Tim Schaffner, who gave Page his blessing along with Butler coach Troy Morrell to fight while he was playing for them, swells with pride when he talks about his former protégé. Page went 22-2 in his two years at Butler and had 103 tackles in 2011 while playing alongside his cousin, Butler center Ben Fulghum.
“He’s kind of a cult hero around here, man, so I understand it when I hear people talking about going to see him fight,” Schaffner said. “He was like that when he played … he’s got kind of a Rocky thing going on with his life in that he embraces being the guy that people are drawn to, embraces being the one that will go to battle, so to speak, for his family and carry that banner for them. He was like that with his teammates, too.
“Also, look at him … he looks like a young Sly Stallone.”
And every good Rocky needs an Adrian – Jeff Jr. has that in his wife, Damen, who he married in September and is four months pregnant with their second child.
“My husband wants so much for me, for Tuff, for our family,” Damen said. “It’s hard to be away from him all the time but I love him for what he’s doing, love him for being someone who is willing to risk so much to give us a better life. The time he gets with us, he’s there, he’s engaged and doing what a normal dad or husband does.”
Jeff Jr. and Jarrod hang a red, child-sized bag off to the side of their workouts. When Tuff shows up with Damen, he bolts out of her arms and to a bin of gloves at the back of the garage, pulling a red boxing glove on his right hand. He takes swings at the bag, he walks around the garage, talking to everyone around, speaking the few words he is able to convey.
“I like to have my son here, I like to have my family around when I’m training,” Jeff Jr. says. “I’m doing this for my wife and my kid. I don’t want to let him down, ever. That’s what motivates me.”