Willie Shaw walked into Alameda County fairgrounds for the weigh-in of his pro-debut boxing match expecting the flashing cameras and reporters asking questions–he even expected the trash talk.
“He said, ‘Your legs are skinny, you have no power,’” said Shaw of his opponent Tyler Marshall. “My group was talking smack. Him and his group was talking smack. It was my first fight and I am humble. I just wanted to get in there, do my weight and rest for the fight the next day.”
Trash talk is simply just a part of the boxing sport. It could be used as a strategy to get into the opponent’s head and throw them off their pre-fight rhythm. But, this ploy does not work on Shaw. He feeds on doubt and negativity.
Will “The Thrill” Shaw began his professional boxing career with a knockout over trash-talking Marshall in the first round of the 2017 Squarevision Entertainment Boxing Show on January 21 at Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, CA.
“I came straight from nothing, the bottom straight up,” said Shaw to Inside The Ropes after the fight.
Shaw’s upbringing is just that. From his mother passing at the age of one, to living out of a van in Oakland with his father for some of his childhood, trash talk is just fuel to his fire. A fire that got him into street fights on multiple occasions, which prompted his father to relocate Shaw to his mother’s family in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco. His father was not available to comment on this.
Shaw recalls his junior year at Marshall High School when basketball coach Dezebee Miles told him he wouldn’t be able to make his team. The doubt lit a fire under him and he hit the hardwood.
“I never even played recreational basketball,” said Shaw shrugging his shoulders. “And then I became varsity starting point guard.”
After high school, he received a scholarship to play basketball at Stanford University. While the scholarship covered tuition it did not cover other living needs. Shaw says his first semester got messed up because his father was pushing him to get a job. So he applied to San Francisco City College, but without a scholarship, Shaw was stripped of cash. And according to Shaw, his father was not helping.
“Every financial aid check I’d get, he would ask, ‘How much you got,” said Shaw of his father.
Things became more and more complicated as Shaw felt that he had to sell drugs and rob to make ends meet while he was trying to attend San Francisco City College.
“With basketball, I just wanted to impress my dad and play a sport on TV so he could see,” said Shaw. “I kept boxing and realized I have a fucking gift. Fuck school.”
Shaw then focused that energy into family and his amateur boxing career. While some of the people he calls “family” are not blood, he treats them all the same. His sister and freelance graphic designer, Sophia Tupuola, said this is something that just happens when you have families who live so close to each other.
Tupuola and Shaw lived in the Bayview/Hunter’s Point neighborhood together in San Francisco and it was Shaw’s optimism that stood out to her.
“He used to say how he was gonna get rich and buy this whole block for our family,” said Tupuola. “Like how could you think out the box like that and dream so big?”
Tupuola and Shaw share the same ethnicity of being half-Black and half-Samoan. She says this is the reason they refer to each other as family.
“Samoans refer to each other as brother and sister when it isn’t technically true. Often times it’s due to a shared struggle of poverty or extenuating circumstances,” said Tupuola over a text message.
The shirt that Tupuola designed for Shaw features a rendition of Shaw’s face with two gloves directly under that read, “Will Afatasi.” ‘Afatasi’ in Samoan refers to somebody who is half-Samoan and half something else.
Other than his optimism, his feeling towards family is something to note. Tupuola’s older sister has 10 daughters which she cares for a couple who have been dealt severe cases of autism. Without her asking, Shaw would pick her nephews up after school to play basketball–he would also teach them boxing.
These aren’t the only pupils to Shaw’s teachings, however. He teaches boxing classes at Sunset, Mission and Tenderloin recreation centers in San Francisco. While some kids learn under Shaw, others are training right beside him at HitFit SF Boxing Gym. One of them is Cassius Soliai–an 11 year old boxer who looks up to Shaw.
“No, we never spar. We just mess around,” said Soliai laughing. “It’s like having another brother.”
Shaw trains with Jairo Escobar, who is a former boxer turned trainer. Watching the two do mitt work is fast paced and mind boggling. Mitt work is boxing jargon for training between a coach and their fighter on dodging punches and delivering counters.
While Shaw is dodging a mitt from Escobar’s first punching sequence, he is countering with a jab and processing his next few moves that Escobar just yelled.
“From when we started training, I could tell that he was talented,” said Escobar as he watched Shaw spar with amateur boxer Charlie Sheehy. “Check this guy out he is really good man.”
Sheehy is a 17-year old boxer who actually has more ring experience than Shaw. While Sheehy has fought more than 100 amateur fights, Shaw has fought in just under 30 total. This sparring matchup was one to watch because on one hand you have a boy with a lot of experience and on the other, a man with heavier punches, but less experience.
“Everytime I spar him I feel like I’m sparring a taller version of myself,” said Sheehy. “I know every time I spar him I gotta be on my game otherwise I’ll get beat up.”
When the two finished sparring they smiled and gave each other a hug followed by a core workout session.
Marly McNealy, a local father to his seven-year old boxing daughter “Baby Bug” who trains with Escobar alongside Shaw, mentioned how he understands Shaw’s family background and how it is being half-Black and half-Samoan.
“In this sport nothing is given to you,” said McNealy. “So when you see somebody who is as good as he is you have to just sit back and respect it.”
Shaw is now 5-0 with 4 KOs. His next fight is scheduled for April 7, 2018 on Karim Mayfield’s card.
“Even when I’m not fighting, I’m still sharp and in shape,” said Shaw in a Instagram post.
All photos by Mitchell Mylius