JJ Mariano has the weight of the Biggest Little City resting on his shoulders heading into his first professional fight.
The Sparks-Reno native will touch gloves against William Flenoy in a four-round junior welterweight bout on Saturday, June 8, at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center. It will be the professional debut for both boxers. TICKET LINK
“As much as I love fighting here, the pressure is through the roof,” he said. “I don’t want to let anyone down. I don’t want to disappoint my family and friends. Being born and raised here, I don’t want to let my city down.”
The 25-year-old looks to the ring to calm his nerves. His loose shoulders and quick feet move about through a training session on Tuesday, as he dodges punches from trainer Pat Jefferson.
“I’m a very defensive fighter,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I won’t buckle down and fight. …. I’m keen on moving my feet in the ring. You can’t hit what you can’t see and the judges notice that. … This style has stuck with me since Day 1.”
Noted as one of South Dakota’s greatest boxers, the trainer Jefferson accumulated a 249-24 amateur record over his 16-year career from 1965-80. The itch to stay around boxing stayed with him deep into his retirement.
Luckily, Jefferson stumbled upon Mariano when he was 6 years old. He’s groomed the young boxer over his 48 amateur matches. Mariano sports a 38-6-4 record between his amateur and collegiate fights.
“I’ve trained him every fight he’s ever fought,” Jefferson said. “I’ve only been there 48 times. I’m so excited for him. I just want to see him soak it all in.”
Jefferson’s shifty style in the ring translated to the 6-foot-1 Mariano. His agility and knowledge of how to use the canvas points well to his overall skills.
“We don’t fight, we box,” he said. “Grandmas can punch, grandpas can punch, even 3-year-olds can punch. But can you defend yourself? The object is not to get hit, and that’s his best ability as a boxer.”
Flenoy will also make his professional debut. Mariano and Jefferson have done some homework on the Fresno, California native.
“I know he’s shorter so I can incorporate my reach on him,” Mariano said. “I don’t know what kind of shape he’s in. I know he has more experience than me, so I have to be careful with that. I’ll be on my toes.”
“The game plan is simply not to get hit,” Jefferson said. “We have a shorter opponent with slow feet so we want to fade him. Box him on the outside and take advantage of JJ’s reach. Slow feet and slow hands makes for a long night. Or a short night depending on how you look at it.”
The convention center isn’t far from Mariano’s hometown roots. Reed High School is a short 11.1 mile ride. The University of Nevada Reno, his alma mater, is just 7.3 miles away.
Mariano’s tenure at University of Nevada, Reno was hectic. He struggled to find balance between school, work and his growing love for boxing. Mariano gained considerable recognition when he won a national championship in 2015 as a member of the Nevada Wolf Pack.
“It was difficult,” he said. “Not only do you have to cut weight and make time for training, but being able to stay on top of school work was stressful. I also worked a part-time job, so being able to balance all of those priorities was challenging.”
Mariano ultimately chose boxing full-time. He was three years into a mechanical engineering degree, but subsequently switched to business management in hopes of building his own training facility.
“My last semester I focused on business management to open my own boxing gym someday,” he said. “It’s a dream of mine. I need to make a name for myself, but I can always go back to school. With boxing, time is of the essence.”
A win in his first professional fight can help with his dream gym and much more.
“I need to be the show, blow away the management there,” he said. “Everyone is in town and I need to show them what I’m capable of.”
Mariano has built quite the reputation in Reno. Countless family members, friends and supporters will pack the 600,000 square-foot arena in anticipation of his first professional bout.
“Reno is still the Biggest Little City, but we’re all connected,” he said. “It’s a tight-knit community. I know a lot of people and when I’m able to bring people together to watch me fight, it’s an overwhelming feeling.”
— Isaiah Burrows