As a child spending summers in Toronto with his grandparents, Mike Jones never fully understood why his grandpa, Clyde Gray, enjoyed putting him through box workouts.
“He would take me to his old boxing gym in Toronto,” Jones recalls. “He used to put on the gloves – almost knocked me out a couple times – and he was taking it easy on me. I gave him my best one-two, but I didn’t connect like I should’ve.”
Gray was one of the best welterweight (between 140 and 147 lbs.) boxers Canada ever produced. Like his grandpa, Jones is looking to make a name for himself at the National CFL Combine from March 11-13 in Toronto, an annual talent showcase event for the top draft-eligible prospects.
“My mom and my dad told me that he was a famous boxer, but I didn’t know how good he really was until I got into high school and I looked him up,” Jones says. “Now that I know I wouldn’t even fight him today.”
Back in 1966 when Gray was an up-and-coming amateur he met Muhammad Ali at Sully’s Boxing and Athletic Club in Toronto. Ali was in town for a heavyweight title fight at Maple Leaf Gardens against fellow Canadian George Chuvalo.
“I asked Ali to pose for a picture – I had my polaroid camera,” Clyde’s wife, Evelyn Gray recalls because Clyde’s memory has deteriorated over the years.
“Ali had his arm around Clyde and I said – being the giddy girlfriend – ‘he’s going to be the next champion of the world.’ And Ali turned to me and said, ‘No, he’s not pretty enough.’”
Gray was not deterred. His professional career spanned three decades from 1968-1980 and he finished with a record of 69-10-1 with 48 knockouts. Gray fought for the world welterweight belt three times, held the Commonwealth welterweight title and retired undefeated as Canada’s welterweight champion.
Some of grandpa’s confidence from inside the boxing ring must have rubbed off on Jones. When he was just three years old Jones told his grandma what professional sports he was going to play.
“Michael used to say, “Grandma when I grow up I’m going to play in the CFL’. It was something he repeated over the years and there was no doubt in his voice,” Gray says.
Jones’ parents, Mike Jr. and Jennifer, met as varsity athletes at Michigan State, he played football, and she volleyball. Jennifer came back home to Toronto and gave birth to Jones during her senor year. After graduating from university in 1995 she started a strength and conditioning coaching career, making stops at East Carolina, Houston, Arkansas and Texas A&M where she’s been since 2003.
Coming out of James Earl Rudder high school in Bryan, TX Jones earned a football and track scholarship to Southern University in Baton Rouge, LA. After training with American sprint Olympians Wallace Spearmon and Muna Lee he became known for being fast – 10.4 seconds 100-metre type speed.
“I wouldn’t say that’s world class, [Toronto-born and raised] Andre De Grasse has world class speed,” Jones says.
That blazing speed caught the attention of Canadian Football League scouts while Jones played four years of football at Southern.
“A CFL team told me their U.S. scout came to a couple of my games looking at me as a potential American to come up and play for them,” Jones says.
That interest prompted Jones’ dad to ask some of his old Michigan State football teammates about the CFL because his son has dual citizenship. Ron Selesky, a mutual friend and one-time U.S. scout for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, let them know that Jones could qualify for the CFL Draft, but he would need to register with the league.
“I called the CFL office in January and I told them about my situation,” Jones says. “They sent me the paperwork right away. I almost missed the deadline.”
An invite to the CFL Combine quickly followed.
“Mike Jones is going to come in and be the talk of the combine. Compared to the average player out there he’s going to look like he was shot out of a rocket,” one CFL scout says about Jones.
Fate might have played a role in Jones coming back to Toronto for the combine. That’s because he hasn’t seen his distinguished grandpa since high school, and Gray turns 69 on March 10.
“I’m excited to go to Toronto for the combine, not only to compete, but to see my grandpa,” Jones says. “I think about him all the time. The sport of boxing is hard on your body and it’s sad that I haven’t been able to be more in his life.”
Jones will be back in the city where his life began, a place that saw him nurtured by an old star boxer and now he’s looking to launch his own stardom.