Growing up at 52nd and Carpenter on Chicago’s South Side regularly exposed Chris Ousley to the dangers of the streets, but the promising Chicago boxer found the most powerful examples under his own roof.
Ousley’s father, Anthony, spent most of the boy’s childhood behind bars after getting caught up in guns and drugs. His older brother, Michael, followed the same perilous path to prison when Chris was 16.
“My mother didn’t want the same thing for me,” Chris said.
So Donella Edwards decided to take matters into her own hands one day after a bullet nearly took her son’s life the way gunfire has taken so many young lives in the city. Chris was a freshman at Hubbard High School, sitting with some buddies outside the tennis courts at Sherman Park, when they got caught in the crossfire of a gang fight.
“One of my good friends got shot in the back,” Chris said. “He survived, but that’s when my mom said, ‘I’m getting you out of here. We’re moving to Madison (Wis.).’ ”
Chris welcomed the change of scenery. He already had lost several neighborhood friends to violence. He vowed to learn from their mistakes, as well as the misdeeds of a father and brother who remain on the periphery.
“When you live by the gun, you end up dead or in jail, and you can only run yourself into the ground living the street life so I got out,” Ousley, 27, said. “I considered it. If it wasn’t for sports or school, I’d have lived the street life, but I wanted more. I wanted to make my own lane.”
The road to opportunity widens Saturday in Milwaukee when Ousley, a former U.S. Olympic trials finalist who is 5-0 as a professional, takes on Torin Turner in a junior-middleweight bout at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center. The fight Ousley calls “a defining moment for people to take me more serious” takes place about 90 miles from where his mother sought a safer life in Wisconsin.
At first, safer didn’t mean simpler.
“It was a completely different ballgame in Madison,” Ousley said. “I went from going to a school in Chicago that was almost all African-American to one that was 90 percent white. I didn’t know how to react in a calm environment. Anytime anybody said one cross word to me, I took offense and was ready to fight. And I fought a lot.”
Ousley eventually overcame his issues with authority by turning to sports, first football and then boxing. A hard-hitting safety, Ousley transferred from North Dakota State to the University of Dubuque, where he graduated in 2012 with a business degree. It was in Iowa where Ousley met his wife, Shine, a Chinese graduate student who grew up in Beijing and has been in Chris’ corner in every way since their first date.
A trip the couple took to Las Vegas that coincided with a Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight gave Chris a glimpse of the career he craved.
“When we came back I told her, ‘Honey, I want to be a boxer,’ ” Ousley said. “That was on a Wednesday; by Monday, I was in a gym. Two months later, I fought my first fight.”
Added Shine: “I knew nothing about boxing growing up in China, but I could see it was his passion so I wanted to support that.”
Moving back to Madison, Ousley sought the tutelage of the highly respected Bob Lynch, who had coached Olympians. Success in nearly 70 fights as an amateur led to a spot in the 2016 Olympic trials, which ended amid controversy when Ousley lost a spot on the U.S. team because of a head-butt he still disputes.
“It left a bad taste in my mouth because I was so close,” Ousley said. “But I knew it wasn’t the end.”
The beginning of Ousley’s professional odyssey quickly followed, fueled by the same dream he has had since seeing his mother the health-care worker toil at two jobs in Chicago before moving the family to Wisconsin. Ousley began fighting, in large part, so his mom could start relaxing.
“The bright light I kept chasing was the image of her struggling,” Ousley said. “There were no men around, no father figure to me. She was the man of the house. She did everything, so I wanted to take care of her.”
That idea inspires Ousley every time he drives from his Gold Coast home to the boxing gym at Robert Taylor Park on West 47th Street. Ousley employs one of Mayweather’s assistant trainers and Oliver McCall’s former cut man. Ousley answers to “Milly,” the nickname a friend gave him because he looked like “a million bucks.” He avoids alcohol and coffee and practices yoga regularly.
But no matter how much life has changed for the kid from the Back of the Yards, sometimes the memories of Ousley’s childhood become too real — such as the day last winter when he fought off two men who pistol-whipped him as they failed to carjack his brand-new Audi. If such experiences ever cause Ousley to question whether it would be safer or smarter to train somewhere else, however, he sees a young face that convinces him he’s in the right place.
“Every day around 4 (p.m.) kids come in the gym, and I want to give them hope and let them know I came from the exact same neighborhood, so they can get out too,” Ousley said. “I train on the South Side because I want to be in the real trenches, the real ‘hood.’ ”
His voice rose. He stared into the distance, as if he were looking at that bench at Sherman Park all those years ago.
“I don’t want to forget where I came from,” Ousley said. “I represent Chicago.”