If you haven’t thought about what you’d be doing at this precise moment or where you’d be if everything was normal in the world—and, you know, a pandemic wasn’t raging around us, ripping months out of the calendar like a lame prank—you might not be human. And you probably can’t relate to Darius Fulghum who can’t help it when his mind drifts 5,800 miles away from his current locale.
That’s because the Olympic heavyweight boxer had his 2020 all planned out, and as a member of the USA Boxing squad, the end of July meant he was supposed to be in Tokyo. Instead, he’s in Colorado Springs training and not competing in the Olympics that were going to be a springboard for the 23-year-old to launch a professional career. So when he’s asked whether he catches himself dreaming about where he’d be if all was right, he could give you a “No shit, Sherlock” kind of answer. But the monster he morphs into when he steps in the ring is nothing like the chill dude out of Killeen, Texas on the other end of the phone.
“I’m pretty sure that goes through all my teammates’ minds as well,” Fulghum says. “Like, damn, we really should be in Tokyo right now, it should be our moment.”
A true boxing scribe would retort with one of the sport’s clever adages—pick your poison since there’s a thousand of ‘em—but it ain’t hard to tell there’s a bit of exasperation in Fulghum’s voice. Up until a week before the IOC officially postponed the games until 2021, Fulghum and his teammates thought they were on their way to Argentina to secure their spot in the Olympics. But on March 24, his hope of being the next American male to medal at the Olympics after Shakur Stevenson and Nico Hernandez in 2016 was delayed another agonizing year thanks to the coronavirus.
The chances of Fulghum earning a medal aren’t necessarily in his favor for a few reasons, but Fulghum’s defied the odds before. Most notably this past December during the US Olympic Team Trials where he finished first despite starting the tournament as the 8th seed, becoming only the second boxer in history to pull off the feat. Chalk it up in large part to his most admirable trait in the ring: adaptability.
“That’s an important quality to have as a boxer, especially in the amateurs,” Fulghum says. “In the amateurs, you don’t know who you’re fighting. So many different styles are thrown at you and you have to be ready for each and every one of those.”
"I hope how I envisioned it happens. What I mean is I’m hoping the fans can be there, I can have my family there. Imma cry. I have to. It’s been a long time and it’s just everything I’ve worked so hard toward coming true. I’ve played the Opening Ceremony in my head. This year can’t go by quick enough."
You have to roll with the punches, to use one of the sport’s adages, and the news the Olympics were off and qualifying for the games was on hold indefinitely was a blow Fulghum still feels. “Out of all the years that I would be an Olympian, this is the year something like this happens?” says Fulghum. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. You see, he’s still kind of new to the sport and the extra year of training—especially in the talented Olympic heavyweight and super heavyweight divisions—will come in handy during the grueling qualifying tournaments.
“I think it’s a challenge with the experience we’re going to give him he will be up for,” says USA Boxing head coach Billy Walsh. “I think he’s very capable of qualifying for the Olympics games. The hardest part sometimes is qualifying. And when we get there the pressure is off him and if he goes and performs I think he’s well capable of winning a medal.”
Fulghum’s humble enough to know he has work left to qualify, but he also has the confidence to tell you he fully expects to be in Tokyo next summer and that the games will kickoff his professional boxing career—and not a career in medicine.
As a registered nurse who got his degree from Prairie View A&M last year, Fulghum thought long and hard about doing what he went to school for, but ultimately decided to put the pursuit of a Masters in nursing on hold because he believes he has a real future in boxing. Boxers, even professionals, have had all kinds of crazy day jobs so rarely does someone’s gig or passionate pursuits surprise you—the sport has forever featured unique characters that are walking contradictions. But a boxer/registered nurse combo is definitely unique and Fulghum fully appreciates the irony.
“It is ironic because I’m swearing to try and heal and protect people in nursing, but in boxing, my whole goal is to hurt somebody,” he says.
Not to the point of sending them to the hospital, of course, but doing what he’s supposed to do and he’s done that impressively for someone who has only been in the gym for a few years. Fulghum found boxing five years ago when he was a wrestler in high school. But he soon realized there weren’t any programs in Texas where he could go to school for free through his family’s military benefits. So in 2015, he was messing around with his friends and boxing for the hell of it in the streets and he thought he was holding his own. One of his pals was actively training and Fulghum soon joined him in the gym. He “instantly” fell in love with boxing and “knew this is what I was going to be doing the rest of my life.”
Come fall he and his teammates will venture to Europe (hopefully) for tournaments and begin the process of securing their spot in Tokyo. In the meantime, Fulghum’s also serving as USA Boxing’s ambassador for the Giving Games launching Friday—the same day the Opening Ceremony was supposed to go down in Tokyo.
Since the majority of American Olympians aren’t professional athletes earning millions of dollars, and the United States government doesn’t support its athletes like other nations, competitors like Fulghum, his teammates, and so many others are under incredible financial strain to continue living and training for an extra 12 months. The Giving Games hopes to entice supporters of all Olympic sports to participate in online contests, giveaways, and the Medal of Giving competition that will award gold, silver, and bronze to the top three sports that raise the most money.
Until the next competition he hopes to be at—Germany’s prestigious Chemistry Cup in October—Fulghum will dream and train, dream and train. When he’s not laser-focused on refining his craft he’ll let his mind drift to Tokyo and the Opening Ceremony, anxiously waiting to find out if the dream matches reality.
“I hope how I envisioned it happens,” Fulghum says. “What I mean is I’m hoping the fans can be there, I can have my family there. Imma cry. I have to. It’s been a long time and it’s just everything I’ve worked so hard toward coming true. I’ve played the Opening Ceremony in my head. This year can’t go by quick enough.”