Champion boxer Joseph ‘Jo Jo’ Awinongya Jr. forges his own path as he starts college — at 16

Despite his many accolades, the 16-year-old champion didn’t set out to be a boxer — that was the passion of his father. Now several wins later, the younger Awinongya faces new challenges, including a new weight class where tougher opponents await and college classes.

Five years ago in Milwaukee, Joseph “Jo Jo” Awinongya Jr. prepared to face his rival Aldo Blancas in the finals of the Indian Summer Festival Boxing Tournament.

Jo Jo had never won against Aldo, and he knew something needed to change this time around.

His coach and father, Joseph Awinongya Sr., gave his 12-year-old son the usual advice: Sit back. Look for opportunities to attack. Jo Jo, on the other hand, liked to go on the offense, a strategy his father frowned upon.

Jo Jo was determined to win. He turned to his dad and said, “Daddy, I don’t want to hear anything, just leave me alone. Let me fight! Just let me take care of it.”

Joseph “Jojo” Awinongya Jr poses for a portrait at the Chicago Sports & Fitness Club in Joliet, IL, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.
Joseph “Jojo” Awinongya Jr adjusts his gloves during a training session at the Chicago Sports & Fitness Club in Joliet, IL, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.
Joseph “Jo Jo” Awinongya Jr punches the speed bag during a drill at the Chicago Sports & Fitness Club in Joliet, IL, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.

After the bell rang, Jo Jo combined defense and the aggressiveness he had been wanting to unleash. The change in fighting style surprised everyone, including his rival, whom Jo Jo finally defeated.

“The way he fought! Everybody after the fight, everybody wanted to take a picture with him, they wanted to talk to him. That’s when I knew I had something special in my hand,” Joseph Sr. recalls.

Jo Jo faces new challenges, including stepping up into a new weight class where tougher opponents await — and starting classes this week as a 16-year-old freshman at the University of St. Francis in Joliet where he’s studying marketing, business and computer science on a full scholarship.

Juggling school and boxing hasn’t come without sacrifice. As Jo Jo finished middle school with a high school diploma, which he accomplished through homeschooling at age 14, he took and passed the entrance exam for community college.

Start From Beginning
Start From Beginning

Jo Jo started Joliet Junior College with a full course load. When the family drove to out-of-state boxing competitions, he would study and do homework up until the fight.

“I am the youngest in my classes. Most of the time, I try to keep it quiet a little bit. I might tell a couple of people, but they never guessed that I’m 16 due to my height,” said Jo Jo, who at 6-foot-3 towered over his classmates during his recent graduation.

While Jo Jo has racked up the wins — four-time Junior National Champion, three-time Silver Gloves National Champion and three USA National championships — all while getting an associate’s degree at age 16, he didn’t set out to be a champion boxer.

Boxing was the passion of his father, dubbed “The African Assassin” in his native Ghana. After fighting professionally all over Europe, Joseph Sr. was signed by the famed boxing promoter Don King and came to the United States in 1999.

Start From Beginning
Start From Beginning

His career was cut short in 2004 after his doctor told him it might be best to hang up his gloves after multiple surgeries to fix a detached retina from his childhood.

Joseph Sr. started over in Joliet, where he worked at the Daily Herald as a delivery supervisor until 2009 when he co-opened a boxing gym. As the gym grew, he started coaching more experienced boxers.

But a trip to Monte Carlo, where one of his boxers lost a title bout in 2014, and the birth of his daughter prompted Joseph Sr. to make the difficult decision to close the gym to focus on his family.

Jo Jo, then 6, saw the emotional toll quitting boxing for the second time had on his father.

“I felt maybe if I pushed to try it out and start doing it, he would want to come back to it,” Jo Jo said.

But his father wasn’t supportive of his son following in his footsteps.

“I knew what punches felt like, and I didn’t want that for him,” Joseph Sr. said.

He pushed his son hard, trying to get him to quit. But Jo Jo kept powering through — and winning.

Start From Beginning
Start From Beginning

When he realized his son’s commitment, Joseph Sr. agreed to train him under one condition: Do well in school.

From a young age, Jo Jo’s parents could tell he stood out from his peers. Jo Jo would spend hours doing extra lessons online and would retake them until he scored 100%.

“It was his video game!” his father recalls.

For a student athlete, time was the biggest hurdle to overcome. Nationals would take place over a week, causing Jo Jo to miss exams and his grades to suffer. But that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing higher education because he wants to make sure there’s life after boxing.

“You never know when an unexpected event could happen to where you can’t do the thing that you love best,” he said.

As he sets his sights on college and his ultimate goal of being the youngest world champion (at 17 years and nearly 6 months, Wilfred Benitez was crowned WBA super lightweight champion in 1976), his dad sees a bright future for his son.

Start From Beginning
Start From Beginning

“His potential is unlimited, his IQ in boxing, his IQ in everything is higher now because I cut him loose,” Joseph Sr. said.

Joseph “Jo Jo” Awinongya Jr. in line, waiting for the graduation ceremony to begin at Joliet Junior College on May 19.
Naomi Awinongya watches as her brother Joseph “Jo Jo” Awinongya Jr reads a card from his mother after graduating from Joliet Junior College in Joliet, IL, Friday, May 19, 2023.
From left to right, aunt Sally Ayertey-Gadzekpo, sister Naomi Awinongya, Joseph “Jo Jo” Awinongya Jr, mother Valerie Ayertey, and father Joseph Awinongya Sr. stand for a family photo at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, IL, Friday, May 19, 2023, after Jo Jo’s graduation with an associate in liberal arts.