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Up-and-coming Chicago boxer Joshua Greer Jr. hasn’t lost track of roots

Joshua Greer Jr. (right) lands two punches on Daniel Lozano (left) in Greer's seven-round victory on Dec. 14. Mikey Williams/Top Rank

As a teenager, Joshua Greer Jr. contributed to Chicago’s South and West Side violence. He robbed, started fights and dodged murders.

Now 24, Greer’s look remains the same: Stepping into a high school cafeteria on a Monday in October, his faded jeans, black sweater and modest gold chain fit right in. But his lifestyle has certainly changed — he’s a professional boxer now, one of the top up-and-coming bantamweights in the world — and his intentions have, too.

On that chilly fall day, the cafeteria had been converted into a temporary boxing gym by The Bloc, a West Side non-profit that provides at-risk youth boxing training and academic mentorship. Greer came to provide inspiration, to prove that a 5-4 kid from the streets evolving into a millionaire boxer is more than a myth of old movies.

“I figured he was going to come through, say a few words, and take off,” said Jamyle Cannon, The Bloc’s founder. “Instead, he hung out with kids [and] … held punching pads for them. He didn’t want it to be touch-and-go; he wanted to build connections with the young people, let them know that he was on their side and cheering for them.”

Just a few weeks earlier, “Don’t Blink” Greer (19-1-1, 11 KOs) had won his debut with Top Rank, with which he signed a multi-year contract over the summer. Another win in December earned him a WBC Continental Americas title; he’ll seek to defend it from Giovanni Escaner in an ESPN-televised event Friday.

Already ranked 12th in the WBO bantamweight rankings, a victory over Escaner could push Greer into the world title conversation. That kind of glory is the subject of any boxer’s dreams, Greer included.

The motivation behind that dream, however, is a bit different in his case.

“I can’t wait to be on a bigger platform and be in a bigger position, which I will soon be, to be able to help Chicago as much as I can,” he said. “I want to inspire the youth because I’ve been there before. … I just want to keep showing them that (boxing is) a way out.”

He’s already done that for some.

Take Brian Robles, for example.

A student at DRW College Prep on the West Side — and one of The Bloc’s aspiring boxers who attended Greer’s talk in October — Robles said he discovered an inspiring kinship with the guy he’d previously only known through YouTube knockout compilations.

He told us that just because you’re in this very violent neighborhood doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish anything,” Robles said.

Violent neighborhoods molded, hardened and nearly even ruined Greer. Born on the South Side, he lost his father to a brutal shooting before his first birthday. He bounced between the police station and his home throughout his teenage years, telling his mother he’d been staying with a friend after returning from recurring stints in jail. He took up boxing for a while, but gave it up after one particularly discouraging loss.

He twice nearly met the same fate as his dad: At 15, he outran an attempted drive-by shooting, and at 20, he had a gun pulled on him but no shots fired. Both were follow-ups to fights in which he was not innocent.

“I was always in trouble, I did things to people,” he said. “When you enter onto that life on the streets, you’re open to everything because you’re not living right.”

And then, at age 21, he had a child, and an epiphany.

“I had to secure my future,” he said. “I needed to do something positive. Because I knew I couldn’t live how I was living, because there were only two ways I was going to end my life: jail or death.”

Greer returned to the ring, soon turned pro and started winning — a lot.

Three and a half years later, he’s won 16 straight fights and emerged as a serious rising contender in the bantamweight class.

“Obviously, he’s naturally talented — he’s fast and he’s strong and he’s athletic and all that — but his mental makeup is what separates him from the pack,” said Greer’s coach, Los Angeles-based gym owner John Pullman. “I’ll tell him something one time, and he’ll work on it and make it part of him. That’s an uncanny ability to grow and to learn.”

Joshua Greer Jr. looks on prior to his fight against Daniel Lozano on Dec. 14. Mikey Williams/Top Rank

Greer can talk the arrogant talk that boxing culture essentially demands, of course. “I’m going to lay traps and let him walk right into them,” he offered as a preview of his bout against Escaner.

He can walk the arrogant walk, too: He’s best known, at least at this stage of his career, for a pillow inscribed with the words “Night, Night” that he whips out — in the ring — after every knockout.

But his humble background isn’t many layers away.

“By coming to the gym and dedicating myself, I proved to myself that I could actually be successful in something,” he said. “By going through [the street life], I feel like I can deal with anything on any level in life.”

Through his collaboration with The Bloc, Greer hopes to transfer those sentiments of worthiness and resilience to other young aspiring boxers on the West Side.

His social media promotions helped the organization win a $25,000 grant from the State Farm Neighborhood Assist program last fall. Everlast, which sponsors Greer, is scheduled to deliver a shipment of gloves later this month.

And for members such as Robles, all that added up has made the path out via boxing look clearer than ever. When he speaks about the sport’s role in his life now, he echoes many of the same lessons that Greer himself learned in years past.

“Boxing disciplined me and made me more mature as a person. I see things different because I have to work out this hard or I have to prepare for this tournament or I have to prepare for this fight,” Robles said. “This might be a little cliche, but it’s made me realize that anything is possible.”