By now, Justin Williams has landed in Lenexa, Kan.
That was the hard part.
"I'm real nervous. I've never rode on a plane before," Justin said a few days before leaving.
Now, for the easy part: boxing against the best 119-pound 12- and 13-year-olds the United States has to offer at the National Silver Gloves Championships in Independence, Mo.
The prospect might seem intimidating, but not when you get to know the 13-year-old Murphey Middle School eighth-grader.
He lives for this.
"Disneyland, field trips, Christmas," said Tom Moraetes, the director of the Augusta Boxing Club. "You can look at every type of good thing that can happen to a kid, all wrapped up into one, and that's this tournament for him."
The love of boxing goes back to the day Justin stepped into the Augusta Boxing Club three years ago. Mr. Moraetes saw something special.
"I remember very few people as potentially gifted as him," Mr. Moraetes said. "I have had a lot of them close to that who just didn't have what it takes.
"He's right there with (professional boxers) Vernon Forrest, Ray Whitfield. He's got as much potential at this point in his life."
The tipping point is the young boxer's work ethic.
"He eats, sleeps, drinks, breathes boxing. It's overwhelming," Mr. Moraetes said. "I'll look up, he's not even supposed to be here, and he shows up at the front door. ... I've had to tell him to go home sometimes."
Justin has won 11 junior championships and owns an 18-1 record. Mr. Moraetes can't get local boxers to fight him, so they have to travel outside the area, even the state, to find matches.
"In another six months, I won't be able to buy him a fight," Mr. Moraetes said. "Probably next year, nobody will want to fight him on a regional level," referring to eight states on the East Coast.
Justin is tall for his weight -- 5-foot-6, 119 pounds -- which means he looks down on most of his opponents. And it isn't just his physical build that's imposing.
"I see a tremendous kid, a great student," said Mr. Whitfield, who helps train Justin. "He's already got long, clean punches as an amateur."
"The great thing about him is he fights from the outside, but he can go inside when he needs to," Mr. Moraetes said.
For Justin, the motivation comes from not being satisfied with what he's accomplished.
"Right now, I've got experience -- 18 fights -- and I've only lost one so far," Justin said. "It's great, but I've still got room for improvement. I train with people who have been in boxing eight years, so I know there's still a lot to learn."
Justin won the Georgia State Silver Gloves Championships in Columbus. Then, he won the East Coast Regional Silver Gloves Championships in Augusta, which punched his ticket to Missouri.
There, three victories would earn him the title of national Silver Gloves champion.
When he steps into the ring Friday for his first bout, Justin won't be accompanied by Mr. Moraetes and Mr. Whitfield because they are preparing for Mr. Whitfield's NABO flyweight title defense March 1. But he'll have their advice memorized.
"Every time I see Ray, I want to be like him," Justin said. "Everything he tells me, I know he tells me right. I listen to him, I focus on him. I love having Ray there."
Mr. Whitfield knows the national tournament is a different level of competition.
"He'll really learn what the sport's all about. He's never seen this level yet. He hasn't seen every style from around the country," Mr. Whitfield said. "But he's so determined."
Justin said he expects to learn, win or lose. He will be accompanied for the trip by the Atlanta Police Department boxing team.
His mother, Pamela Godbee, won't be at the nationals, but she said her heart will be there.
"She's behind me 100 percent," Justin said. "She tells me, 'Fight your fight, do your best.' She's always there for me. She's like my little manager."
When he gets back, Ms. Godbee said she will be ready to celebrate both his being back at home and his 14th birthday.
"He's very excited ... we talk about it every time it gets closer," his mother said a few days before he left. "I'm very proud of him, very blessed and very proud."
Reach Justin Williams at (706) 823-3304 or email@example.com.
NATIONAL SILVER GLOVES CHAMPIONSHIPS
WHEN: Jan. 30-Feb. 2
WHERE: Independence, Mo.
HOW IT WORKS:
- Boxers qualified by winning one of eight Regional Silver Gloves events.
- The competition is single-elimination among boxers from across the country.
- Each age class and weight division will have eight boxers, one from each region.
- Each division's champion will have won three bouts by the end of the championships.