The Making of an Olympic-Chasing, Hollywood-Crashing Teen Star

The Editors
Photo credit: Bryan Meltz
Photo credit: Bryan Meltz

From Men's Health

JAVON “WANNA” WALTON rose early to fight his father. It was about a week after his 13th birthday, in late July 2019. As the sun rose over the Chicago skyline, the teenager stood outside on the rooftop of an apartment building, his boxing gloves raised, hitting Dad’s mitts.

“Man, lift your elbow up on the hook!” DJ called to his son, as he circled, swinging. “Sit down a little bit more on your rear leg! Jab-step harder on your feint!”

The duo had traveled to Chicago from their home in rural northeastern Georgia, where they held their usual drills surrounded by 15 acres of farmland with chickens, goats, and dogs running around. In fact, for the last five years, DJ and Javon had spent many weekends traveling together for boxing tournaments so that Javon could gain more practice for the Junior Olympics.

Photo credit: Bryan Meltz
Photo credit: Bryan Meltz

But Javon’s real dream was much bigger than that, and more publicly stated: In October 2017, he’d appeared on The Steve Harvey Show, where he’d thrown some rapid-fire punches and then performed a handstand on Harvey’s desk before dismounting with a flip. Harvey gaped. Six months later, Javon gained more notoriety by appearing in an Under Armour commercial in which he stood alongside Dwayne Johnson. “Why be one champ when I wanna be two?” he said, before backflipping into a boxing ring.

For the past several years, Javon has been training hard in hopes of appearing in the Paris Olympics in 2024 in not just one sport but two: both boxing and gymnastics. Then Hollywood casting agents became aware of his poise and confidence and began suggesting their own ideas about where his special blend of dedication and charisma could take him.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

So this trip was different. Javon and his whole family—including his mom, Jessica; older sister Jayla; twin brother Jaden; and younger brother Daelo—had arrived in Chicago so that he could film Utopia, Amazon’s highly anticipated thriller. He plays Grant, a street-smart kid from the projects who finds a mysterious graphic novel called Utopia that seems to hold clues about different real-life conspiracies.

Utopia is the second major television project for Javon, coming after a supporting role on HBO’s Euphoria, a darker drama series that began airing about the same time he arrived in Chicago. Over several weeks, with his Instagram account adding tens of thousands of followers weekly, the sports phenom worked out in the morning, went to his film set, and became ever more famous as Euphoria gained attention.

At age 13, Javon now has nearly 260,000 followers on Instagram, plenty of viral stunt clips, his own IMDb page, and seemingly more jobs to juggle than any one person might reasonably manage. He’s entered true child-star territory, which brings with it more questions—about how to maintain your life balance and sense of identity, especially when it’s unclear where all your motivation comes from and just who is pushing you to keep succeeding.

But kids don’t necessarily think like that. Many seem to believe they can do it all without at least initially recognizing that there are some important losses and gains that come along with ambition. Particularly if you’re pushing hard at a young age. “I’m just worried about doing the things I love,” Javon added on a recent day, by which he meant he was just staying focused on his passions rather than any trade-offs.

“Watch your hand!” DJ called out as Javon accidentally lowered his glove, leaving his chin exposed.

At 6'1", DJ towered more than a foot over his son. Javon was just 4'9"—that’s short for a seventh grader, especially one who had to punch back at all the bigger kids he faced in the ring. But Javon seemed used to feeling like an underdog, even as his dreams of what he might be when he grew up appeared to grow bigger by the day.

FROM THE moment he could crawl, Javon propelled himself across the floor like a soldier in boot camp. He would thrash his hips and elbows. He attacked the floor. As soon as he could stand, he tried to run. When his mother tried to pick him up, he squirmed away. “All by self!” he would say. He wanted to do everything solo, so one day DJ looked at his son and said, “Hey, Wanna!” And Javon looked at his dad and tilted his head, approving his new name. “You wanna be grown already, don’t you?” DJ said, grinning. “Well, don’t be so quick to grow up.”

Photo credit: Bryan Meltz
Photo credit: Bryan Meltz

When Javon was two, he watched Manny Pacquiao dance across the ring in a televised boxing match. No one remembers the opponent. But Javon turned to his dad and said, “I wanna do that.” So DJ—a former boxer who served as vice president of USA Boxing for five years and now owns his own gym, called Onward, in Braselton, Georgia—started coaching him.

They’d watch Olympic fights huddled around the household computer, and Javon told his dad about the Dream—to be on that TV, to compete in the Olympics. At first, he dreamed this above all things.

In kindergarten one day, when Javon was five, his teacher asked the students each to draw a picture: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Mrs. Jackson told the class it could be anything. Later, she called in DJ and Jessica for a conference. She showed them the drawing. “In 35 years, I’ve never had a child draw what he drew,” Mrs. Jackson told them.

Javon had drawn himself on a podium wearing Olympic gold medals for boxing—and a new sport. After watching his older sister, Jayla, excel at gymnastics, he’d decided to try that, too. He became the first kindergartner in the history of the school to make the gymnastics team. But Javon wasn’t satisfied with just participating: He had added gymnastics to the growing Dream. He now wanted Olympic golds in both.

Photo credit: Bryan Meltz
Photo credit: Bryan Meltz

“And I wouldn’t normally say this,” Mrs. Jackson told DJ and Jessica that day. “But I think he will actually do it.”

BY AGE eight, Javon had qualified for the Junior Olympics in boxing. At 11, he became the only kid in Georgia to hold state championship titles in both boxing and gymnastics.

Then the news cameras came, and talk-show hosts started calling, and invitations arrived about various sponsorship deals. By the time he was 12, Javon had competed in national tournaments, dancing across the ring in his red shoes like a miniature Pacquiao. He’d become one of only four American kids his age to be ranked “elite” in trampoline and tumbling by USA Gymnastics. He’d set himself the target date of 2024 for the Olympics, because he’d be 18 by then, the youngest age that boxers are allowed to compete.

After seeing Javon on Steve Harvey, a casting director named Jennifer Venditti reached out to DJ and asked if Javon would consider auditioning for a new HBO show called Euphoria, about suburban teens who face drug abuse, cyberbullying, and sexual pressure. Javon won the role of Ashtray, the tattooed child assistant to a drug dealer. (His first line, spoken to Zendaya, who plays the substance-abusing main character: “I thought your ass was dead.”)

Photo credit: Courtesy of HBO
Photo credit: Courtesy of HBO

The Euphoria experience was supposed to be a one-off. But for Javon, it seems to have triggered another impulse to compete and conquer. Euphoria led to his next role, in Utopia, as a lead this time, and ultimately what looked like a hard choice: His summer acting schedule would conflict with the boxing nationals that June. For the last five years, he’d always qualified for nationals, although he’d yet to win a title there. Now he’d have to miss the competition completely. He simply couldn’t do both.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Javon was willing to miss it as long as he and DJ could keep training during filming, so he could be ready for the 2020 qualifier this summer. Before the shooting of Utopia started, they’d visited the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where he watched the national team train and hit the saunas wearing hoodies. He tried to imagine that one day he’d be that strong. Seeing the Dream up close only made him want the Olympics more. “I can’t wait until that time comes,” he said with certainty on a recent day. “Paris. It’s gonna be lit.

"GOOD JOB today; you worked hard,” DJ said after they put their gloves down, the rest of Chicago seemingly still asleep. “Let’s make sure you’re keeping your lead hand a little bit tighter when you’re taking your countersteps. And spring back forward with aggressive punches.”

“I wanna do this next,” Javon said, showing DJ his phone and boxer Canelo Álvarez’s Instagram story. Álvarez was working counterstep drills, targeting his lead hand, and finishing with a hook to the body. “Man, I wanna do it exactly like him!”

DJ sat with Javon now, watching Álvarez’s Instagram. “You know, that comes from years of experience,” DJ said, before agreeing to try the new drill.

Photo credit: Bryan Meltz
Photo credit: Bryan Meltz

Javon knew he had to keep training and winning, no matter his other pursuits. That’s because as he grows, he will compete in a new weight class each year. Every year, he has to advance through state competitions and qualify for regionals. If he can win nationals, he could make Team USA and travel internationally, increasing his chances of being selected for the Olympics.

Later that day, the Walton family left the city for the Great Wolf Lodge, a resort an hour’s drive from downtown Chicago. The lodge had a pool and an arcade and a water park. It was a belated birthday celebration for Javon and Jaden and a weekend escape for the whole family. DJ had called the family “Tribe” when the kids were young. He and Jessica thought “family” wasn’t a strong enough word.

The Tribe hit the arcade, a sprawling school-gym-sized room with a Ferris wheel and carnival games. Javon quickly found a whacking machine with foam hammers. He looked to his dad, and without saying a word, DJ picked up both hammers, treating them like boxing mitts. Javon punched the hammers as if they were mitts, and the screen flashed the score: 1,000—the highest.

Still, on the path to Team USA, losses will be inevitable, especially at the junior level. Fights last for three one-and-a-half-minute rounds—just 270 seconds. With so little time and with points awarded for landing punches, most junior fighters focused on offense and just came out swinging. That style had been Javon’s weakness. It was the reason he and DJ focused so much on mitt drills: Javon needed to punch more.

Before heading to Chicago, Javon had lost a regional match in Dallas against a brawler from San Antonio. “Shorten up! Shorten your overhand!” DJ had yelled from the corner. Javon was swinging too wide and missing, his elbow too open. And San Antonio just kept pounding with lots of inside punches and constant advances. DJ had never seen Javon return to the corner so flushed. After his loss, Javon was stoic. Someone had been recording the bout, so all he wanted to do was go home and watch the tape.

Photo credit: Bryan Meltz
Photo credit: Bryan Meltz

Javon’s style is intentionally more grown-up. He and DJ often work on misdirection and feints. They focus on his footwork. DJ has coached him not to brawl. Javon may suffer occasional defeats now, but he’ll have the tools to peak in those years that really matter—14, 15, 16—the ages when the rounds go longer and kids gain muscle and become stronger. The ages when national coaches begin identifying and investing in youth talent. The ages when Olympians are really born.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Javon already sees DJ as more than just his dad. He hopes to go pro one day and have him there in his corner, even if other coaches have to step in at different points along the way. “Your coach is, like, everything to you,” Javon says later. “The bond is unbreakable.”

After the arcade, the Tribe went back to the rooms, and Javon climbed into the bottom bunk. The beds had mini blankets, so there Javon lay, 4'9", and somehow too big for his surroundings.

A WEEK after the family trip, Javon returned to the apartment late one day after filming. His mother was in the kitchen. She had just gotten off the phone with Javon’s kindergarten gymnastics coach. She said she had some bad news.

When Javon was eight, his kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Jackson, for whom he’d drawn the Olympic picture, was diagnosed with cancer. She’d come to his fights and his training, even during chemotherapy. Javon wrote on his red boxing shoes then, “Fighting for Mrs. Jackson.” Mrs. Jackson battled cancer for five years, holding on to see her daughter marry and her son graduate from college. But she was bedridden by that summer.

Javon would text and send her video messages while filming. “I’m not supposed to do this, Mrs. Jackson, but this is me on set!” he would say. A month earlier, she had stopped responding.

“They brought hospice in, Wanna,” Jessica said. “She wasn’t really able to do much. So that’s why she wasn’t responding to your texts. There were people taking care of her around the clock. She just closed her eyes and went to sleep. She didn't suffer. She's in a better place.” Marie Mauldin Jackson was 62.

Javon’s face flushed and his eyes began to water, but he just nodded and said, “Okay.” And then he went back into his room.

He always felt that Mrs. Jackson was the first person outside the family to believe in him, to believe in the Dream. “She came to the gym and watched me train, which I really liked,” he says. Now she was gone. But not exactly: When Jessica passed her son’s room later that night, she saw him in bed on his phone, reading through his teacher’s texts.

AFTER PRODUCTION wrapped on Utopia, the Tribe moved back home to Georgia. It was early fall. The leaves had browned and Javon seemed happy to go to corn mazes and see his friends again. To ride dirt bikes with Jaden, play Fortnite, and hit Walmart for candy. He went back to school, too, but in a different way than most kids.

Javon takes most of his classes online to make time for more training. He considers that a win-win. “Being around people and being able to hang out with them—that little aspect I like, but it’s not really worth it for how long they’re in school,” he says. “It’s more worth it to be able to get my work done on my time.”

Photo credit: Bryan Meltz
Photo credit: Bryan Meltz

On many days, Javon would pick up his gloves and follow DJ once again into the backyard or the ring at Onward. Back at his family’s gym, he was surrounded by the large garage doors with GO HARDER! written across the front, looking out onto a row of trees and a road.

On a recent day several months ago, before the coronavirus forced Onward to temporarily close, Javon found himself facing DJ and once again hitting the mitts. At the time, he was thinking about his next Junior Olympic Nationals and an upcoming state competition. No one realized that these would all be canceled due to health concerns over the pandemic.

Instead, Javon was focused on doing morning cardio sessions in the pool, classes, then boxing at night. He’d work with his dad five days a week, with sparring on Saturdays.

DJ circled him. POP! POP! POPOPOP!

DJ remembered when Javon was five and he had taken him to the gym. There were no stairs for him to climb into the ring, and so another coach had picked him up and put him inside. Javon cried because yet again he wanted to do things all by himself.

“Don’t be so quick to grow up. Be a kid,” DJ remembered telling him.

Photo credit: Bryan Meltz
Photo credit: Bryan Meltz

Javon circled his dad now, waiting, reacting. POP! POP! POPOPOP! on the mitts.

As DJ saw it, the training session mimicked one of Javon’s final fights before he started filming in Chicago, with DJ shouting fewer of his classic directions—Cut the ring off!... Stop chasing!... Work behind your jab!—and Javon now anticipating them. He noticed that Javon’s hooks were hitting, his elbows tight.

Javon seemed eager to pick up the pace in the second round, even throwing more. He wasn’t gassed when he came back to the corner. “I could do this all day!” he told his dad during that recent fight.

POP! POP! POPOPOP!

When Nationals were postponed until 2021, Javon knew it would be a long road ahead. There would be more fights and lessons. And potentially more trade-offs as more Hollywood opportunities arose.

POP! POP! POPOPOP!

But on the cusp of his 14th birthday, there are no more matches or meets, and no movies in production to complicate things, so he and his dad still train almost every day. That continuing practice seems to make his unusual life, for him at least, feel somewhat normal. “I just get to be a kid right now,” he says.

Sometimes the dreams of boys grow too large and seem unrealistic. Or perhaps it is the other way around, and the boy simply outgrows his dreams. For Wanna, both seem impossible. He’s learned to stay patient, and he’s grown an inch since last summer. He’s punching harder now, and with more reach.

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