This story was originally published Jan. 9, 2014 in the Charleston Daily Mail. It won “Best Lifestyles Feature” at the 2015 West Virginia Press Association Awards.

Fists wrapped and gloves tied, tomorrow night Zac Jones, the often-troubled son of Charleston mayor Danny Jones, will duck through the ropes at the Charleston Civic Center for his first ever boxing match.

He’s been training for months, running, lifting weights and learning the fundamentals of the sport from his coach at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center.

“I’m not nervous now,” he said. “I’m sure it will change by the time the event comes around, when I step into the ring with thousands of people watching.”

Jones, 24, is among the dozens of men and women signed up to fight in this year’s Rough N’ Rowdy amateur boxing contest, which begins Friday night.

He initially signed up because he needs the money.

The winner of each weight division gets $1,000, a substantial sum when you’re working two low-paying restaurant jobs to make ends meet.

But over the last month, Jones became more sincere in his training. He doesn’t know if he’ll win, but he believes there’s a chance.

And if he loses . . . well, he’s been there before.

This is Jones’ first boxing match, but it’s not his first fight.

And while thousands will see him step into the ring, millions were watching the last time he went to the mat.

This time, Zac Jones is fighting for $1,000, a championship jacket and a trophy.

Last time, he was fighting for his life.

* * *

It was 6:30 on a chilly March morning, and Jones was speeding down Interstate 77 in a white Mazda 3 with Moldavian Harris, 24, of Detroit.

Metro Drug Unit Detective O.B. Morris spotted the car, followed it off the Washington Street exit and turned on his blue lights.

Mayor Danny Jones had informed Charleston Police of his son’s whereabouts so he could be arrested.

Officers found 25.7 grams of cocaine in the vehicle. Jones and Harris were charged with possession with intent to deliver cocaine. A judge set their bonds at $25,000 cash. The mayor refused to pay his son’s bail.

National media outlets picked up the story after the elder Jones released a heartbroken statement declaring his son a “hopeless drug addict.” He said he was thankful for Zac’s arrest.

“If in jail or prison, I know that Zac has a better chance at living than on the outside. This is because Zac is a hopeless drug addict who has broken the heart and the will of everyone and anyone who has tried to help him,” he wrote.

The stories all mentioned the younger Jones’ previous run-ins with police, a 2008 DUI arrest and a 2011 bust for heroin possession.

No one knew his struggles with substance abuse had started much earlier.

“I always felt I was different. I think I was born with this disease of addiction,” he said.

He began smoking marijuana at age 12, a year before his father was elected mayor.

“There was something just attractive about it. I don’t know if that makes sense to somebody that’s normal,” he said.

Things got worse as he got older. Jones estimates he got high every single day from the time he was 14 until his first stint in rehab at age 20.

He got his first taste of painkillers at age 16, after breaking his feet in a skateboarding accident. He began abusing Vicodin before moving onto Oxycontin, which eventually led to heroin.

“The opiates are where I really found what I was looking for,” he said. “Cocaine was always in there, too.”

He was arrested for the first time in 2008, after crashing his car in South Hills.

Jones, just 18 at the time, ran from the scene. Police found him a short time later in wet and dirty clothes. His blood alcohol content was 0.122.

At age 20, he decided to get clean. He was spending all his money on drugs while his bills and rent were falling behind.

“I could tell I had a problem,” he said.

His father sent him to a rehabilitation facility in California, where he successfully kicked his habits and graduated the program. The sobriety only lasted a few months, however.

Jones had hoped rehab would cure his addiction to “heavy” drugs, but wasn’t ready to give up alcohol.

“I was 20 years old. I wanted to drink,” he said.

He underestimated the strength of his addiction. Jones was soon using drugs again, and was arrested for heroin possession in 2011.

Police, responding to complaints of drug activity, arrived at an apartment on Kelly Road, where Jones answered the door and allowed the officers inside. His girlfriend at the time handed over a plate with 10 lines of heroin, which Jones admitted belonged to him.

His father refused to offer any more help.

“I was so miserable. I was ready to run ’til the wheels fell off,” Jones said. “I didn’t care about anything or anyone.”

* * *

After his arrest last spring, Jones spent more than three months in the South Central Regional Jail. His father refused to pay his bond and asked that no one else would, either.

Looking back, Zac said he’s glad for the tough love because it forced him to come to a realization. He could spend his life in jail, stay addicted to drugs, die or get clean.

He decided to get clean. He began calling The Healing Place, a rehabilitation facility in Huntington, every single day, “desperate, desperate to change my life.”

“They want you to show you’re really wanting it,” he said.

When the center wouldn’t accept him right away, Jones got started on his own.

“When I was arrested, I was in really, really bad shape. I’d done drugs for a lot of years. I just decided I wanted to use the time I was going to be away to get back in shape,” he said.

The jail didn’t have a gym, so he began doing exercises in his cell. The exertion made him sick at first, but Jones was eventually doing 1,000 push-ups a day. He started lifting weights after he was released to The Healing Place in June. When he moved to the Kanawha Valley Fellowship Home a few months later, he started going to a gym in Charleston.

In nine days, Zac Jones will be 10 months sober and in the best shape of his life.

Every morning he rolls out of bed by 5:30 a.m. and, four days a week, begins strength training by 6 a.m. He also runs, clocking five kilometers every other day. He goes to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center on Donnally Street three or four times a week to train for boxing.

He works hard to stay fit, and you can tell. When he was arrested, Jones’ face still bore some of the softness of adolescence. That’s gone now.

His shoulders and arms bulge under his T-shirt sleeves, the skin stretched tight to show thick veins underneath. Watching him work a punching bag in the gym, you’re thankful it isn’t your face.

Jones also works hard to stay sober. It’s a daily struggle.

“It took me a long time to realize I cannot use drugs or alcohol successfully,” he said. “Without me being clean, I don’t have a chance.”

He has figured out ways to keep himself in check.

Some of his strategies, like the exercise, he’ll talk about. Other parts, he prefers to keep private.

“It’s not easy being an addict and staying sober,” he said. “I know how it is. I know how it feels. It’s a tough way to live.”

Jones has quit drugs, alcohol, even cigarettes. He still dips snuff, which helped him quit smoking, but he wants to quit that, too, after the fight.

“There’s help out there. You have to sincerely want it, and be willing to ask,” he said.

“This way of life is a lot better than the alternative.”

* * *

Although he formerly worked as a coal miner, Jones is now a cook at Recovery Sports Grill on Virginia Street.

On Thursdays, he goes to work at the Mardi Gras Racetrack and Casino in Cross Lanes, where he makes $40 a night cooking his father’s special barbeque ribs for the French Quarter restaurant.

“I get my ass kicked every day. It’s hard work, working in a restaurant,” he said.

Jones said he likes the restaurant business, but figures the only way to make real money is to open his own place. He hopes to eventually resurrect his father’s restaurant, Danny’s Rib Shack, somewhere in the Kanawha Valley. Right now, he’s just trying to build up experience.

It’s the same thing with his Rough N’ Rowdy fight.

“I’m not going to be a boxer. I’m not training for the Golden Gloves,” he said. “It’s something I’ve trained for. I’ve already done what I’ve set out to do.”

When Jones signed up for the Rough ‘N’ Rowdy, he was asked to provide a ring name.

Many fighters take inspiration from their home counties.

Boone County will be represented this year by a “Boone County Beast,” a “Boone County Brawler,” a “Boone County Redneck,” a “Boone County Thrill,” a “Boone County Outlaw,” a “Boone County Wild Child” and even a “Wildest Child.”

Others play off their given names, like “Cam the Man,” “Cam Nasty” and “John Boy.”

Jones originally considered “Bones,” but realized a lot of fighters with his last name pick that one.

Then the word Juggernaut popped into his head. He first thought of the villain from Marvel’s X-Men comic books. But then he looked at the definition.

“It means an unstoppable force.”