In the early 1970s, Maurice “Termite” Watkins of Houston, Texas, was on the same international amateur team as Howard Davis and Sugar Ray Leonard. In 1973, Watkins, then 17, won the National Golden Gloves lightweight championship. Because neither Davis nor Leonard won titles that year, it was Watkins who was the most highly touted prospect for the 1976 Olympic team. However, after finishing his amateur career with a 112-10-1 record, Watkins opted to turn pro in May 1974. By the time Davis, Leonard, Leo Randolph and Leon and Michael Spinks emerged from the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal as gold medalists, Watkins was a veteran of 27 professional bouts, only one of which was a loss.
Watkins challenged Saoul Mamby for the WBC junior welterweight title in 1980, and lost a 15-round decision. After retiring from the ring for good in 1990 with a 59-5-2 (40 kos) record, he worked in his family’s pest control business, then became a successful car salesman. He often wondered how different his life would have been had he won the gold medal that so many people envisioned for him, but eventually went to Davis.
“Watching those guys as pros and seeing all the attention they got and the money they made, I knew that could have been me,” said Watkins, now 48. “They all became rich. But I have no regrets. It just wasn’t God’s will for me to be in the Olympics.”
Now, nearly three decades later, Watkins has garnered more Olympic glory than he ever could have imagined. Having gone to Iraq as a civilian pest control contractor in the winter of 2003, a chance meeting with a British officer who remembered him from his fighting days led him to become the coach of a quixotic bunch of misfits who comprised the Iraqi boxing team. Until Watkins’ arrival, the only training they did with any consistency was shadow box in courtyards and beat each other bloody with gloveless fists.
“They had no gear and almost all of them were barefooted,” explained Watkins, who New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman said “brims with the energy of a shaken soda can.”
“They didn’t even have any mouthpieces.”
Watkins was alarmed at the resistance he initially encountered, but later learned it had nothing to do with him. There was a pervasive fear among the athletes that was hard to shake. Under the recently ousted regime, Iraqi athletes who performed poorly were treated harshly by Uday Hussein, the nefarious son of Saddam who had been the longtime head of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee. Among other things, he was known to force soccer players to kick cement balls with their bare feet. Boxers sometimes had to assume a fighter’s stance while Uday beat them from pillar to post.
“It was like he [Uday] watched ‘Rocky’ too many times,” said one of Watkins’ assistant coaches. “Uday would hit you and hit you. But if you returned a punch, he would shoot you.”
Eventually Watkins’ effervescent personality and can-do manner won over the team. He even created a slogan, “Iraq is Back,” which quickly became its mantra. Watkins continued to train the team daily, even though insurgents had put a bounty on his head and the reverberations from explosives were often too close for comfort.
“The dangers were always on my mind, that’s for sure,” said Watkins, who had a wife and two grown children back home. “Are we going to get hit by mortars, grenades, car bombs, human bombs? Besides the danger, which was obvious, we were always overcoming some obstacle, like no equipment, no electricity, no water.”
Watkins had become so committed to the people of Iraq, he refused to wear any form of body armor while making his daily rounds. “I don’t want anyone to think I don’t trust the Iraqi people,” he explained then. “This is a country of wonderful people who I’ve grown to love and adore, and they truly need a helping hand. I came to this country to support the military in pest control because that is all I could do, and ended up where I am today. I came to be a servant, but I am the one that has been truly blessed. I am the one that has gained so much, and I’m not even talking about [just] boxing. I have learned just how fortunate I really am. Even when I was at the lowest point of my life, I was still so well off compared to these people.”
“Termite is a phenomenal human being,” said Hector Berdecia, an NYPD sergeant and U.S. Army National Guard reservist who was stationed nearby. He even arranged a basketball game between the reservists and Watkins’ fledgling boxing team. “What he did with the team in such a short time is amazing,” said Berdecia. “They are much better boxers than they are basketball players, but you can see the love the boxers have for Termite and the love he has for them. In a place where things are not always so positive, that was great to see.”
Just 57 days after taking over the team’s reins, Watkins escorted them to a tournament in the Philippines. Matches in China and Pakistan, and training in the United States, soon followed. Eventually one Iraqi fighter, 24-year-old flyweight Najah Ali, who held a university degree in computer science, qualified for the summer Games in Athens.
No Iraqi athlete had won a medal since 1960, when a weightlifter earned a bronze. Watkins and Ali knew that the world was watching, and that just by qualifying for the Olympics this story would have a happy ending. “I can open the door and help Iraq get six or seven boxers into the next Olympics,” said Ali, who never stopped praising Watkins or the United States, even on Iraqi television.
Shortly before departing for Athens, Watkins was amazed not only by the progress that Ali made as a fighter, but by the progress made in the country as a whole. Contrary to all of the negative reports on American television, he said, there were a lot of positive things occurring in the beleaguered nation. When he first arrived, it was unusual to see people strolling around at night. Now it was common to see kids playing soccer in the evening, with scores of family members watching from the sidelines. He also saw the opening of a new women’s center, which would have been unimaginable during the Hussein regime, as well as improvements in housing, clothing, transportation and the amenities that are most often taken for granted in democratic societies.
Ali’s presence at the Games was significant for more than the obvious reasons. He was the face of the new, free Iraq. “In the past [Iraqi athletes] only performed through fear,” said Watkins. “It was always in their mind that if they didn’t do well, their families may be killed, or they may be tortured or raped. The athletes now are excited because they’re actually fighting for the love of the sport. If they can compete in the Olympics, their whole life could change.”
The Watkins-Ali partnership drew worldwide media attention, which only became greater when Ali outpointed a North Korean in his very first bout. Although the relatively inexperienced Ali was only 4’11”, which is short even by flyweight standards, he must have seemed like Goliath to his millions of countrymen who eagerly awaited word of his every move.
In his second bout, which took place on the same night the Iraqi soccer team advanced to the semifinals with a 1-0 victory over Australia, Ali was outpointed by an Armenian in a hard-fought battle. Immediately afterwards, Watkins embraced him and thanked his flyweight protégé for having a heavyweight heart. “He fought a fantastic fight,” gushed Watkins. “We did this in ten months, and they’ve been getting ready for four years. Ali is like my son. I love him very much, and I thanked him for the privilege of letting me train him.”
When Watkins returned home, it took months for him to readjust. He did a nationwide media tour, and was on more television programs than he can remember. Journalist Susie Pepper of Atlanta is writing his life story, and the prestigious William Morris Agency signed him to a contract, with the expectation that a movie will be made of his exploits. One actor reportedly interested in the starring role is Bruce Willis. He’s been presented with the Arete Honor, a Greek award for “glory, virtue and excellence” that has also been presented to Muhammad Ali, Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods. The New York City Sergeants Benevolent Association, the third largest police union in the country and sponsor of the NYPD’s Fighting Finest boxing team, presented Watkins and Ali with Certificates of Honor. He was also was sought out for a job with the Sonic Automotive Group, where he is responsible for training salespeople and bringing integrity back to auto sales.
“It was music to my ears,” he said. “My new mission is to prove that you can be a car salesman and have integrity.”
Most importantly, Watkins is lobbying hard to get Ali admitted into the United States, where he has already been accepted into a graduate program at the University of Houston. He is working with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas native, on that project, and says “we will find a way, whatever it takes.”
As exciting of an experience that Watkins has had, he insists that he is just a bit player in an epic saga. The real stars, he insists, are the everyday Iraqi people who for decades were forced to live under Hussein’s inhuman dictatorial reign. “The Iraqi people are honorable, decent, loving people, and most of them hate violence,” he explained. “Sometimes I think I need to be back there, because seeing their struggle was a gift to me. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my life, but nothing compared to what they endure everyday.”
His voice started to tremble as he recalled the insensitive questions of a Japanese journalist shortly after Ali was defeated in Athens. “How does it feel to be a loser in the biggest event of your life?” Ali was asked.
“Did I lose?” an incredulous Ali responded.
When told that he did, the diminutive Ali suddenly took on the persona of a little giant as he reprimanded the writer. “My country is free, and I represented them,” he retorted defiantly. “I got to come to the Olympics, and the world loves me. Am I a loser?”
The writer was taken aback, and it took him a moment to collect his thoughts before responding. “No,” he said. “You might just be the biggest winner here.”
Who will win #HOPKINSKOVALEV