I can’t have been the only one to have felt uncomfortable when Najay Ali walked into the Peristeri Boxing Hall last August. The light flyweight had the slogan “Iraq is Back!” emblazoned on the back of his jacket, and he was accompanied not only by Iraqi coach Maurice “Termite” Watkins, but by Basheer Abdullah, the head coach of the US Olympic boxing team, who didn’t always work the corners of his own fighters.
I had the feeling I was watching the sporting equivalent of George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier to proclaim “Mission Accomplished.”
That Ali and, in a sense, Watkins were pawns in a propaganda game is undeniable: the message was, apparently, “Iraq is Liberated” and here’s proof.
The Bush administration also attempted to make political hay of the Iraqi soccer team, running campaign ads taking credit for their successes in Athens.
“At this Olympics there will be two more free nations – and two fewer terrorist regimes,” said the narrator in the voiceover, as footage of the Iraq team rolled on the Bush-Cheney spot.
When word of this reached the Iraqi players they were uniformly indignant. One of them even told Sports Illustrated that if he weren’t in Athens playing soccer he’d probably be back in Fallujah fighting against the Americans.
Whether you consider Termite Watkins a great humanitarian or a shameless self-promoter, there can be no doubt that this was the crowning moment of his life. Fighting mainly in his native Texas, he had compiled an admirable 59-5-2 record as a pro, but in his only fight for a world championship he came up on the wrong end of a decision in a WBC 140-pound title bout against Saoul Mamby.
Watkins had originally gone to Iraq as an exterminator, volunteering to work for a subsidiary of the Halliburton Corporation. Although he would later describe his decision to travel halfway around the world to kill bugs as “a calling from God,” another recollection of his decision sheds more light on his motivation:
“It was my time to do my part in serving the country and helping the military,” Watkins told reporters in Athens.
In other words, Watkins went because he believed the invasion of Iraq to be justified, and he went to make money.
It was Mike Gfeoller, a regional director for the Coalition Provisional Authority, who first envisioned the potential propaganda value of getting an Iraqi boxer to Athens. Having learned of Watkins’ pugilistic background, he approached him with the idea of re-forming a boxing team that hadn’t competed in the Games since 1988.
Initially working with equipment nearly as rudimentary as the skills of his pupils, Watkins assembled an 11-man team, but once the word got out, a donated ring, gloves, and protective cups quickly materialized.
Given what he had to work with, there is no question Watkins did a tremendous job, but the greatest coach in the world couldn’t have transformed the Iraqi boxers into bona fide world-class competitors overnight.
None of them qualified for the Olympics. In qualifying matches, Najay Ali went 0-3. But pressure was exerted on the International Olympic Committee to extend a “special invitation” to one member of the Iraqi team. Ali got the nod and traveled with Watkins to Colorado Springs where he spent six weeks training with the US team.
Many of my brethren scribes felt Watkins should have gotten a medal in Athens, if only for his storytelling prowess. There can be little doubt that Termite relieved much of the tedium of what may have been the dullest boxing tournament in Olympic history.
No reporters had to track Termite down. He found you. And, if you had a moment to spare, he would regale you with, mostly, war stories – his awakening in the middle of the night to discover that his bunkhouse was under a mortar attack, being a passenger in a gas-laden Humvee that flipped over doing, or so he claimed, 100 mph.
The tales grew more grandiose with each telling. Ten days into the Olympics you’d have thought Termite had singlehandedly put Saddam Hussein to flight, but nobody protested. In the midst of some truly awful boxing, Termite made for great copy, whether you believed everything he said or not.
And few did. Even the most sympathetic of Termite’s chroniclers described him as “a raconteur and boaster,” which is a kind way of saying “bullshit artist.” He was plainly as much snake oil salesman as snake exterminator. Before getting back into the pestilence game, Watkins had been working in Texas as a used-car salesman. Need we say more?
Only a cynic would suggest that the same sporting politics that got Najay Ali into the Olympics were also responsible for his first round draw. The Iraqi may have been the second-most inept boxer in the Olympics, but in his opening match he met the first. After Ali defeated North Korea’s Kwak Hyok Ju 21-7 to advance to the second round, Basheer Abdullah conceded as much when he noted “I don’t want to say anybody is easy in the Olympics, but we thanked God we had that type of draw to get him some confidence.”
After Ali was eliminated by Armenia’s Aleksan Nalbandyan in the next round, Termite Watkins ensured that he would remain available for interviews by attaching himself to the American team as a spit bucket carrier.
Even boxing writers who had devoted reams of copy to Watkins’ improbable Olympic quest often joked about it over dinner. As far as I could tell, nobody believed everything he said, and some didn’t believe anything he said.
Which is why I found it somewhat startling last week when I received a communiqué from the Boxing Writers Association of America, proclaiming Termite Watkins a “hero” and announcing that he would receive a “Special Achievement Award” at next month’s BWAA dinner in Las Vegas.
Having been a member of the organization for over a quarter-century, I’ve dutifully cast my vote whenever such awards were presented, but I didn’t recall this having appeared on any ballot I’d seen. Moreover, I couldn’t imagine any boxing writer who had endured prolonged exposure to Termite Watkins voting for it.
BWAA president Bernard Fernandez replied to my query, explaining that Termite had been “nominated and approved by a vote of officers and board members.”
As it happened, I found myself seated in the presence of several BWAA officers at Don King’s John Ruiz-James Toney press conference at Madison Square Garden the next day, and when the subject came up, not a single one of them could recall having voted to honor Watkins.
Ron Borges said he’d never heard of the vote. Tom Hauser couldn’t remember, but said he would likely have abstained in any case. Steve Farhood and Tony Paige had no recollection of any vote for a special achievement award. Most of them did remember that Watkins had been proposed for a “long and meritorious service to boxing” award, but had failed to get enough support to even be placed on the ballot for that honor.
When I suggested to Fernandez that the episode seemed uncomfortably redolent of the previous year’s balloting for the Nat Fleischer Award for Distinguished Boxing Journalism, in which the 2003 award was embarrassingly vacated when it was revealed many eligible voters – i.e. past recipients – had never been polled, it appeared to strike a raw nerve. The email I got back went into a rant about “Iraqi boxers who had been routinely tortured by Uday Hussein.” (Najay Ali never claimed to have been tortured by anybody. Moreover, the BWAA press release refers to the “triumph” of his having “qualified” for the Olympics, which he did not.)
My suggestion that honoring Watkins could be perceived as legitimizing the invasion of Iraq was predictably challenged by the contention that “even those who oppose the war usually speak of supporting the troops,” and that “Watkins initially did go over there to serve as an exterminator at U.S. military installations, which probably made living conditions a little more comfortable for our servicemen and servicewomen.”
Now, personally, I think that the best way to ‘support our troops’ would be to bring them home forthwith, but that is beside the point. They had no choice in the matter. Termite Watkins did. He went to Iraq voluntarily, and he was well paid for it. I told Bernard if he wanted to name Watkins Exterminator of the Year, I wouldn’t have a problem with that, but this didn’t sit well with me.
Bernard did say “I’d like to see our involvement (in Iraq) quickly lessened if not ended outright,” but added “I do not support politicizing the BWAA one way or the other.”
But to me it should seem obvious that honoring Termite Watkins is a political statement.
“I refuse to be casually categorized, and neither should you, or anybody,” argued Fernandez. “Watkins coached some athletes who were in need of a coach, and had suffered under an oppressive regime. Even the New York Times appears to think he did a good job of it. Now, is he a self-promoter hyping himself now? Yeah, probably, and that doesn't sit well with me. But his doing what he did was fairly courageous, and I for one and not going to penalize him for his personal politics.”
Bernard also suggested that I “check with Steve Farhood and Tom Hauser again. They were at the December meeting when Watkins was nominated and confirmed by vote for this award.”
I did. Hauser is certain that he wouldn’t have voted one way or the other at the time, but that upon reflection, probably wouldn’t have approved the award for the reasons under discussion here.
“I’m not saying there wasn’t a vote taken,” said Farhood. “I just don’t remember one having taken place.”
Watkins, alas, will probably have the last word. “Termite,” his autobiography, co-written with Suzy Pepper, will hit the bookstores in two weeks’ time.