Following his 8th round stoppage at the hands of WBC heavyweight king, Vitali Klitschko in April last year, Sanders took some time off to heal and to re-evaluate his future. Going into the Klitschko fight Sanders admittedly was not looking to stay in the game and was merely looking to pick up a few final paychecks before focusing his attention on the celebrity golf circuit. What the Klitschko fight did, however, was to give Sanders a wake up call. He suddenly realized that he was indeed a legitimate contender for the biggest title in the world, with the potential to go further than he had.
The self-defeating attitude of “it’s an honour just to be nominated”, which for some reason is ingrained in most South Africans, was discarded and the reborn boxer decided to jump back into the gym and prove once and for all that he can trade blows with the best the world has to offer. Under new management, Sanders returned to the ring on December 14th and blew away little known Russian heavyweight champion, Alexei Varakin (21-13-2 with12 KO’s) in two rounds. With his confidence restored against a boxer who by no means had any business being in the ring with him, Sanders can now look forward to clinching a fight against a worthier opponent and then, who knows, perhaps Klitschko–Sanders 2 x 2 could be on the cards.
It was, after all, Sanders who popped the Wladimir Klitschko bubble, and Sanders did manage to shake Vitali with his big left hand in April. Something Lennox Lewis couldn’t even do when he faced Vitali Klitschko. So, looking down the road past the Rahmans et al., Sanders could see himself back in the spotlight.
Perhaps his next warm-up should be against Danny Williams, or who was that other guy Williams beat last year? Golota-Sanders would be interesting. And Rahman-Sanders 1 was an entertaining affair, so if the WBC champ decides to get it on with someone else first, that could be an option for a later date.
So while we bide our time by matching former champs with former almost-rans and the like, let’s send a little prayer that somewhere out there is a real powerhouse heavyweight boxer just waiting to clean up the division and restore the championship aura to the sport.
Though fight fans are surely the big winners, the loser in this scenario is clearly Juan Manuel Marquez. Marquez was set to face Manny Pacquiao on February 26, but the financial demands made by Marquez allegedly led the Pacquiao camp to look in the direction of Marquez's countryman, Morales.
The matchup poses a number of interesting points of debate for fight fans, and is sure to be hotly anticipated by all boxing fans.
It will be Pacquiao's first bout at the 130 lb. limit, as reported by Fightnews.com. How will Manny Pacquiao cope with another move up in weight? Will Morales be able to capitalize on his natural size advantage over Pacquiao?
Or will Morales struggle to cope with Manny Pacquiao's vaunted speed and southpaw attack. In his last outing, Morales struggled with Marco Barrera's explosive offensive bursts.
Clearly, it is one for fight fans to savor as these 2 great warriors get set to meet in March.
I take the task seriously. I examine the record of every boxer that appears on the ballot. Many nominees are eliminated immediately. I try to research the remaining names as much as I can so that the fighters I select are truly deserving of the honor.
I’m not sure my fellow writers do the same. Either that or we have very different standards. The only other explanation is that the state of Ohio was in charge of the ballots.
Of all the different sports’ Halls of Fame, I have always admired baseball’s the most. It is the most difficult to get in. The crusty old baseball writers have mandated that a player must dominate his era in order to get in. Terrific ball players like Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, and Goose Gossage have sat forlornly by the phone, waiting for it to ring on announcement day, only to be disappointed.
And when it comes to crusty old writers, no sport can beat boxing. Heck, even most of boxing’s young writers are as cranky as an overtired three-year old. Yet somehow boxing writers have lowered their standards and routinely make two egregious errors in the way they vote for induction into the Hall of Fame.
Error #1 – Popularity seems to count more than dominance. It seems to me that voters often reward boxers that they enjoyed watching or feel never got their due. Hall of Famer Ken Norton was a well liked fighter who gave Muhammad Ali thirty-nine rounds of hell, yet never won a title bout. Granted, he would have been a champion if he had fought in another era, but against top quality opposition, he lost about as often as he won.
Or consider Max Baer. The heavyweight champ knocked out Primo Carnera, considered one of the worst heavyweight champs of all time, to win his title. In his first title defense, Baer was upset by Jim Braddock. Along the way, he dropped decisions to Tommy Loughran and Tommy Farr and was knocked out by Joe Louis and Lou Nova (twice). To me that’s like putting Jim Leyritz in Cooperstown because he hit a clutch homer in the World Series.
This year’s crop of inductees falls in the same category as a guy like Ken Norton. Bobby Chacon was a very good fighter. The only negative I can say about him is that he couldn’t beat the big names consistently. He defeated almost everyone else -- but to get my vote, you have to have some Ws over the cream of the crop in your era. If you never fight that upper echeon, then you need to completely dominate everyone else. Barry McGuigan held his title for just one year before being upset by Steve Cruz. Terry Norris almost got my vote. He was a hell of a boxer, but kept losing to guys he should have beaten.
Again, I think the above mentioned boxers were all very good – Andre Dawson good – but not Ted Williams good.
The only boxer that I voted for who will be enshrined next June was Duilio Loi. He lost just three times in one hundred and twenty six professional bouts.
Error #2 – The IBHOF is clearly biased towards American and European fighters. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that David Duke is casting ballots. Since most of the writers who vote are from North America and Europe, it makes sense that they’ll vote for the guys they see on a regular basis. It’s tough to analyze an Asian fighter’s credentials, for example, when he never ventures out of his region.
However, I believe these boxers deserve our attention and study as to whether they belong in the hallowed halls next to the Joe Louises and Fred Apostolis of the boxing world.
I voted for five other boxers besides Loi. Four were from Asia or Africa.
Yoko Gushiken never fought outside of Japan, yet held the WBA Featherweight title for five years, compiling a 23-1 record during his career.
Brian Mitchell never took on any all time greats, but he held his Super Featherweight title for five years and retired as champion. He lost just once in forty-nine bouts. That’s dominance.
Masao Ohba fought only once outside of Japan (a 9th round KO win in San Antonio). He started boxing professionally two weeks after his fifteenth birthday. When he died in a car wreck at the age of twenty-three, he had been the WBA Flyweight champ for more than two years and finished with a record of 35-2-1.
Myung-Woo Yuh – What’s a brother got to do to get into the Hall of Fame besides hold the WBA Jr. Fly title for six years, defend it seventeen times and then recapture it from the guy who beat you in the very next fight? Wuh’s career ended in 1993 after he defended the reclaimed title one last time. He called it quits at 38-1.
I’m happy for Chacon, Norris, and McGuigan. If I attend the ceremonies this year, I’ll be standing and applauding like everyone else. It will give me the warm fuzzies that these men who sacrificed so much will have their moment in the spotlight once again. Yet next year, I hope others will make sure that the boxers who are enshrined are truly all time greats.
To prove that I’m as cranky as anyone – several people have written on various websites that Chacon, Norris, McGuigan, and Loi were inducted into the Hall of Fame. No, they weren’t. They were voted in. The boxers will be inducted in June.
No one seems to be talking about what I think is the best fight coming up in the next few weeks – Kassim Ouma vs. Kofi Jantuah. This is far from a gimme for Ouma’s first defense. Jantuah has skills and can bang. Ouma is all action and always in his opponent’s face. Don’t be surprised if they steal the show from Gatti – Leija.
The word out of South Florida, where Zab Judah is training for his February 5th rematch with Cory Spinks, is that Super Zab is looking very very sharp. He is sparring only with southpaws. In one recent session he reportedly dominated and battered 15-2 Junior Middleweight Said Ouali.
Division: Cruiserweight Record: 9-0, 6 knockouts Age: 23 Height: 6’0’’ Trainer: John Davenport Gym: Church Street Gym, Manhattan Next Fight: January 21, 2005, Mohegan Sun
The Skinny: Hino has an aggressive, crowd-pleasing style … At this stage of the game, he’s able to hurt opponents with either hand. That might change when his quality of opposition increases.
Veteran trainer John Davenport, who’s worked with the likes of Lennox Lewis and Glenwood Brown, says Hino is his “last hurrah, my last champion.” … In his third pro fight, Hino impressed observers by knocking out unbeaten Scott Halton (3-0)
He also gets credit for a tough, action-packed six-round unanimous decision over Gary Gomez in his seventh pro fight. Gomez, who entered the fight 11-3, took all of Hino’s best shots but clearly lost.
Instead, maybe we should try that quick, simple procedure for picking winners. We’ll flip a coin and see how it lands. Heads for the unpredictable, temperamental Zab Judah, tails for the consistent Cory Spinks. Or we can go the other way, heads for Spinks, tails for Judah.
Maybe we should draw straws, or do that rock, paper, scissors thing. Or maybe we should just try that much maligned, always reliable, high-tech method of selection known as the eenie-meenie-miney-moe process of elimination.
Point and pick.
Works for me.
That way, no one can accuse us of showing favoritism, because this fight could spit out more drama in 12 rounds than a soap opera can do in a month.
When Judah (32-2-1, 23 KOs) and Spinks (34-2, 11 KOs) fight their rematch on Feb. 5 in St. Louis for Spinks‘ world welterweight titles, be ready to be surprised and entertained. Expect fireworks, controversy, confrontation, accusation and petty jealousy. After all, Don King is promoting this thing.
Then get ready to sit down and watch a good fight.
The first time these two guys met, Spinks won a close fight that wasn’t really that close heading into the final rounds, especially after Spinks dropped Judah in the 11th round with a short left.
But then Judah caught Spinks being a little careless in the last 30 seconds of the fight, sending the undisputed welterweight champ sprawling to the canvas with one of those “see-ya-later, pal” punches that usually make it a short night.
Spinks, momentarily lost somewhere on the other side of the rainbow, somehow managed to hang on for the final seconds and escape with just a scare and his title still intact.
“If the fight had lasted one more minute, I would be the undisputed welterweight champion,” Judah claimed after the first fight.
Good, Zab. Of course, if the fight would have been for 10 rounds instead of 12, none of this would matter. If Zab hadn’t lost most of the early rounds, he wouldn’t have needed a knockout. If Judah wasn’t a fighter, he’d probably be parking cars in Brooklyn.
Judah has more gifts than most world-class fighters. He’s just not sure what to do with them. He’s like the child protégé who can play Mozart on the piano, but who would rather fool around with a banjo.
That’s Zab Judah. Blessed and cursed, great and then confused. His only losses were to Spinks this past April and to Kostya Tszyu in 2001, yet he doesn’t always fight up to his potential, and that’s a tough label to lose.
As for Spinks, he hasn’t knocked a lot of guys out, but he usually finds a way to win.
If Judah doesn’t always seem to live up to expectations, Spinks always seems to surpass them. He’s boxing’s pleasant surprise, a nice, polite guy who always fights just well enough to win.
Judah is an enigma, and that’s a tough thing to bet on.
So who wins this fight the second time around? - The solid, consistent, dependable Spinks? - Or the gifted, wild, fickle Judah?
My coin says tails. Of course, it depends on who shows up.
Henry's professional career started in September of 1954 and he won his first nine fights, including an eight round points win over Joe Bygraves. In Henry's tenth bout, against Uber Bacilleri, he lost the first of many bouts due to an eye cut. He would later avenge that loss.
The roller coaster career of Henry Cooper had now begun. He would drop a ten-rounder to Joe Erskine and stop Brian London in one round, only to lose in five to Peter Bates. 1955 was a rough year for Henry as Bygraves kayoed him for the British Empire title. Future world champion Ingemar Johansson then bombed him out. Joe Erskine then outscored him for the British title.
Henry began to turn things around late in 1958 with a stoppage over Dick Richardson and points win over respected American Zora Folley. He finally won the British and Empire titles by decision over Brian London in 1959. He halted Gawie de Klerk in an Empire defense and defended both titles by a fifth round stoppage of Joe Erskine. In 1960 Henry scored important decision victories of Roy Harris and Alex Mitiff. He again defended his titles by a fifth round stoppage of Erskine in March of 1961.
On December 5, 1961, Henry suffered a major setback when Folley kayoed him in the second round of their rematch. He came back to again stop Erskine in 1962 and Dick Richardson in 1963, setting the stage for a match with the undefeated Olympian Cassius Clay. The facts of Cooper's first bout with Clay have been well-documented. His left hook knocked Clay down at the end of round four. A torn glove gave Clay time to recover. Cassius then came back to cut and stop Henry in round five.
Cooper beat Brian London again, winning the vacant European title in the process. Six months later he was stripped of that title due to an injury. Henry would win five of his next seven bouts, setting up a title shot and rematch against Clay (Muhammad Ali).
The rematch was anti-climatic. Henry tried hard but Ali's punches again ripped the tender skin above Cooper's eye forcing a stoppage. Four months later, ex title holder Floyd Patterson felled Henry. It was again time to rebuild. Henry went back to retaining his British and Empire titles by defeating Jack Bodell and Billy Walker. He then regained the European title winning on a disqualification from Karl Mildenberger.
In 1969 Henry was to be matched with World Boxing Association champion Jimmy Ellis. The fight fell through because the British Boxing Board refused to recognize it as a world title fight. In a huff, Henry gave up the British and Empire titles. Later Henry relinquished the European crown due to an injury.
Again in 1970 the Amazing E'nry came back to regain the British and Empire titles from Jack Bodell. Later he regained the European crown by stopping Jose Urtain.
On March 16, 1971, Henry met upcoming Joe Bugner with all three titles at stake. After fifteen well-contested rounds, Bugner was awarded a very close and controversial decision much to the dismay of Henry. Cooper never boxed again.
I hope that Sir Henry is slated to be a guest at the Boxing Hall of Fame this year. His popularity has crossed the Atlantic. A tribute to this fine fighter and even finer gentleman.
Honesty tinged with humility, ardent professionalism projected, manifest talent honed and sportsmanship ever honoured were characteristics embodied and projected via Trinidad’s sense of Puerto Rican ‘nationalist’ responsibility to act and live heroically. Always heartily translating his belt winning victories as public thanks to his followers, his manifest persona elevated Trinidad to the status of beloved, an all but extinct stratification in the post-Ali era.
Felix Trinidad has never had to Americanize himself to become a boxing pay per view star across the North American mass media sports networking market. For more than a decade, he’s been a fighter ‘of his people’, and yet a ring warrior who transcends Hispanic-only demographic loyalties, happily communicating in Spanish to the English-only speaking fans. He’s never needed to spit on a flag or shout profanely at press conferences or emasculate referees and judges, preach to the choir about vast promotional conspiracies or castigate himself as a bi-polarized victim managing only public self-sacrificial therapy to embarrassed sports writers. There’s nothing of Bernard Hopkins, James Toney, Mike Tyson, et al. about Felix Trinidad. The man’s cool and engaging. Even his all too human marital failings - deceit and adultery - become, in hindsight, a soap opera imploded, having become a personal disaster resolved over time, partially redeemed by defeat overcome.
Coming out of his corner in October, facing the rushing power gesticulations of Ricardo Mayorga was considered a big risk for a comeback fight. And frankly, the quality and precision of his boxing, after so long a lay off, shocked many fight fans and pundits alike. His balance was superb. The classic tendency of aging greats to punch wider to create power hitting arches, never materialized. Right hand detonations came down the middle, as the left hooks scored in tight circular patterns with that reflexive counter motion of his absolute prime. But the true tale of Trinidad’s future was to be seen below his waistband. At 160 pounds, Felix Trinidad’s foot movement had lightened from the flatfooted, straight lined searching shuffle that Bernard Hopkins had so effectively evaded. By the fifth round, it was almost worth a shake of the head to consider how many boxing pundits had prognosticated the always awkward yet physically intimidating Mayorga was exactly the wrong kind of fighter for Trinidad to make his ring return against. Why fight a bulling, lunging fighter with a granite chin, who had a habit of pounding out heavy favourites in title fights?
The simple answer was that Mayorga, though a potential terror, was always there to be hit and had been his entire career. What fighter who stands before Trinidad and dares a firefight could possibly withstand Trinidad’s hall of fame offensive flourishes? Well, not Mayorga, let’s put it that way. He did appear rested and resolute. Finding his rhythm took about two and a half minutes, and not the two or three fights some suggested as a reasonable time frame. And how Trinidad enjoyed the fighting, the give and take of battle, especially in knowing he still had the ability to dominate a world class, though confused, opponent.
If boxing is largely bereft of big ticket issues heading into this boxing year, one certain tonic will be if Trinidad is able to sustain his Mayorga fight performance level. And as in the selection of Mayorga, many are currently questioning Team Trinidad’s approval of "Winky" Wright as Trinidad’s April, HBO opponent. Of course, Wright’s promoter Gary Shaw and even HBO executives are fully behind the match. HBO seeing it as a reward and meritorious advance given Wright’s double salting of "Sugar" Shane Mosley, in 2004. At first glance the critical, neutral observer might caution Team Trinidad for making this particular bout. If they don’t view Felix as needing ‘developmental outings’ then why engage Mr. Wright, with no world belts and plenty of logistical headaches ensured? The southpaw Wright, who employs quick fisted counter measures effectively, fights ambitiously over the tough rounds and engages well from angles, having the kind of neutralizing offense that might stylistically short-circuit Trinidad’s long range power hitting.
Then again one must consider that Wright has been catching more leather in his last few outings and that his strength quotient has been largely measured against jr. middleweights and former welterweights. If the same can be said of ex-welterweight and jr. middleweight champion Trinidad, at least his raw hitting power and up tempo volume hitting would represent a major step up in trauma tolerance for the now thirty-three year-old Ronald Wright. We defer back to the maxim earlier implied: if Trinidad can hit a target for a sustained period, who can withstand him?
Last time out - November 20 - Winky hooked back up with Shane Mosley for their rematch only to produce a less than expected performance. We can’t give all the credit to Mosley’s trainer, Joe Goossen. Clearly, there was less dominating Wright in the fight, in other words, less dominating fight in Wright. Team Trinidad take the stand that if they can’t vanquish Wright, then the two pillars at middleweight, champion Bernard Hopkins and heir apparent Jermaine Taylor are beyond his powers. And they would be - are - correct.
So there is more method to Team Trinidad than their statement from last fall: "we only want big fights." True, they do. But they are plotting a progressive campaign back to the top of the middleweight ranks. Clearly, getting Trinidad an ‘A’ level test before taking on Bernard Hopkins has become a cornerstone objective, Wright and his team’s understandable negotiating ploys not at all withstanding. In the light of logical preparedness Wright might be the prefect opponent. Artful in his ring craft, a defusing fighter who tends to wear down opponents’ offensive thrusts, while hitting with quick, stinging combinations, all the while maintaining a physical first inside game. Sound familiar, in aggregate, to any other significant Trinidad opponent of this century?
Bouie Fisher freely admitted to this reporter before Trinidad-Hopkins in September of 2001, that Trinidad had liabilities when either suddenly forced backward or when not allowed to set to punch. Keep Trinidad turning and having to reset his feet and he becomes a target for straight counter punches. Hopkins formula was as simple as a sentence by Hemingway. Having had almost four years to find an answer to Hopkins’ ruggedly applied basic ring geometry has been - one presumes - a quiet obsession for Don Felix and his talented son. What other fight ultimately matters to the historical record Felix Trinidad will leave to the sport of boxing?
Of course, taking on Jermaine Taylor before solving the enigma of Hopkins’ elementary effectiveness would probably be professional suicide. Mainly because Taylor’s probably the real bully on the middleweight block now and not Hopkins. More on that for another time. But at least Team Trinidad are aware of the Taylor threat; and they haven’t made too many missteps so far. So, look for Team Trinidad to offer up his banner in making the challenge to Hopkins for the end of 2005, if not slightly sooner. As far as HBO are concerned it’s one of two or three fights that MUST happen this calender year. And who could imagine the pride of Philadelphia’s boxing gyms walking away from the man he forged his late career reputation on? Not to mention all that money!
All in all, 2005 should be a year Felix Trinidad and his loyal fans will never forget, no matter how they plan things, no matter what titles belts Don King arranges, no matter how, or upon whom, the ultimate punches land.
Tszyu-Hatton promises to be an explosive night of boxing between 2 of the elite from boxing's talent rich 140 lb. division. Kostya Tszyu's recent and impressive thrashing of Sharmba Mitchell landed Tszyu back near the top of boxing's pound for pound ratings. Ricky Hatton - a huge draw in his native England - has been desperate to prove he belongs alongside boxing's elite, and will get that chance when he faces Tszyu.
Hatton's frustation had been growing recently with promoter Frank Warren's inability to land him a big fight. After lengthy negotiations between Warren and Tszyu's manager, Vlad Wharton, it appears that the interested parties are now set to meet within the next week to finalise terms.
The bout, which will take place at the MEN arena in Manchester, will be shown during primetime in the USA.
Promoter Bob Arum was quoted as saying, “fight fans always like young, powerful heavyweights who come to fight, and that’s what we have in Samuel Peter and Yanqui Diaz.”
Peter gained wider notoriety recently as a result of his devastating performance against Jeremy Williams. On December 4, Peter knocked Williams out brutally with a devasting left hook in the 2nd round.
Diaz has also been impressive recently. He rose to prominence by stopping fellow Cuban, and former world cruiserweight champion, Juan Carlos Gomez. He followed that up with two more wins, including a split decision victory over former title challenger, Vaughn Bean.
Diaz's manager, Wes Wolfe, is confident Diaz can handle the hard-hitting Nigerian, Peter.
“Yanqui knows all of the tricks. He’s right-handed but he’ll switch to lefty. He boxes up and down, in and out. And, he knows how to beat Samuel Peter.”
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.”