Kassim Ouma has spent his entire life making good on all that has ever been asked of him. From killing – repeatedly – as an adolescent soldier in the Ugandan Army, to taking on all the top opponents nobody else wants to face in the ring, Ouma has never met a challenge he didn’t like – or fail to complete and conquer.
For his troubles, Kassim is still on the outside looking in. Most so-called boxing experts refuse to recognize him as the top junior middleweight on the planet, despite Winky Wright seemingly affixed at middleweight these days. Networks love his style of fighting and the shocking childhood backdrop attached to his career, yet are slow on the draw in lining up dates. Rather than make good on a promise of future airtime, they offer a “maybe next time” as they revert to the familiar names in filling up timeslots.
Even other fighters respect his trials and tribulations, but pause at the thought of sharing a ring with him. The more marketable fighters will insist that he needs them more than they need him. Translation: high risk, low reward.
So while others continue to reap the benefits, Kassim continues to take on the risks. Only now, he refuses to march on with the no-questions-asked mindset by which he has long lived his life.
“What more can I do before someone looks my way?” Kassim asks, not knowing who and when he fights next as the summer calendar continues to fill up. “Everybody wants to interview me. Everyone wants me to attend fights as their guest. But nobody wants to look my way when it comes time to getting in the ring. I don’t get it.”
Neither does the average fan. Most understand the risk/reward factor when it comes to other fighters passing on the IBF junior middleweight champion. What gets lost in translation is how the networks elect to reward other fighters as a result.
Such was the case a couple of weeks ago, when Ouma sat ringside as Winky Wright delivered the performance of a lifetime in pitching a virtual shutout against box-office blockbuster Felix “Tito” Trinidad. Ouma never questioned why Wright accepted a career-high payday and a chance to fight Trinidad. But that explains his 2005 campaign. Questions that remain unanswered are the events leading up to that fight.
“I don’t hate on Winky,” insists Ouma. “He suffered just like I am, waiting a long time for a breakthrough fight. I’m glad he got paid against Trinidad, and I’m happy for him that he fought as great as he did. But what I do get mad about is that a lot of promises made to me were broken in the past couple of years. I was supposed to fight this cat a long time ago, and now it looks like I will never get that chance.”
A quick glance at any boxing schedule or rankings supports his argument. The win over Trinidad earned Wright a mandatory ranking to Bernard Hopkins’ WBC title. Perhaps Hopkins can give Wright the same treatment Winky offered when Kassim earned a mandatory slot for Wright’s IBF title. Ouma fought two elimination bouts under the belief that it would all lead to a sizeable payday and a long-awaited shot at the title and notoriety.
Instead, Wright went for total unification against Shane Mosley and allowed himself to be stripped of his title in favor of a Shane rematch and a seven-figure payday. Everyone was celebrating Wright’s newfound fame after paying his dues for years, but the irony is that it came at Kassim’s expense. Ouma was forced to settle for a shot at a vacant title and a five-figure payday.
At the time, Ouma did not mind the slight. He still believed that the title shot and a slot on a Showtime tripleheader would lead to bigger and better things. The fight would also provide closure, as he took on Verno Phillips in a rematch to their 2001 encounter. Phillips took the first fight on less than two weeks notice, and fell just short to Kassim in their ten-round war.
This time around, Kassim proved to be the better fighter, dominating the fight down the stretch to take a unanimous decision and the IBF title. The drawback was the fight failing to live up to Fight of the Year expectations, as it was far less scintillating than their encounter three years earlier.
Ouma received a second chance at fame, courtesy of a last minute vacancy in HBO’s schedule. When close friend Vivian Harris passed on short money against Mohammad Abdullaev, Kassim was offered the slot. Fighting beneath Arturo Gatti’s junior welterweight fight with Jesse James Leija was reward enough for Ouma, who immediately accepted the fight.
$125,000 payday? No problem, said Kassim. Nor did he mind the fact that he would have to take on feared puncher Kofi Jantuah. Why would he mind? He was already used to taking on tough challengers well before challenging for the title. So much that after he easily defeated Jantuah in a lopsided decision, he ran out of challengers. At least the ones that would pique HBO’s interest.
“I kind of warned him about this a while ago,” says Tom Moran, Kassim’s co-manager. “As a manager, the hard part is finding the right balance for your fighter. You want to keep him active and secure the best possible fights. But at the same time you have to convince your fighter to pace himself. Kassim took on one tough challenge after another. By the time he fought the rematch with Phillips, he pretty much wiped out the second tier at 154. Knowing that the top fighters were unwilling to face him, I saw this dilemma coming.”
What Dream Team Kassim did not see coming was being frozen out by the networks. The excuse is that dates are sparse, and Kassim against a mandatory is not appealing enough. But what are the excuses for airing less meaningful junior middleweight matchups?
Case in point: the co-feature for the Glen Johnson-Antonio Tarver rematch on June 18 in Memphis offers Ike Quartey’s comeback against Verno Phillips. This would be the same Phillips who has twice lost to Ouma, taking on a fighter without a meaningful win in over EIGHT years. How is that considered a more meaningful matchup that Ouma’s title defense against Roman Karmazian? It’s not. But it does better suit HBO’s agenda, which is to ignore the alphabet sanctioning bodies, even if it means ignoring a fighter in whom they are genuinely interested.
“The thing of it is, we know that HBO wants to do business with Kassim,” Moran believes. So much that he delayed a trip to Australia for an April 30 title defense against then-mandatory Shannan Taylor. The hope was that Kassim would land a date on the network, preferably as the co-feature to Vitali Klitschko’s title defense against Hasim Rahman. To this day, Moran is unsure of Kassim’s chances landing the slot; Klitschko wound up getting injured and thrice postponing the Rahman fight.
In its place went John Ruiz’s title defense against James Toney. The week prior went to Wladimir Klitschko in a rehab fight against feather-fisted Eliseo Castillo. HBO thought so highly of the fight that they traveled all the way to Germany to broadcast it via tape delay. HBO’s prior telecast was yet another comeback fighter, as Fernando Vargas returned to the ring against Raymond Joval.
If HBO is desperate to be in the Kassim Ouma business, they sure have a funny way of showing their appreciation.
But HBO is not the only network that offers boxing. ESPN has undergone upgrades in competition (even if the trade-off is minimal pre-fight exposure). Showtime has enjoyed much success since switching to their one Saturday per month format. The problem with both, however, would be money and appeal.
“Kassim is the type that wants to fight every two months,” says Moran. “He wants the best, and he wants to stay active. Unfortunately, the business has come to a point where you can only have one or the other. Showtime only buys the best fights every month, and the truth is that neither they nor HBO is very interested in Kassim fighting Karmazian, or anyone else in the IBF rankings. Everyone’s interested in Kassim, but the problem is lining up big fights. Everyone is running north and south of the junior middleweight division. Any wonder why?”
Kassim has a good idea why. He also has an idea on how to resolve that problem; if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
“I’m saying these guys didn’t want to fight me at 154, so they all move up and down,” says Ouma. “So I can offer to meet them halfway, maybe at 150 or 151. All I want is to score one big fight, and let my career speak for itself. I shouldn’t have to, though. I did all that has been asked of me at 154 lbs, yet everyone continues to avoid me. I’m tired of not knowing when these guys will step up and fight me, and I’m tired of being ignored. I made my home in America a while ago, yet I still feel like I’m a man without a country. I’ve always done all that has been asked of me, because I have never had a problem proving myself to anyone.”
Kassim has proven as such in and out of the ring. Especially out of the ring, as he lived a childhood to which very few in this world could possibly relate.
“There is so much about Kassim’s life that is unknown, it’s … you could fill a novel on his childhood experiences alone,” insists Moran. “People know about him getting kidnapped as a child and serving the Army. Yet it’s just a backdrop right now. The human interest story behind Kassim is like no other. We’re talking about a man who was forced to kill as a child, who had to do anything and everything it took just to survive. To know he overcame that, and to see him for the man that he is today, it’s a crime that he is so underexposed.”
Indeed, but to know the crimes Kassim was forced to commit as a child makes it more of a wonderment his ability to live his life so carefree today. That he had to kill, plunder, and do whatever it takes to survive just as a child is a remarkable tale in and of itself.
Add to the pot the fact that he was willing to leave behind the only way of life he ever knew going into his teenage years. Seeking boxing as a way out of the enslaved military lifestyle, Ouma defected from Uganda and arrived in America knowing very little English. What he knew was how to survive, and that led the way to what he hoped would be his American dream.
“Here you have a man – not even a man, a kid forced to live like a man – arrive in this country,” explains Moran. “He doesn’t know hardly any English, has nowhere to live, and no money in his pocket. The only English he knows that people can relate to is “boxing gym… box, box.” Just get him in the gym, and he’ll take care of the rest.
“Then you see that same man today; it’s amazing. Anyone that meets him will tell you that he has a huge heart. The mere thought of a TV fight has him dancing around like a child at Christmas time. He just loves to fight, whether it’s in the ring with his fists, or outside the ring standing up for what he believes in.”
Rather than killing for what he believes in, Kassim decides to fight back with his mouth. When he’s not fighting in the ring, he can be found at various political venues. Ouma has long been one of the more vocal fighters in visiting the nation’s capitol (Washington, DC) and speaking out on boxing reform. But his visions of reformation are not confined to the ring, or even to the states.
Despite not being able to return to his native Uganda for legal reasons, Kassim still holds the country and all of Africa near and dear to his heart. Until he is able to return, he wants to know that his fellow Africans will one day be afforded a better way of life. He believes it can start with something as simple as a glass of water.
“He wants to help promote clean water in Africa,” reveals Moran. “One of the biggest things he has been working on is a campaign to help bring in more clean water to the continent. It’s not something that will drain a budget, and the people will obviously live a much healthier lifestyle. It’s something he is adamant about, and will not rest until the necessary steps are taken. He has a heart as big as the ocean. He does. Some people donate money, and want the world to know about it. All Kassim wants is to make a difference in people’s lives, and for his good fortune to somehow pay off. Outside the ring, he has a good idea of how to achieve that. Inside the ring, he feels trapped, because he’s still at the mercy of others.”
Which takes Kassim right back to wondering where he will land his next big fight. And also wondering how long he’ll have to watch others cut him in line.
“I’m attending so many fights lately, I feel more like a boxing fan than I do a boxer,” says Ouma. “I’m tired of watching other fighters collect paydays and TV dates, pretending to be champion. But until I get on TV more, my voice isn’t heard as loud.”
Moran has taken steps to help change all that. Golden Boy Promotions recently announced the signing of Ouma, as they join Peltz Boxing as co-promoters. While Don King promotes the other three titleholders at 154 (WBA titlist Travis Simms, Javier Castilliejo of the WBC and WBO rep Daniel Santos), Moran believes that Golden Boy will help provide Ouma with something not even a fight with any of the aforementioned can offer: an instant profile upgrade.
“What it comes down to is that the risk/reward factor has become too great of a ratio for these other so-called champions to want to unify against Kassim,” insists Moran. ”The reward is not enough. Kassim’s profile needs to be raised. He does everything perfect, as far in-the-ring appeal. He never tires, he’s always in all action fights, and throws over 100 punches a round every round, every fight. With Golden Boy Promotions in the picture, he should be able to gain notoriety in no time. We’ll work together great. They have leverage, so that should help.”
It should also add to the leverage Kassim already holds, especially with Wright now as a top middleweight contender. That leverage would be the top dog at junior middleweight.
“Until you fight Kassim, your belt at 154 means nothing,” says Moran. “He’s happy to fight any of King’s guys, but under the right circumstances. None of his guys have the leverage, so King can’t demand too much. All they have are belts and King as a promoter. With Wright now at middleweight, Kassim is the man to beat at junior middleweight.”
Unfortunately, he also remains the man to avoid until the networks get involved and support his cause. With Quartey-Phillips lined up for June, and Castilliejo facing either Fernando Vargas or Ricardo Mayorga, help doesn’t appear to be on the way anytime soon.
Perhaps Ouma can land a date against whoever does not face Castilliejo this summer. Ouma-Vargas or Ouma-Mayorga should be considered noteworthy enough. Ouma’s even willing to handicap his own health to make at least one fight happen.
“Kassim is so willing to fight Mayorga,” reveals Moran, “he even told him that he would take up smoking just to level the playing field.”
What more can you ask for?