At a press conference at Gallagher’s Steak House in Manhattan, Vernon Forrest hid behind broad sun glasses, Ike Quartey was serenaded by his supporters who chanted his name when he got up to speak. Sechew Powell seemed to be transferring all his energies on Kassim Ouma, his opponent, staring at him as if he was trying to burn a hole through his face, and Ouma was Ouma. He smiled and mugged for the cameras, walking around the room in flip-flops, as relaxed as could be.
Despite their differences, the fighters have more in common than this scene would suggest. The issue of life after boxing is a popular theme of Saturday’s show at Madison Square Garden. The fighters in the main event and co-feature all came close to abandoning the sport for personal reasons only to return in search of a title shot.
Forrest will meet Quartey (37-2-1, 31 knockouts) in a junior middleweight bout in a type of loser-goes-home type of tussle in the main event, andPowell faces Ouma in the co-feature in a junior middleweight 10-round fight. All four fighters toyed with the idea of retirement and all four fighters came back. Some were lured away by the glitter of Hollywood and others were pulled away by their vulnerable bodies.
After twice defeating Shane Mosley in 2002, Forrest was beaten in back-to-back matches against the slugger Ricardo Mayorga. When injuries to his shoulder and elbow knocked him out of the ring for two years, he moved to Los Angeles, caught the acting bug and starred in “A Raisin In The Sun.” Forrest said that one reviewer declared he was more believable than Puff Daddy in the role of Walter Lee Younger. Although Forrest, 35, received his SAG card and studied under acting coach Howard Fein, he never gave up the idea of a boxing comeback.
“I was rehabbing in the morning and acting in movies and plays in the afternoon,” Forrest said. “Nobody wants to end their career on an injury. I had to get back in the ring and fight again. I enjoyed acting, but once you see the difference in paychecks between acting and boxing you think twice about acting.”
Ike Quartey, 36, lost his fighting spirit and found his entrepreneurial fortitude back home in Ghana after he lost two blockbuster matches to Oscar De La Hoya and Fernando Vargas in 1999 and 2000. Nicknamed “Bazooka” for his explosive power, Quartey, a former welterweight titlist, knocked De La Hoya down in the sixth round, but lost a split decision. He quit boxing and became a real estate developer, building beach-front hotels and acquiring real-estate.
“I’m ready physically and mentally for this fight,” Quartey said at a press conference on Thursday. “I’m ready to dispose of this guy.”
Quartey, who is one of 27 brothers and sisters, didn’t fight for almost five years while he was building property back home. Since coming back, Quartey is 3-0 and ranked No. 7 by the International Boxing Federation. Forrest (37-2, 28 knockouts) is 2-0 and No. 9 in the World Boxing Association. The biggest wins of Forrest’s career have occurred at Madison Square Garden: he defeated Raul Frank in 2001 for the vacant I.B.F. welterweight title, and he thrashed Mosley there for the World Boxing Council championship in their first fight. A possible fight with Mosley looms in the distance for Quartey if he can get past Forrest, Eric Gomez, a matchmaker for Golden Boy Promotions, which promotes Mosley, said.
If the other boxers on the show have mulled over retirement, Ouma, 27, has frequently sparred with death. In 2002, Ouma was shot in the abdomen in a drive-by shooting near his home in Palm Beach, Florida. Two bullets entered his body in his stomach and in his foot. Ouma (24-2-1, 15 knockouts) was left with an eight inch scar across his stomach.
Six months after the shooting, Ouma was driving his Lincoln Navigator on a country road in Pennsylvania when a deer ran in front of the vehicle. The car swerved and flipped over twice. Somehow, Ouma, who has a history of suffering, escaped with only a stiff neck.
“After all this stuff I’ve been through, boxing is just a sport to me,” he said. “I can take whatever happens in boxing because of these things in my life. I know that God is looking over me and protecting me. He won’t let me get hurt.”
Powell, a Brooklyn product, was suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission in 2003 because of vague results from an MRI he took. The commission later reinstated Powell when doctors realized that their findings were too fuzzy to warrant a suspension. They gave him a clean bill of health, and he has developed into a top prospect with a record of 20-0 with 12 knockouts.
Because these fighters all came close to retiring, only to return, it’s no surprise that at least one of the participants would object to the show’s do-or-die marketing slogan: “Now or Never.”
“That’s just a play on words,” Forrest said. “It doesn’t mean anything. You never say never in boxing.”