When he authored “Romeo and Juliet” (probably in either 1594 or 1595), William Shakespeare likely did not consider the ramifications of one of the play’s most oft-quoted lines as it might pertain to some distant generation of professional boxers, particularly those from the Republic of Congo, Thailand or Poland.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare had Juliet proclaim, but perhaps her affection for Romeo would not be so deep if her beloved were a fighter from Bangkok, Kinshasa or Warsaw, where the filling out of birth certificates for newborn children no doubt induces terrible cases of writer’s cramp for their mothers. Then again, what seems so complex to the average American might not be for natives of those countries. College basketball enthusiasts eventually learned how to say and spell the last name of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, right?
My fascination with certain fighters’ names again was piqued when I read that Bangkok’s Eaktawan Krungthepthonburi had recently captured the vacant IBF Asia title by stopping Lionel Legada in five rounds. Other winners on that card were Patomsuk Pathompothong and female Petcharas Mor Krungthepthonburi, who outpointed Petchladda Sor Prauthong.
It also caught my attention that cruiserweight Vyacheslav Shabranskyy, of Los Angeles by way of his native Ukraine, would be taking on Paul Parker at the 2300 Arena in South Philadelphia on Tuesday, a scheduled 10-rounder televised by Fox Sports 1 and Fox Deportes. It proved a main event worth watching, and not only for the chance to hear harrowed announcers attempt to avoid mangling the featured attraction’s name. Shabranskyy overcame two first-round knockdowns to win on a third-round TKO.
But even Thais, Poles and Ukrainians have nothing on athletes from Congo. Former NBA center Dikembe Mutombo is one helluva long human being at 7-foot-2, but his full name – Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo, a whopping 49 letters in all – is even lengthier.
Mutombo, however, must take a backseat to Congolese middleweight Alex Bunema, who turns 40 on July 28 and hasn’t fought since 2013. The apparently retired Bunema was pretty good at one time, as evidenced by his 31-10-2 record, which includes 17 wins inside the distance, but perhaps his primary distinction is his full name: Katonji Alex Bunema Sylvester Goudha Le Grand Tshibuta Wa Ndintumba Wa Dinene. That’s 65 letters, if you’re counting.
“But you can call me Alex,” he told reporters after he scored a 10th-round TKO over former IBF junior middleweight champ Roman Karmazin on Jan. 19, 2008, on the undercard of a show headlined by Roy Jones Jr.’s 12-round, unanimous decision over Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden. As it turned out, that was “Tito’s” last fight.
Bunema’s drastic shortening of his name, for professional purposes, is the rule rather than the exception. Samoa-born, New Zealand-based former heavyweight contender David Tua’s actual birth name is To’aletai David Mafaufau Tua, which is a relative snap compared to some of those Congolese, Thai and Polish names, but was made even more manageable by excising some presumably extraneous letters. The same can be said of the “Foul Pole,” Andrew Golota, who changed his name from Andrezej Jan Golota after he emigrated from Warsaw to Chicago, even though Polish names aren’t particularly uncommon in the Windy City.
What’s really curious, at least to me, is the practice of Thai fighters – in Muay Thai as well as boxing — to campaign with adopted surnames that reflect the name of the gym in which they learned their craft, rather than those with which they were born. Can you imagine former junior welterweight and welterweight contender “Rockin’” Rodney Moore going into the ring as “Rockin’” Rodney Bluehorizon? And even if he did, he’d be one of maybe hundreds of Philadelphia fighters adopting similar monikers.
Researching what seemed to be to be an oddity, I learned that last names in Thailand weren’t required of citizens until 1913. Before then, most Thais used only a first or individual name, which generally conveyed positive attributes. Under Thai law, only one family can use a given surname, thus any two people of the same surname must be related.
Somewhere along the line, it became fairly standard practice for Thai fighters taking their gym name as a means of identification. Hence the proliferation of such tongue-twisting handles (at least to non-Thais) as Watcharachai Kaewsamrit, Rittijak Kaewsamrit, Keim Sitsongpeenong, Sittichai Sitsongpeenong and Anuwat Kaewsamrit.
It also is part of the fabric of boxing when “other” names become the “real” names (sometimes legally, sometimes not) of notable fighters. Would Sugar Ray Robinson be as venerated had he conducted his legendary career as Walker Smith Jr.? Or Willie Pep as Gugliemo Papaleo? Rocky Marciano as Rocco Francis Marchegiano? Kid Gavilan as Gerado Gonzalez? Jersey Joe Walcott as Arnold Cream?
But maybe my favorite adopted name is the one taken by one William Horatio Butler Jr., who was born in Bimini, the Bahamas, relocated to Miami Beach and went on to have a very successful career in the late 1950s and early ’60s as a middleweight contender named Yama Bahama. The colorfully monikered Yama, who was 76 when he died on June 29, 2009 (rest in peace, bro), was a TV staple back in the day, world-ranked for several years and good enough to have posted victories over Kid Gavilan and Joey Giambra, among others. But you have to wonder, would he have been nearly as popular as William Horatio Butler Jr.? I think not.
When I think of Yama Bahama (whose name was mentioned by HBO blow-by-blow icon Jim Lampley in his acceptance remarks when he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on June 14), I automatically feel cool tropical breezes, see the swaying fronds of palm trees and taste ice-cold pina coladas. And that’s more than I can say when I think of Kalonji Alex BunemaSylvester Gouda Le Grand Tshibuta Wa Ndintumba Wa Dinene or Eaktawan Krungthepthonburi.