Will Waseem Become The First Boxer From Pakistan to Win a World Title?

The Mayweather Boxing Gym, the largest gym in Las Vegas dedicated entirely to boxing, was a teeming cauldron this past Tuesday afternoon. Seemingly every boxer that uses the facility was on the premises, cognizant that they would be shut out the next day when the place would be closed for the Fourth of July.

This reporter stopped by in hopes of landing an interview with Muhammad Waseem and wasn’t disappointed. Making the catch more gratifying, the young man was cordial and has a strong command of the English language.

Waseem and his trainer Jeff Mayweather will be in Kuala Lumpur when you read this, there to finish preparations for Waseem’s match with South Africa’s Moruti Mthalane on July 15th (Sunday in Malaysia; Saturday night in the U.S.). At stake is the IBF world flyweight title. It is one of three title fights girding the welterweight title fight between defending champion Lucas Matthysse and co-promoter Manny Pacquiao.

On the surface, Muhammad Waseem, although undefeated, is in over his head. He’s had only eight pro fights, whereas Mthalane, a former world champion, is 35-2 with 24 knockouts and has won 12 straight since losing to a prime Nonito Donaire in 2008. Included within that stretch is a fifth round knockout of countryman Zolani Tete. The red-hot Tete, whose name appears on a few pound-for-pound lists, currently holds a version of the world bantamweight title.

There are a few variables, however, that level the playing field, at least in theory. The 35-year-old Mthalane has been relatively inactive. He sat out all of 2013 and all of 2016. But foremost, Waseem, 30, has a wealth of international amateur experience. During an amateur career that consisted of more than 300 fights, he medaled at 15 international tournaments, including the Asian and Commonwealth games. Between tournaments there were training camps with boxers from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. “Those countries produce very tough amateurs,” notes Waseem, as if we didn’t already know.

One of those training camps was in South Korea where Waseem, fed up with the shenanigans of AIBA, the international governing body of amateur boxing – “It’s like the Mafia,” he says — launched his pro career in 2015. He would subsequently fight in Thailand and has had three fights in Panama. It was there that he hooked up with Jeff Mayweather who trained Panama’s Celestino Caballero, among others.

Waseem’s match with Mthalane likely won’t draw a mention in America’s English-language newspapers, but it’s a big deal in Pakistan, the world’s fifth most populous country. No Pakistani boxer has ever won a world title. Amir Khan is famous in Pakistan as his ancestral roots are there, but he was born in England.

Waseem was honored when Amir Khan agreed to a light sparring session with him in conjunction with the 2014 Commonwealth games in Scotland. Waseem, the captain of Pakistan’s six-man delegation, advanced to the finals, but had to settle for a silver medal after losing to Australia’s talented Jason Moloney. The match was televised live in Pakistan where the decision, to no surprise, was highly unpopular.

In Pakistan, the most popular sport is cricket (surveys place soccer second and snooker third). But Muhammad Waseem, who took of boxing at the age of eight, is no fan of cricket. “It’s a lazy man’s sport,” he says good-naturedly. “There’s too much sitting around. I never watched it.” Basketball and American football are more his cup of tea.

As someone from a Muslim country who has made many trips to the United States, arriving at airports in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, Waseem has had many encounters with U.S. immigration and customs enforcement agents and he told us that every encounter was pleasant. But he has something going for him that other foreigners don’t; he has social media platforms including his own Wikipedia page.

“When I tell them that I am a professional boxer and that I’ve come here to train, they google me up,” he says. With a few clicks of the mouse, they can verify that he is indeed who he says he is. “Then they shake my hand and wish me good luck. The United States and especially Las Vegas respect boxers and I appreciate that.”

Waseem signed with Korean promoter Andy Kim coming out of the amateur ranks. With Kim he raced up the WBC rankings, winning a silver belt, but Kim, who reportedly suffered a financial crunch, is now out of the picture, replaced by Sean Gibbons, officially his agent, to whom Waseem expresses a debt of gratitude. The affable Gibbons, who has been involved in all facets of boxing, beginning as a last-minute opponent and small time promoter in Oklahoma, has overcome a few bumps to become one of the sport’s premier facilitators.

Boxers in the lower weight classes will never earn the big bucks that flow to the top fighters in the higher weight divisions, but things are definitely improving thanks in no small part to Tom Loeffler whose “Superfly” promotions in Los Angeles have attracted significant buzz. The division above Waseem’s weight class (there’s only three pounds of separation) is home to title-holders Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, Jerwin Ancajas and Kal Yafai, plus Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez who was the consensus #1 pound-for-pound boxer as recently as 16 months ago.

Waseem has long dreamed about fighting Chocolatito. That may yet come to pass, but first Waseem must get over the hurdle posed by a formidable South African foe in Kuala Lumpur.

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