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Articles of 2005

Olympic Boxing Enriched 'Termite' Watkins in the End

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In the early 1970s, Maurice “Termite” Watkins of Houston, Texas, was on the same international amateur team as Howard Davis and Sugar Ray Leonard. In 1973, Watkins, then 17, won the National Golden Gloves lightweight championship. Because neither Davis nor Leonard won titles that year, it was Watkins who was the most highly touted prospect for the 1976 Olympic team. However, after finishing his amateur career with a 112-10-1 record, Watkins opted to turn pro in May 1974. By the time Davis, Leonard, Leo Randolph and Leon and Michael Spinks emerged from the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal as gold medalists, Watkins was a veteran of 27 professional bouts, only one of which was a loss.

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.”

Articles of 2005

In Boxing News: Floyd Mayweather An All-Time Great, Valuev & More

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A Shot of Boxing on the Last Day of the Year

The Guardian reports that talks have already taken place between Nicolay Valuev‘s co-promoters – Don King and Wilfried Sauerland – and Danny Williams‘ promoter Frank Warren for Nicolay Valuev to face Danny Williams. I’d suggest Danny Williams needs to worry about Matt Skelton (who Williams is reportedly scheduled to fight in February) before he entertains notions of facing the Beast From The East.

The Mirror in the UK looks forward to a big year in boxing for 2006. The Mirror considers what the future might bring for Joe Calzaghe, Amir Khan and Ricky Hatton, among others.

The Parksville Qualicum News has an interesting column on the travails of former Canadian Super Middleweight title holder Mark Woolnough. Woolnough’s career turned controversial – as widely reported in the Canadian press – at the beginning of this year when Woolnough and four other men were charged with manslaughter and assault after a fight outside a Parksville nightclub. The case returns to court next month. It’s an interesting read, as Woolnough is still looking to the future with hope.

Our own Marc Lichtenfeld provides plenty of food for thought with his Top Ten Wish List for boxing in the New Year. There’s plenty of good stuff here, but what really jumped out for me is Lichtenfeld’s opinion that a win over Zab Judah could have Floyd Mayweather knocking on the door of all-time great status. Seems to me this might be jumping the gun a little. Or is Marc right? Will it soon be time to call Floyd Mayweather Jr. an all-time great?

(More Boxing News Links at TheSweetScience.com)

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Articles of 2005

ShoBox Friday Night Fights

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Hot bantamweight prospect Raul “The Cobra” Martinez heads back to Chicago next Friday night as he is featured in the co-main event of SHOBOX “THE NEW GENERATION,” an action packed evening of professional boxing presented by Dominic Pesoli’s 8 Count Productions,’ HOME OF THE BEST IN CHICAGO BOXING, Kathy Duva’s Main Events Inc., along with Miller Lite and TCF Bank.

The two-time national amateur champion sporting a perfect 12-0 record with 9 knockouts, six of which have come in the first round,  will take on Colombian Andres “Andy Boy” Ledesma, 13-1 (8 KOs) in a scheduled eight round bout.

Speaking after a training session at his home gym in Georgetown, Texas, Martinez said, “I’m truly looking forward to returning to Chicago. The fans were terrific in September, they were very supportive from the start of the fight,” an internationally televised first round knockout of Miguel Martinez on September 16th at the Aragon Ballroom.

Regarding his upcoming fight with Ledesma, “The Cobra” said, “I haven’t seen him fight, although I understand he’s fought at higher weights and will be naturally bigger than me. I’ve had great training for this fight and feel very confident. I really haven’t left the gym in months, just taking off Sunday’s and even then I get my running in. My thinking is that fights are won in the gym and complete preparation is the key.”

When asked about his being mentioned by Dan Rafael, ESPN’s boxing writer as one of the top prospect’s in the boxing world the 23-year-old San Antonio native said, ‘It’s a great compliment, but I still have much work to do. I want to be a champion for Main Events like Fernando Vargas and Arturo Gatti. But like Fernando said while he was in town, ‘be patient, work hard and your time will come.’”

Finishing the conversation, Martinez said, “I’m looking forward to starting out this year with a bang. I might have a couple less fights than the seven I had in 2005, but I’m looking to stepping up the competition, move up to ten-rounders and climb in the rankings.”

Headlining the evening is a ten-round welterweight showdown between boxing’s hottest prospect, unbeaten Joel Julio of Monteria, Columbia, and Ugandan native Roberto “The Doctor” Kamya. Julio, turning 21 years old the day before the fight, is 25-0 with 22 knockouts, twelve of which have come in the first two rounds. Kamya, now fighting out of West Palm Beach, Florida is 15-5 with four knockouts.

Tickets, starting at $30, are on sale in advance by calling 312-226-5800. Cicero Stadium is located at 1909 S. Laramie, at the corner of 19th and Laramie, just ten minutes south of the Eisenhower Expressway and ten minutes north of the Stevenson Expressway. Doors for this evening will open at 6pm with the first bell at 7pm.

The full bout lineup for the evening is:

Joel Julio vs. Roberto Kamya, ten rounds, welterweights

Raul Martinez vs. Andres Ledesma, eight rounds, bantamweights

Miguel Hernandez vs. Butch Hajicek, eight rounds, middleweights

David Pareja vs. Derek Andrews, eight rounds, light heavyweights

Mike Gonzales vs. Tony Kinney, four rounds, lightweights

Omar Reyes vs. Luis Navarro, five rounds, featherweights

Reynaldo Reyes vs. Ricardo Swift, four rounds, middleweights

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Articles of 2005

Pick ‘Em: Plenty of Big Upcoming Fights in ’06

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Here’s the early call on many top matches scheduled for the first half of 2006: Happy New Year!

As the new calendar dawns, there are already a considerable amount of premium bouts on the horizon. Things don’t look to be bogged down by undetermined championships next year. In many cases the scheduled face-offs involve the best fighters in the division, or at least close enough for general bragging rights. If anybody else with proper qualifications signs up to force the issue, all the better.

It can be argued that some pairings could have taken place within a more optimal timeframe, or that some headliners carry distracting baggage, but there are certainly enough heavy hitters on deck. That nobody can deny.

It doesn’t matter whether one considers the proverbial glass half empty or half full; there’s still the same amount of juice in the vessel. It’s nice to know that even with a high number of cancellations, there will still be plenty of important contenders on tap.

With elite fighters in weight divisions from top to bottom on the agenda, it’s an equivalent to what fans in more mainstream sports expect in a consistent championship format.

Baseball fans can almost always count on a World Series. Some hoops fanatics say too much attention to playoffs distracts unmotivated NBA teams during their regular season. In college, they project Sweet Sixteens. Football fans know there’s always a Super Bowl ahead to raise advertising dollars and test the USA’s halftime morals.

So too, there is method in boxing’s current madness.

The midnight crystal ball hasn’t even been unveiled in Times Square and there are already a number of potential thrillers scheduled. Most feature contrasting personalities that almost guarantee going along for the ride will be worthwhile. Any subsequent drops will probably be cheered.

Don King jumps right out of the auld lang gate with a January 7th Showtime card featuring Zab Judah against Carlos Baldomir and Jean-Marc Mormeck in a cruiserweight unification against O’Neil Bell.

It will be the upset of the year, bar none, if Baldomir can tip the applecart before Judah gets to his scheduled super-showdown with Floyd Mayweather Jr. Meanwhile, Mormeck is emerging and should keep on rolling against Bell, who can expose him if he’s not for real.

The proverbial Big Bang starts with a January 21st rematch of one of the finest fights of ‘05, when Erik Morales goes against Manny Pacquaio for the second time on HBO pay per view. The fact that Morales was upset by Zahir Raheem after beating Pacquaio was no real loss in box-office luster. Artful Raheem will get a spot on the undercard and hope his patience is rewarded.

Everyone figures Morales and Pacquaio will pick up where they left off. Like the first time, the rematch is a pick’em contest. Management distractions and glove restrictions cited as Pacquaio’s previous problems won’t matter this time. The two are very evenly matched and their styles will make for another whapathon. It could come down to corners, where Freddie Roach gets the edge since Morales will have a new trainer for the first time since replacing his father after the Raheem lesson.

February features four of the game’s most enduring attractions, in a pair of crucial matchups.

First up, Showtime presents the Jose Luis Castillo – Diego Corrales tiebreaker from El Paso on Feb 4th. This is another pick ‘em pair, barring any sideshow. In boxing that disclaimer may be a stretch, since the sideshow is part of the act and the charm.

As far as action inside the strands goes, every round these guys have fought has been great. There’s no reason to think that pattern won’t continue. Regarding the result, Castillo keeps the pressure on as he did in the second fight, but he’ll walk into trouble from a more reserved Corrales. We still don’t know which coin to flip.

February also holds a better late than never affair between two perennial favorites as Shane Mosley collides with Fernando Vargas on the 25th.  This fight could lead to a winning ticket in the Golden Boy sweepstakes for a fall bonanza against Oscar De La Hoya.

Vargas has been in tougher recently, based on comparable strength of opposition stats, but he’s seen little action. What weight they enter the ring at may have a lot to do with the result. If Vargas has to struggle at the scale, Mosley might have the battle in the bag after round nine.

It’s hard to imagine Mosley getting stopped early, but Vargas doesn’t have to hurt him, he just has to knock him down three times. With natural size, he may be able to do just that, but Mosley would have to box uncharacteristically flat.

Unless Mosley decides to heed the crowd, the most likely scenario is that Shane plays it safe, picks a few shots, and stays away enough to capture a comfortable, dull decision. An unbowed Vargas maintains his fan base but not his bettors.

March both comes in and goes out as a lion.

On March 4th Joe Calzaghe welcomes Jeff Lacy to Manchester UK for what may be the biggest blowout of the headlining bunch. Calzaghe gets the chance to prove his considerable home-based reputation once and for all, but if Lacy creams him as we expect, that glossy record will be severely tarnished.

All Calzaghe has to do is make a respectable stand, but that’s no small task against the rising Lacy. A motivated Calzaghe, songs of England ringing in his ears, could pull a big surprise if he can exploit Lacy’s relatively limited technical development, but that’s a longshot indeed.

It looks like Lacy can get by on power alone. He could soon emerge as a pound-for-pound leader. Old Joe’s hometown advantage will last about two left hooks.

March 11th has the Ides of history to beware for at least one old lion, with farewell (we’ll see) fireworks featuring Roy Jones Jr. against Bernard Hopkins. Less than two years ago they were considered untouchable all time greats. Now between them they’ve lost five in a row.

This goodbye fight is contracted at light heavyweight, for what seems like an oldies night. Hopkins is the senior at age 41 to Jones’s 37, but Roy seems more the grandpa figure, last seen hanging on against Antonio Tarver. Youth, as it were here, will prevail.

This bout was signed quickly as each principal, usually sticklers for favorable contract clauses, agreed to parity in a demonstration of businessman first and fighter second. They may both expect easy marks. How much the boys have left by the time they get down to business remains to be seen. The history books will show this as a climactic career bout between Hall of Famers.

At 175 pounds, Hopkins may be in for rude awakening. Jones may have been more thoroughly outfought recently, but he was rumbling with bigger, tougher men than Jermain Taylor or Howard Eastman. Respectable as he is, Taylor still falls short of the level of Tarver, at least for now. The difference is still fifteen pounds less pop.

It will be quite a feat if Hopkins can stay in the fight, even at Jones’s advanced age. Our stars point to Jones winning in overwhelming fashion.

On March 18th, James Toney meets Hasim Rahman in another pairing of seasoned war-horses.

Toney and Rahman already had their introductions, when they brawled in Mexico during a WBC gathering to bestow Rahman’s new belt. Between formalities, Toney got married, which could bring up the old questions about carnal training.

Let’s hope when they meet in the ring, they restore some of the fire missing from the heavyweights in ‘05.  Toney might have an edge in recent form, but Rahman shows fine tuning he previously lacked. The winner might get newly “crowned’ Nicolai Valuev, an easy payday outside Germany.

Rahman could be the heavyweight that finally makes Toney look like a blown up middleweight. But anything less than a top effort will probably lead to embarrassing night for the Rock and give Toney solid claim to being the true heavyweight champ.

This might not be the most artful fight of the new season, but it could well be the most grueling, and the closest. He who’s faced the better big boys gets the nod. Advantage Rahman.

March 25 features Marco Antonio Barrera, probably the strongest overall claimant to 130 pound honors. The likely opponent is said to be always tough Jesus Chavez.

Chavez seemed rejuvenated when he met Leavander Johnson, but Johnson’s tragic death may have taken some of the steam out of thoughtful Chavez, said to have received Johnson’s family blessing to continue in Leavander’s name. That could mean a lot of inspiration. Either way, if he does meet Chavez, who hung tough with one arm against Erik Morales, Barrera won’t get any slack. The Fates say Chavez, whose wife recently served in Iraq, is a live, live underdog.

Another clash to be King of the Hill finds Floyd Mayweather Jr, arguably the game’s finest practitioner, bumping heads with Zab Judah, one of very few boxers who rivals Mayweather in speed, skills, and brashness.

Their hoedown, scheduled for April 8th, is one of the top pound-for-pound pairings in recent years. Judah will need a career best performance to have a chance of victory. That’s not to say he can’t pull it off, but currently Mayweather is in a different galaxy in terms of punching power. Slow-motion replays may be the only way to follow the flying fists once these two whirlwinds unload.

Mayweather should be around a 4-1 favorite. Judah is good enough to make taking the odds an attractive proposition, since that’s probably as good of odds as one is likely to see on Floyd for a while. Mayweather will stop Judah in his tracks.

The first half of next year is set to conclude with the star power of Oscar De La Hoya, probably against noteworthy foil Ricardo Mayorga on May 6. There could be some snags before a contract is finalized, but if it comes off count on Mayorga for promotional sound bite nastiness. One of the questions is whether or not he’ll be able to get under Oscar’s skin, and it might actually be entertaining to see the classy, model perfect De La Hoya show he’s human and freak out against the Nicaraguan maniac.

Mayorga may have burnt his best bridges already. De La Hoya has not only the boxing skill to negate Mayorga’s offense, but enough power to end it early. If Mayorga rushes in and causes a cut, De La Hoya might get ruffled enough to duck into defense and Mayorga could get a decision that goes to the cards after six rounds or so. It will be wild for as long as it lasts.

Pro boxing, like many sports, had its share of problems during 2005, but there were also many positives. Most notably, as usual, was superior and inspiring action inside the strands. Unless there’s a mass freeze-up at the top, early 2006 figures to see decisive interaction among many well-known fighters.

If even fifty per cent of the aforementioned pairings come to fruition, it’s a strong likelihood the upcoming year has at least one very positive half. Arturo Gatti, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Brian Viloria, and Shannon Briggs, to name a few, are also on deck. No matter how you chose to look at or measure mass qualities, there’s still just as much good to be seen.

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