Saturday, November 27, 2010

Something I wish I would have said

The first two friends I made in the boxing gym were these guys from Somalia, Omar and Mohammad. Omar, a strong and stocky inside fighter who always opted to slug it out rather than box, and Mohammad, with his lanky, long-limbed frame fit best for an outside fighting style turned boxing into a choreographed dance. Despite their physical differences, they were the best of friends, probably because the one physical commonality they shared was that permanent smile plastered on their faces. They were the epitome of friendship, real ball-busters around the gym, but at their core, kind young men.

To this day I still don't think either of them know my real name. They just called me "Nasty", the ring moniker given to me by my coach. But despite being on a nickname basis, these two knew me better than most of my own friends. Omar initiated me into my first sparring session, forcing me onto one knee by way of lefthook body shot, my first experience of "getting the wind knocked out of me." I picked myself up to survive through the third and final round, and immediately after the bell rang he came and hugged me, exclaiming in my ear, "You did good Nasty! You did good!" as if celebrating my final rite of passage to joining the team.

Now you know what it feels like to be beaten up. Now you're one of us.

And despite being pummeled and dropped, Omar somehow managed to pummel and drop me without making me feel embarrassed. There was no shame. No dishonor amongst a band of brothers who had all been there before.

For the next few months Omar became my regular sparring partner, inadvertently teaching me the valuable lesson that chewing gum relieves the soreness a fighter feels after getting their jaw bashed in. Soon it became ritual to buy a box of Wrigley's after a week of sparring with Omar. I still remember when he clipped me with a right uppercut that jammed my teeth down right over my bottom lip, creating a small black scar that I still carry with me today.

But Omar didn't go far in boxing. Mohammad told me he enjoyed soccer too much to make the necessary sacrifices of the pugilistic mantra, and spent more time juggling the round ball on his feet than throwing combinations on the heavy bag. After taking a few fights in weight classes too high, he eventually disappeared from the gym. But I hear that he now has a wife and two kids, works with a friend of mine in a production factory. Overall, I hear he's happy. In many ways, he's made it.

I shared a very different relationship with Mohammad. We weren't sparring partners due to our drastic weight disparity: me, a welterweight, him, a featherweight, but we always went to the fights together. I still remember during one of our first visits to the fights, we watched boxers battle it out at the Niles Country Club in Mountlake Terrace where I sat in disgust at the sight of high brow men of power placing bets on my teammates as they smoked cigars and groped the bikini-clad women serving them drinks. When I turned to Mohammad for his opinion, I found his eyes tranced on the faux tiki torches planted on the golf course. "Man, this reminds me of Africa," he managed through somber tears. "I miss home."

That year, Mohammad was the only other fighter to accompany me in our first cross country road trip to the Ringside World Amateur Championships in Kansas City, Missouri. My first tournament and actually, my first fight. Over 33 hours of driving, we slowly became more acquainted, found solidarity in being the only two colored kids whenever we made a pit-stop in places like Idaho, Montana, and Nebraska.

I learned that Mohammad had just been admitted into the University of Washington, but had reservations about accepting his enrollment. His goal was to be the first Somalian boxing superstar and didn't want university courses to interfere. I thought about how both were possible; hell, I was a living example, even though I wasn't nearly as good as he was. But people still did it. Former Undisputed Lightweight Champion Juan Diaz reached the pinnacle of his division while studying Political Science at Houston University. Education and boxing could coexist, but for some reason I never mentioned it to him.

I ended up losing my first match in a hard fought battle against Alonzo Juarez from New York, but many spectators came up to me afterward to pat my back and say, "Hey man, you won that fight." Being that Juarez had 7 fights to my none, I didn't feel all that bad. Mohammad, on the other hand, was irate, up in arms crying foul play at the nod going to the other corner. "I'm going to win this tournament for you Nasty," he proclaimed.

Unfortunately, Mohammad's road to glory also fell short, getting robbed himself in the second fight of the tournament (and I mean REALLY robbed), but he didn't let a silly tournament get him down. He went on to compile a string of victories upon his return, knocking out tough prospects and generating a small following in the community, me being one of his biggest fans.

After a couple more of my own fights back in Seattle, I left for Spain to study abroad for a quarter. In those three months I discovered part of myself through reckless partying and stuffing my face stupid with bocadillos and churros con chocolate, effectively destroying any physical fitness I had gained from boxing. When I returned, I was so out of shape that I couldn't go back to the gym with dignity. I had to at least look somewhat decent before showing my face.

I didn't step foot in the gym for nearly a year, but when I did, Coach welcomed me back with open arms, spoke to me so nonchalantly as if I had showed up to train the day before. We quickly caught up on each others' gossip. I told him about Spain, he told me about his recent tournament ventures through the West Coast. I instinctively asked if Mohammad had snatched up any titles, but Coach's expression instantly turned bitter, reporting that Mohammad started drinking and hanging out with the wrong crowd. "The streets got him," Coach put it angrily.

But I knew it wasn't just anger; it was disappointment, not only at the prospect of losing a great fighter, but because he just cared about the kid.

I saw Mohammad a few months later and the rumors were true. The first thing I noticed as he waddled in was the uncharacteristic pot-belly he bore and a general look of dishevelment on his face. But he came back to train and straighten his life out. Even though he was noticeably slower, frequently short of breath, and the time he dedicated to training was about half as long as he once spent, he was back. Mohammad was back.

After about two days I never saw Mohammad again. I ran into his cousin a few weeks ago and was told he now spends most of his day in the streets with a beer can married to one hand and a cigarette in the other. I was heartbroken. How did this happen? How did such a young, bright kid with that mean left jab get reduced to this?

My narcissism left me responsible. I should have never left for Spain. I should have stayed and helped him through the tough times. I should have told him about Juan Diaz. Why didn't I tell him about Juan Diaz?

But Spain had changed my life and I really thought Mohammad didn't need any living examples to push him forward toward his goals. I simply had a different path and boxing wasn't on it.

I was never really that good at boxing, just good enough to survive. Quite frankly, I just never put enough effort into it. But I didn't make that choice because the sport didn't interest me. I did it because I was scared. I lacked the courage to put all my eggs into one basket, especially in a trade where the success ratio follows a decimal point and is never based on ring talents alone. Of all I know about the politics of boxing and all I've witnessed in the lives of fighters, it was a good decision for me. I always say, if you have any other options in life besides boxing, take them. I just wish I would have said that to Mohammad.

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