By Thomas Gerbasi
The last time I interviewed Golden Boy Promotions’ latest signee, unbeaten welterweight Sadam Ali, was 2001. Brooklyn’s Ali was just 12 years old, but already garnering attention at the Coney Island Boxing Gym for his talent and drive.
On that day, the big stars in the gym were Hector Camacho Jr. and Luis Collazo, but it was the 85-pound Ali who stole the show, not surprisingly since he was already a veteran of 40 amateur fights, having spent much of his childhood with gloves on.
“I started karate when I was five years old, and then I went into boxing when I was eight years old,” said Ali, a little more than 12 years later, which is nearly a lifetime when it comes to boxing. “It’s been a very long time and something I’ve learned to love. When you’re winning in something, you learn to love it and it’s just exciting. So boxing is my life, and it’s not just a job to me, it’s a job and a hobby – I like what I do.”
The greats in this sport rarely start late, though there are exceptions. Usually, it’s something you start as a child, get your amateur experience, possibly pick up a couple big titles or an Olympic berth, turn pro, sign with a big promoter, then go on from there. Ali followed most of those steps, following up an outstanding amateur career with a spot on the 2008 United States Olympic team.
But when he turned pro in January of 2009 with a first round TKO of Ricky Thompson, he did so without one of boxing’s big promoters. Or with any promoter for that matter. And that’s not to say there wasn’t interest from the sport’s major players, but Ali and his father, Mahmoud, decided to go the free agent route, a risky path that they were still willing to take.
“I did it the hard way for a reason,” said Ali, who just turned 25 on Thursday. “I did it to show everybody what they would be working with. Some promoters sign somebody and they don’t know what they’re really dealing with. They don’t know if they have everything it takes to be a champion. You need heart, you need speed, you need power, you need a lot of things. You need the mind in the ring, and you do need the right promoter. So I took my time with that. I wanted to be a free agent, get the experience, wait for the right opportunity to sign, and to look for the right promoter that works for me and that’s gonna do the right job for me.”
More than four years later, he’s arrived, signing with Golden Boy and headlining their event at Barclays Center in Brooklyn this Monday against Jay Krupp. In other words, all’s well that ends well. But to get here meant that Ali had to keep fighting and keep winning, because one misstep would have likely dashed any hopes of getting with a high-profile promoter.
He’s done his part, winning all 16 of his bouts, ten by knockout, and even starting his own promotional company, World Kid Promotions, to keep himself active.
“I did my own promotions just to stay busy and to keep my fights going so I wasn’t staying on the shelf without fighting,” he said. “It’s not easy, but I didn’t deal with it too much. I had the right team around me to deal with it and I focused on my fighting and my training. But it’s definitely not an easy job, and you have to have the right people behind you doing it, and that’s why I’m working with Golden Boy.”
Ali also has no plans of bringing his promoter’s hat out of storage anytime soon.
“Right now it’s frozen,” he laughs. “I don’t need it and I don’t plan on bringing it back out, but you never know. Maybe in the future we’ll see what happens. But that’s not what I’m thinking about right now.”
What he is thinking about is a bright future ahead of him, one that he hopes will continue the revival of New York City boxing. And maybe that’s what prompted him to stay a free agent for so long, watching his peers from the area get sidetracked by bad deals and cases of too much too soon.
“Not only the people around me, but it happens with a lot of fighters,” he said. “They sign too early, they sign the wrong contract, or they’re just not ready for it and they mess up. For me, I just wanted to be ready. A lot of people don’t learn from other people and I do. In that situation, or even somebody losing a fight, I see that and pick that up like it’s already happened. So that definitely played a part in what I did with my career. And I had help from my dad. He’s the one that really did everything and he’s the one that knew what he had to do for my career. At the end of the day, your family and your parents are the ones that are gonna do right for you and make sure that you’re gonna be okay. They want you to be better than what they are, so they’re gonna make sure they put you in the best position possible, and that’s where I’m gonna be.”
When Ali talks about his father, it’s clear that the two have an ironclad bond, something that you can’t put a price tag on. It’s nice to see from a 25-year-old (or anyone for that matter), and though Ali is doing the fighting in the ring, he makes it clear that his father was doing plenty of that for his son outside the ropes.
“My dad made the right decisions,” said Ali. “He was always scared to do my career, and he didn’t want to fail me. But he’s happy, and I’m happy now, so he feels good. He can lay back and relax; he knows he did the right thing.”
The maturity that Ali possesses is hard to come by at any age, let alone when you’re in your early 20s and watching fighters that are less talented or marketable than you getting television dates and major media attention. He has no regrets though.
“I knew it would be a little harder,” he said. “When you’re with the big promoters they really put your name out there and people get to really see you. But I knew my time would come. I still had a fan base, I still had a buzz and people coming out to watch me fight, so it was okay. And I knew my time would come, so I really wasn’t afraid about that. I’m still at the bottom of my ladder right now and I’m still climbing. So there’s a long way for me to go.”
How often do you hear that, especially in this sport? So is Sadam Ali a trailblazer for a new generation of fighters? Time will tell.