By Mitch Abramson
He is a man of many names, a boxer of many styles. He is Sadam, “World Kid” Ali, aka the “Canarsie Kid,” aka “Lightning,” aka etc. etc. He can brawl, box, counter, parry, bang to the body.
He can seemingly do it all, but even Picasso had his limits. Ali, a 19-year-old from Brooklyn, said as much when he lost in the second round of the World Championships recently in Chicago, stalling his run to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
An amateur lightweight, Ali is attempting to become the first fighter from the five boroughs since Riddick Bowe in 1988 to make the Olympic team.
“I learned a couple of things in Chicago,” Ali said. “I learned that I have to step in with my punches more, and instead of chasing my opponent, to make them come to me, to let them run into my shots. I should probably become more of a counter-puncher.”
Placing limits on Ali’s style is like placing a time restriction on a Bernard Hopkins interview: it’s not going to happen. Ali is a stylish boxer who can adapt to whatever his opponent does.
But after winning the Olympic Boxing Trials in Houston in late August, Ali had trouble in the World Championships. He fell behind his first round opponent and had to rally to win. He fell behind again in his second round match and lost a 20-16 decision to Hrachik Javakhyan of Armenia. He was pressing in both matches, something Ali is not often guilty of.
His defeat in Chicago will count as one strike against him in terms of qualifying for Beijing. He has two more tries, at tournaments in Trinidad and Tobago in March, and in Guatemala in April. He must finish in the top three in one of the tournaments to make the Olympic cut.
During his second round match, Ali looked to his father, David, and co-trainer Andre Rozier in the crowd to find out if his punches were registering on a giant scoreboard outside the ring. For the most part, when David met Sadam’s gaze, David shook his head.
“Sadam would land a shot and look to me like, ‘did I score? Am I up?’” David said. “For some reason, the judges weren’t recording the points, but it wasn’t all the judges’ fault. Sadam was dropping his hands and getting caught with punches he shouldn’t have.”
Despite the loss, Ali does not plan on altering his approach entirely. Even the match he lost was competitive. Ali trailed by two points after the first round, closed the gap at the end of the second, and fell behind by three points after three rounds in the four-round bout, according to David.
“I’ll be a counter-puncher in the beginning, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll resort to another style and another one until I find the one that works,” he said. “I can still switch up when I have to. It all depends on who I’m fighting. I’ll do what I have to win. I’ll make the Olympics.”
He was speaking on a cell phone from the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs where he has been staying with 10 other fighters since September in a newly established USA Boxing Resident Program. The team left for a two-week trip to China on November 14, to box in some exhibitions and get acclimated to the culture and surroundings. Ali did well in the Olympic Test Event in Beijing, winning a silver medal on November 22. Ali lost a 30-17 decision to Serik Yeleuov of Kazakhstan in the championship bout. The team returns to the United States on November 28.
Five fighters from the U.S. have already qualified for the Olympics: Flyweight Rau’shee Warren took home a gold medal as did Welterweight Demetrius Andrade. Light flyweight Luis Yanez, bantamweight Gary Russell, Jr., and featherweight Raynell Williams also qualified.
USA Boxing National Director of Coaching, Dan Campbell believes Ali will soon join them.
“Sadam is so talented,” said Campbell, who became the Olympic boxing coach in 2005. “He’s going to qualify for the Olympics, but he has to realize that you don’t have to turn every match into a shootout. In amateur competition, it’s all about scoring points. I told him with his skills, he doesn’t have to abandon what he does well [which is box.] In these types of situations, the elite boxers are able to rise to the occasion, and that’s what I expect Sadam to do.”
Ali is being trained by Campbell for these fights, instead of his amateur coaches, Rozier and Victor Roundtree. It hasn’t been easy for Roundtree, who has been Sadam’s coach since he was 11, to sit idly by while Ali fights for his competitive future.
“I’m going crazy,” Roundtree said. “It’s tough, but I know he’s in good hands with Campbell. The only thing I worry about is that they don’t know everything the kid can do. He’s a very versatile fighter. He can do whatever he has to do in the ring, but sometimes you have to remind Sadam of certain things because he gets mad [if he gets hit] and he goes after the guy when he shouldn’t do that. It’s just one point, he has to realize. You don’t have to get carried away. The coaches have to know his mind frame and how to talk to him and when to talk to him.”
He felt the same way watching another of his fighters, Jaidon Codrington being trained by a different coach for the “Contender” series. There, Codrington went go toe-to-toe with the durable Sakio Bika and lost on an eighth round TKO in the final of the show.
“I was in the crowd for that one because Buddy McGirt was in the corner,” Roundtree said of the arrangement that had McGirt training half of the show’s fighters for the program. “You have to know your fighter,” said Roundtree, who felt McGirt was affected by his limited experience with Codrington.
“He didn’t know the kid,” Roundtree said.
The same could be said of the public’s relationship with Ali, who was considered a second option to represent New York in the Olympics behind his friend, Danny Jacobs.
Ali is a PAL National Champion, an under-19 National Champion, a two-time Golden Glove National Champion, and a two-time New York City Golden Glove Champion, but he may have gotten lost in the shadow of Jacobs, whose flashy style and personality made him an amateur star.
The fighter everyone expected to make the Olympics, Jacobs, is turning pro, (on the undercard of Floyd Mayweather and Ricky Hatton on December 8, according to Roundtree, who also trains Jacobs) and the fighter not everyone envisioned to make the Olympic team, Ali, did.
“I was always telling people about Sadam, but all people wanted to say is Danny this or Danny that,” Roundree said. “I was training both kids and when Danny won the JO’s first, then all eyes were on him, and all eyes stayed on him. When Sadam came out, he was in a smaller weight class, and they were still looking at Danny. But Sadam has won every amateur title that Danny has, and he’s the only one from New York to win the National Golden Gloves twice in two different weight classes, 125 and 132 pounds.”
Ali wasn’t totally invisible. In a piece I was doing for The New York Times in 2006, Codrington told me: “Sadam Ali is going to be huge. He’s fighting grown men right now, so when he gets older, his matches are going to be a joke because he’s going to be too skilled for everyone. Plus he’s so marketable it’s not even funny. He’s got the baby-face and he’s from Yemen, so he’s drawing a lot of fans who wouldn’t normally be into the sport.”
Back then, Ali was the top rated 16-year-old in the country in 2005, and he was recognized, even then as a potential candidate to represent the United States in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
The story depicted how Ali and his father, David, tread carefully over the difficult terrain of parental involvement in children’s athletics. When I visited Sadam in the gym for the story, his uncle, a film student named Fawaz Ali, was tracking him with a video camera, laying the groundwork for a documentary (he’s still following him with a camera), and his two younger sisters, Suha, and Senna were serenading him with cheers as he shadowboxed at the Starrett City Boxing Club, where Jacobs and Codrington also trained.
Unlike some parents who dole out insults and threats to motivate their children, Ali was “showered with affection when he trains,” the piece said.
According to the article, “To determine how many pushups he does, Ali pulls from a deck of cards. An Ace means he does 15; A Joker means 20. David is from Yemen, a small country in the Middle East, and hundreds of relatives now living in New York attend his fights, chanting "Ali! Ali! Ali!" as he approaches the ring. His co-trainer Andre Rozier stitches together beautifully made jackets and shorts for him to wear, all under the watchful eye of David, a real estate broker who monitors his career but rarely interferes.”
When contacted by phone after his recent loss in Chicago, Ali said nothing has changed between him and his father. They are still inseparable. Sadam told his coaches in Chicago after he lost that he felt he had let his father down, a notion David had trouble understanding because of the easy relationship he has with Sadam. (“He knows when he loses he should feel comfortable with me,” David said. “I don’t understand why he felt like that. It’s not like he fought a bad fight. He fought well; it just didn’t go his way.”)
Sadam explained the origins of his relationship in boxing with his father: “He always drove me to the gym, he never put pressure on me. Even if I would lose, he would just say, ‘don’t worry, you’ll get them next time. He made me love boxing, love the sport, the competition. I wanted to win for him”
He may still get the chance.
Mitch Abramson has covered boxing for The New York Times and the Village Voice and is currently a staff writer at Newsday.