By Mitch Abramson
Sherif Younan Jr. is a boxing fan. He’s also a pretty good boxer. When Younan was two, he celebrated his birthday at a boxing gym. When he was eight, he started fighting competitively for trophies and medals. Now 16, Younan is the top-ranked junior boxer in the United States at 189 pounds. Younan is six feet tall with fast hands, a high boxing IQ, and enough confidence to last a few lifetimes. After watching Saul “Canelo” Alvarez turn pro at 15 and win a world title at 21, Younan Jr., who is from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, was gripped with an idea: If Alvarez could turn pro at such a young age- why not me?
Younan is still too young to fight in the New York Golden Gloves. He just turned 16 on October 14 and can’t even vote or serve in the U.S. Army. Most boxing fans have never heard of him. Yet Younan has already made up his mind. Younan, or “Sugar Boy” as he is known, wants to start fighting for money and take the same route that Alvarez did to become a world champion. In what would be a rare occurrence and perhaps a first in this country, Younan is considering skipping the senior division of the amateurs to turn professional without the benefit of a single bout against older competition.
It’s the equivalent of a basketball player declaring for the NBA Draft straight out of middle school.
“I could probably count all the boxers [from the U.S.] who have turned pro before they were 18 on one hand,” said Tim Lueckenhoff, president of the Association of Boxing Commissions. “It’s definitely an interesting situation. Most boxers just don’t do it because of the [violent] nature of the sport.”
Younan doesn’t care. Having grown up in gyms and trained with professional fighters for most of his life, he believes he is ready to make the jump, however novel it may be, from a junior boxer to professional. He has already received several offers to turn pro from well-known promoters and managers, his father, Sherif Sr. says, while declining to mention who they are because negotiations are ongoing.
“Junior is a thoroughbred when it comes to boxing,” says Younan Sr., who was born in Egypt. “He’s been doing this since he learned how to walk. I believe that Junior has God-given talent that you can spot from a mile away.”
To follow his dream, Younan would go abroad, plotting a course that most U.S. boxers simply don’t take. Most U.S. states don’t allow fighters to fight professionally until their 18th birthday. The plan would be for Younan Jr. to fight in locales such as Mexico and the Dominican Republic where the age restrictions are less invasive and then to return to the states when he is 18 and eligible to get a Federal ID number to allow him to compete as a professional, as required by the Muhammad Ali Boxing Act.
"We could build his record up to 19-0 or 20-0 and then bring him over here when he's 18 or 19," Younan Sr. said.
Younan and his father expect to make a decision in the next few months, but they appear to be leaning toward turning professional. If they follow that path, the father and son would in the process be skewering conventional wisdom about how a fighter is supposed to be nurtured and developed.
Sugar Boy also may inadvertently touch off a revolt among amateur boxers into the pros who don't want to deal with USA Boxing's new, tougher qualifying process for the Olympic Games that has angered many.
“I know it’s a big step,” Younan Jr. says. “But I see fighters that don’t have half my skills like ‘Canelo’ and [Antonio] Margarito. They’re great fighters, but talent wise, I just think I have more talent, and I work my ass off in the gym. All that amateur stuff is cool, but if I can get a world title as a pro at the same age that I’m winning junior national titles, then why not do it? I train with the best in boxing. I definitely think I have the tools to go pro. That’s what I want to do.”
Anthony Bartkowski, the executive director of USA Boxing calls Younan’s interest in going pro “concerning.” Younan’s strong words come on the heels of a controversial decision by USA Boxing to make boxers basically have to qualify twice to be able to compete in the Olympic Games if they failed to place high enough in the world championships. Mindful that the new qualification rules are unpopular, Bartkowski plans to hold a “constituent review” following the London Games to determine whether the qualifying process for the 2016 Games in Brazil ought to be revamped.
Younan cited the new qualifying process as another reason why he wants to go pro.
A number of boxers, including Marcus Browne, a light heavyweight from Staten Island, didn’t place high enough at the Worlds in late September, and now must qualify again, first by winning a national “reload” tournament and then by placing (for Browne, it’s fourth or better) at the Americas Continental Qualifier in Brazil in May. Browne intends on competing in the Daily News Golden Gloves in pursuit of a fourth title in the first quarter of 2012 to stay busy in the meantime.
Younan Jr. is close with Browne. He was in Mobile, Alabama winning the Junior Olympic National Championships at the same time Browne won the U.S. Olympic Trials in August. He does not envy what Browne has had to go through.
“That got me frustrated,” Younan said. “I trained with Marcus that whole time to get him ready for the trials. He worked his ass off to make it. He beat everyone, and now for him to have to qualify again I think is just wrong. I just think what USA Boxing is doing is wrong.”
Bartkowski is not happy either, upset that one of the country’s elite young boxers is considering skipping the senior level to go professional.
“I am really shocked that a 16-year-old would consider doing that,” Bartkowski said in a phone interview. “And I would question what some of these promoters are looking at to even consider someone who’s so young and hasn’t even fully matured yet.”
Younan Sr., who trains and advises his son, is aware of the dangers of the pro game. After all, his son, whom Younan affectionately calls “Junior,” is just a sophomore in high school at New Utrecht in Brooklyn. There’s also the matter of waiting for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, which Younan still hasn’t ruled out for his son. Boxers routinely use the Olympics as a springboard to the pros, capitalizing on the attention that comes with being an Olympian.
“The dilemma is to wait around for Brazil and go through the whole qualifying process, which is a headache,” Younan said. “My son is very much leaning toward the pro thing. Junior does not want to wait. He says, ‘Dad, I’m ready to go pro. In a few years I’ll be a world champion.’ As a dad, I have to watch over him and I have to protect him. My fatherly instincts tell me to wait so he can develop more physically and mentally. But a lot of [promoters and managers] have put things on the table for us. It’s a decision we have to weigh carefully.”
If he does turn pro before his 17th birthday, Sugar Boy will have company. A number of fighters, including “Canelo,” Juan “Baby Bull” Diaz and Shamir Reyes, among others, also made the jump. But if he does go pro, it will no doubt elicit strong opinions from those who don’t think a 16-year-old is ripe enough to be a professional boxer.
“I just think it’s a bad idea because of the maturity aspect,” said Lueckenhoff, who admitted to never seeing Junior fight. “He’s not going to be able to fight in the locations he wants to, and he’s probably not going to make a whole lot of money until he gets older. There will be some promoters who will pay him just for the novelty of having a 16-year-old fight on their card. But I don’t think he’s going to be happy. Once you go pro, you can’t turn back.
“I assume his goal is to make money,” he continued. “It’s really interesting. It makes me wonder if he’s doing it for the money or as a publicity stunt.”
Junior is conscious of the naysayers who say it’s foolish to rush into a pro career. And he freely admits there will be situations he may not be equipped to handle because of his age.
“I mean, there are a lot of things I’m not going to be able to deal with,” he says. “But I have my team around me. I have my father, and all I have to do is train and work hard and everything else will fall into place.”
His father is similarly confident and points to a number of factors that tells him Junior is ready. The esteemed trainer Freddie Roach is a fan, Younan says, after he saw him at an amateur tournament earlier this year. “He said that he was very talented,” Younan Sr. says.
And Sugar Boy has handled himself well enough in sparring sessions against a coterie of professionals, from Curtis Stevens and Andre Dirrell to elite amateurs, such as Marcus Browne, he also points out.
The father and son are close with the former junior welterweight titlist, Paulie Malignaggi, whom Younan Sr. once trained, and believe they have a good understanding of how the business of boxing is run. Junior is supported by several sponsors, including Fuel Fight Gear, an equipment and apparel company. They have also seen fighters from the area, most notably Eddie Gomez, an undefeated junior middleweight from the Bronx turn pro after just a handful of amateur fights on the senior level, and they are encouraged by his success.
Younan Sr. is also comforted by the achievements of his son, who he says has been ranked No. 1 for the past four years in different weight classes and has lost just once since he was eight-years old in roughly 70 bouts. And finally, there is the legend of “Canelo,” who turned pro as a junior in the amateurs, just as Sugar Boy may ultimately do.
“When Junior first heard of “Canelo” Alvarez, he wasn’t too impressed,” Younan Sr. says. “Don’t get me wrong, he liked him as a fighter, but he’s going to be light years ahead of him when he’s the same age. When he saw him on TV, he was like, ‘Holy [expletive], I want to do the same thing daddy. I want to be on the higher stages. I want to be the main event.’ He’s very hungry. He loves to be in the spotlight.”
Mitch Abramson covers boxing for the New York Daily News and BoxingScene.com.