By Keith Idec
NEW YORK – As Amir Imam moved around the ring Wednesday at a Manhattan boxing gym, a visiting group of kids from The Garden of Dreams Foundation watched intently from ringside seats.
They were impressed with Imam’s workout, even though most of them weren’t aware of the junior welterweight contender before they arrived as guests of promoter Top Rank Inc. and World Boxing Cares, a World Boxing Council charity. Imam intends to create many more fans while fulfilling his own Garden dream Saturday night.
Two years and three months after his surprising technical knockout loss to Adrian Granados, the 27-year-old Imam (21-1, 18 KOs) has an opportunity to become a world champion.
The Albany, New York, native will battle undefeated Jose Ramirez in a 12-round fight for the vacant WBC super lightweight title in The Theater at Madison Square Garden. The Imam-Ramirez match will headline an ESPN tripleheader scheduled to start at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.
“I’m excited to be fighting in ‘The Mecca,’ at The Garden,” Imam told BoxingScene.com. “It’s a dream come true. Not many people get this chance. It’s a big stage for me and all the fighters that’s fighting on this card. I’m excited. I can’t wait.
“This could change my life, my mama’s life, my grandmother’s life, the lives of everybody around me. I put in the hard work, and now I’m ready to show my talent.”
A win would move Imam, who’s promoted by Don King, into a top spot he once expected he’d have occupied by now.
Granados changed Imam’s promising career when he took Imam’s best shots and came back to stop Imam in the eighth round of their November 2015 fight in Quebec City, Canada. The hard-hitting Imam dropped Granados with a crushing right hand in the first round of that scheduled 10-rounder, but he couldn’t finish off the gritty Granados (18-6-2, 12 KOs) to continue his march toward a 140-pound title shot.
Imam started the fight strong, yet as it progressed, he felt weaker and weaker. Eventually, Granados hurt him with right hands that left Imam slumped against the ropes, unable to defend himself.
Suddenly, Imam became more pretender than contender.
“I was sick before the fight, so by the third, fourth round, I was shot,” Imam said. “I had no more left in me. I usually don’t get like that in fights. I get stronger in fights, so I knew it was something different than my past fights. But [Granados] did what he had to do, too, to get the win and get me out of there. It was nothing but a learning experience.”
Stacey McKinley, Imam’s trainer, remembers how the consequences of that devastating defeat hit Imam as his deflated fighter returned to his dressing room at Videotron Centre.
“Quite naturally, he was disappointed,” McKinley said. “He was down. He said, ‘I can’t believe I let this guy beat me.’ When he came back to the dressing room after the fight, he said, ‘Damn. I can’t believe this guy beat me. I done blew the fight and the money.’ I said, ‘You beat yourself. Now, if he would’ve straight up beat you, and there was nothing wrong with you, then that’s a different ballgame.’ But we already know there was a problem to fix. A loss is a good teacher, and losing taught Amir.”
McKinley learned that he should’ve followed his instincts when he sensed something was wrong with Imam as he warmed up in his dressing room.
“We don’t like to make excuses,” McKinley said. “There wasn’t nothing technically wrong with him. He was sick and he shouldn’t have been fighting. He was getting paid a decent amount of money, so he asked me, he said, ‘Stacey, please let me go in the fight.’ I knew that he was weak in the dressing room. I knew he wasn’t strong. I knew he wasn’t himself.
“And I kept asking him, ‘Are you all right?’ He said, ‘I’m weak, but I’ve got enough to beat this guy.’ With that, I went on to allow him to fight. But we’re not making no excuses. I know what the deal was. I knew he was sick. But it was a learning lesson for him and for me, too.”
McKinley instructed Imam to take a month off following his emotional loss to Granados. Three weeks later, he returned to Pompano Beach, Florida, where he lives and trains at McKinley’s boxing compound.
Then began the process of rebuilding Imam’s confidence. He has won each of his three of his fights by technical knockout since Granados defeated him, all against unimposing opponents.
Based on how Imam has looked since his loss, both in training and in fights, McKinley considers that setback a blessing in disguise.
“Amir had been knocking everybody out, and winning and winning, just dominating everything he does, even workouts,” McKinley said. “[The loss] was real big for him, too, because everything came too soon. So now he realizes, ‘Wait a minute. Now I’ve gotta go back and get myself together.’ Not that he was doing a whole lot wrong. But he started doing things he ordinarily didn’t do – staying out late, that type of stuff. He just took it for granted.
“But when he knocked [Granados] down and didn’t have enough to get him, he said, ‘I ain’t got nothing.’ I said, ‘I know it. But now we’re in a fight, so you’ve got to do the best you can.’ But I could see it and the announcers saw. They said, ‘Something’s wrong with him.’ But that’s all been corrected. Right now, he’s a better fighter.”
Imam and McKinley believe he’s a better fighter than Ramirez as well.
The 2012 Olympian knocked out previously undefeated Mike Reed (23-2, 12 KOs) in the second round of his last fight, November 11 in Fresno, California. The Avenal, California, native also has been groomed by Bob Arum’s Top Rank to become a star since he turned pro five years ago.
McKinley thinks Ramirez, 25, has been matched carefully more than anything, and isn’t quite as good as his record (21-0, 16 KOs) might indicate. Imam, meanwhile, wants to redeem himself in his fourth fight after suffering a defeat that changed the course of his career.
“The loss helped me,” Imam said. “It slowed me down. It made me sit back and think. It was a blessing, man, for God to just slow me down and just look at what I’ve got going on. I’m looking forward to this fight and I’m gonna show you why that loss was a fluke.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.