By Mitch Abramson
Two years ago, a young boxer from Sweden swept through the New York boxing landscape, leaving a trail of frustrated, defeated boxers in his wake. Blond and handsome, with a casual demeanor, Naim Terbunja was a boxer on the 2008 Swedish Olympic team with a grand ambition: to make it as a boxer in the U.S. To that end, Terbunja moved to Shirley, L.I. in 2009 to compete in the New York Golden Gloves.
Few knew of Terbuna before the tournament, but after he beat Marcus Browne- the same Marcus Browne of Staten Island who is now the 178-pound representative on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team - in the 2009 New York Golden Gloves 165-pound open class, Terbunja, then 24, earned a name for himself (along with plenty of criticism that he may have flouted tournament rules by seemingly relocating here from Sweden for the express purpose of winning the Gloves, which is a no-no.)
A week later, Terbunja captured the prestigious National Golden Gloves in Salt Lake City, establishing himself as one of the top amateurs in the country. It was quite a year for Terbunja. At the end of 2010, Terbunja said he signed with manager Al Haymon, who currently advises Floyd Mayweather and Andre Berto, among others. Terbunja seemed headed for success. All the pieces were in place for him to launch a lucrative boxing career.
But something happened on the way to Haymon’s penthouse floor.
Terbunja, who was born in Prishtina, Albania, and later moved to Sweden as a boy, has been unable to re-enter the U.S. and obtain a work visa, and his plans of turning professional in the U.S. have been suddenly put on hold.
For the past year he’s been stuck in his hometown of Linköping, Sweden, trying to acquire a visa. Though he’s had Swedish Olympic and boxing officials petition the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on his behalf, he’s been thwarted at every turn, for reasons that elude him, he says. The USCIS is a part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and is responsible for processing immigrant visa petitions.
“I’m incredibly frustrated,” Terbunja, now 27, said in a phone interview with BoxingScene.com. “My only explanation for what’s happening right now is that there are people who work for the USCIS that are either incompetent or they don’t know anything about boxing. All they have to know is that I have a contract [to go pro]. I have even sent them ten different names of boxers from Sweden who got visas, and these boxers don’t even have half the credentials that I have.”
While he was in the states for the Golden Gloves, Terbunja had been able to relocate to Long Island on a tourist visa, since he wasn’t making any money, he said. But now that he is trying to make his pro debut, the process has become more complicated, he says. And he stubbornly refuses to turn professional anywhere but the U.S., holding out hope that in the next few weeks he will able to obtain a work visa for athletes, that would allow him to earn money in this country, paving the way for his pro debut.
Terbunja, 27, says that an attorney working for Al Haymon named Tammy Lee, who is based in Manhattan, has been working on his behalf to facilitate the visa process. But the process is wearing on Terbunja, who continues to work out with the Swedish national boxing team. Lee did not immediately return a call seeking comment; the USCIS declined to comment on the case.
“I hope that I will get the visa this year otherwise I don’t know if I’ll even get to turn pro,” he said. “I never had a problem with anyone, never got arrested, never got in trouble. I’ve been to the U.S. many times. I never caused any problems. But one year without fighting is not good for my career. I’m starting to think that maybe I should start thinking about doing something else [with my life].”
If his efforts to get a visa are eventually successful, he plans on returning to Shirley, L.I., to train with Mike Murphy, who got him ready for the Golden Gloves tournament. He is hesitant to turn pro in Europe, even though he says he has received interest from several promoters to turn pro. He remains steadfast in his desire to turn pro in the U.S. and box for Haymon.
“Before I got in contact with Mr. Haymon, before I moved to the U.S., I didn’t even think about pro boxing,” he said. “Here in Swedan, they just started with pro boxing. It’s very small. I just know that if you want to achieve anything in this sport, you have to go to the U.S. You have to make it there.”
Mitch Abramson covers boxing for the New York Daily News and BoxingScene.com.