By Thomas Gerbasi
This probably isn’t how Sadam Ali pictured his headlining gig at Madison Square Garden, but things seldom go according to plan in a boxer’s career.
If it was the Hollywood version of this Brooklyn story, Ali would have taken gold for the United States in the 2008 Olympics, got a big money intro to the pro game and then sailed to a world title and the big fight at “The Mecca” as the A-side defending his crown for all the world to see.
But that’s not the way it’s played out thus far, even though the 29-year-old has had a solid career heading into his Saturday bout with Miguel Cotto, a fight that will see the Puerto Rican superstar step through the ropes for the final time. In other words, the affable Ali will have to be the bad guy for one night, or more if he scores the upset.
“For sure,” he laughs. “A lot of people probably won’t like me that much, but sometimes there’s nothing you can do.”
That goes for a lot of things in this game, but Ali isn’t crying about any of it. He takes the ups and downs of the fight game with equal calm, and while he has taken a steady road back after the lone loss of his career to Jessie Vargas in 2016 by winning three straight, the career-long welterweight wasn’t expecting a call to fight Cotto for the WBO’s 154-pound title.
“It was random and surprising,” Ali said. “I wasn’t expecting it.”
He does admit that his response to the offer wasn’t immediate, and that’s in line with his even-keeled approach to his career. He wasn’t going to get emotional and accept the fight immediately, nor was he going to turn it down, given the fact that he will be moving up in weight to be the B-side in a fight most expect Cotto to win. But given the chance to win a world title and take a future Hall of Famer down in the same night, it was an offer few would refuse.
“Things were thought about and talked about with the team,” he said. “So it wasn’t just an immediate ‘yes,’ but we came up with our decision and it’s a great opportunity and I love challenges, so it was something I was interested in.”
Ali isn’t ready to commit to continuing his career at 154 pounds should he win the belt this weekend, but it’s a good thing that he’s keeping his entire focus on the task at hand, because without a win, there won’t be any questions about his junior middleweight future on Sunday morning.
So Ali is keeping things low-key, accepting the backseat promotionally as Cotto makes his final rounds. As for the talk of Cotto taking an “easy” fight for his farewell appearance, Ali refuses to get offended.
“I don’t take it personally at all,” he said. “Cotto’s a legend and he’s been through a lot in his career and he’s a great fighter. I understand that in a lot of people’s eyes, I’m a huge underdog, and a lot of people that think that don’t know me, so it makes it even worse. But I’ve been the underdog before. This time it’s a little more, but I’ve never minded being the underdog.”
The funny thing is, he should have never been. One of the top amateurs to emerge from the New York scene, Ali began his pro career in relative obscurity, building a 16-0 record before signing with Golden Boy Promotions in 2013 and kicking things into the next gear. Back-to-back wins over Luis Carlos Abregu and Francisco Santana in 2014 and 2015, respectively, finally got him on the world radar, but his ninth-round TKO loss to Vargas in a WBO welterweight title bout put a stop to the momentum he built and made him an unlikely future foe for someone like Cotto.
But just as Ali’s career has taken some funny bounces in the wrong direction, this one put the ball right in his court, and at Madison Square Garden, no less.
“The Garden is beautiful,” said Ali, who defeated Santana in the building on the Wladimir Klitschko-Bryant Jennings undercard. “As a little kid, it was like dreaming. It was unreal a little bit. It’s amazing, the amount of people that have been there and how exciting it is. And the fact that I get to perform there against a legend in my hometown, it’s gonna be amazing.”
I ask him if he’s gone in front of the marquee on Seventh Avenue, waited for his picture to come up on the marquee and snapped a selfie.
“Nah, nah, I haven’t done that,” he laughs. “I don’t see myself doing that. It’s cool that I’m up there, but I’m not like, ‘Let me take a picture and post it.’ I’m not really like that.”
I remind him of our first interview in the Coney Island Boxing Gym before the Hector Camacho Jr. vs Jesse James Leija bout in 2001. Ali was 12 years old. I said the 12-year-old Sadam Ali would have taken that selfie.
“I definitely would have done that,” he laughs, and he’s calmer than you would expect anyone to be before a fight that could change everything in his life. He admits that he is taking it all in and enjoying the lead-up to Saturday night but, at the same time, to silence the doubters and have that life-altering win, it has to be all about business.
“People will have their opinions and you can’t let that bother you,” he said. “It’s your life and you’re gonna do what you have to do. At the end of the day, there are two guys in that ring, and what happens depends on you and that guy. So all the people who have their opinions, it doesn’t distract me or bother me in a way where I would do something out of the ordinary. I’m taking it in, it’s a great opportunity, I’m excited, but at the same time I’m staying focused and I’m doing what I have to do to be ready.”