By Thomas Gerbasi
This should be Sam Soliman’s victory lap. One of boxing’s good guys, a fighter who always came up just short when he needed the big win, the Melbourne native finally put world championship gold around his waist in May when he traveled to Germany to beat Felix Strum for the IBF middleweight crown.
At 40, “King” Sam had the belt he craved for all these years, from his time battling his way through the local Australian scene, to a stint on the reality series The Contender, and after several near misses in pivotal fights.
Already a star at home, he could have walked off into the sunset with a championship belt and a ten-fight, six-year winning streak. But the way Soliman looks at it, there’s still unfinished business for him between the ropes.
“My favorite fighters in the world - Pernell Whitaker, my favorite pound-for-pound ever, and Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali - they’ve all done the same thing that I want to do, and that’s defend the title,” he said. “You’re going in as champion, defending something that someone is hungry for. In doing that, it’s another huge step. People say ‘you won the title, what’s in it for you now?’ For me, it’s being able to beat someone who wants to take what you’ve got.”
The one trying to take what he’s got this Wednesday night is a familiar face: former middleweight champion Jermain Taylor. Yet in the lead-up to the ESPN-televised bout, Soliman has been placed in a position where he’s almost had to defend the fight more than prepare for it, as there are several questions about it, all revolving around Taylor.
Should he be fighting for a title after posting a 4-0 record against pedestrian opposition?
Should he be fighting at all after suffering a brain bleed in his fight against Arthur Abraham in 2009?
How will Taylor be affected by his arrest in August on charges of first degree domestic battery and aggravated assault after he shot a cousin during an altercation in the 36-year-old’s Arkansas home?
It’s an unfortunate situation for Soliman to be thrust into, but as is his custom, good or bad, he’ll answer anything that’s presented to him. Of course, being boxing, sanctioning bodies have their own fantasies as to what makes a legitimate contender, but Soliman points out, “People who go into my background will see that there’s no way I would ever handpick an opponent.”
Fair enough, but of course Taylor’s physical readiness to fight has been debated since his return in 2011 after more than two years away from the game. “Bad Intentions” passed a battery of tests at the renowned Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic, and was also cleared by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, but after such a serious injury, is it worth the risk?
Soliman, a family man who knows the risks associated with this game, can’t make decisions for Taylor, and he knows that on Wednesday night the challenger will be throwing punches at his head, so as far as he’s concerned, if Taylor is cleared to fight, he will fight him.
“The state athletic commission in Nevada is the toughest licensing commission you’ll find, and they approved him,” he said. “They’ve showed from past history that they are tough to get over, and if they say he’s going to be okay, you know you’ve got the okay. There’s also the Mayo Clinic, where they told him he’s clear to fight because his brain is fine. The Mayo Clinic is renowned as one of the best hospitals in the world. That’s two reasons why the fight, for me, is neat and tidy.”
Neat and tidy is a rarity these days, and it’s good to see someone make it there, especially Soliman, whose latest passion is not only defending his title, but being an official ambassador for The Legacy of Hope Foundation that is working to build the Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Hospital.
“Nelson Mandela loved his boxing, so it’s sort of like a sentimental thing for me,” Soliman said. “I want to keep it going for him, so if he’s watching from upstairs, from heaven, I want him to know that we’ve got his back and we’re going to continue that legacy and make a difference to those that are less fortunate.”
To have made it through over 17 years as a pro, not only unscathed, but as a world champion with a positive attitude in this sport is nothing short of remarkable. Soliman doesn’t see it as a big deal though – that’s just the way he’s always been.
“I love the sport that I’m doing, and I know that persistence, perseverance, and patience always prevails,” he said. “Just keep doing what you’re doing, keep having a crack at what you want to have a crack at, keep trying and trying, and it will come. It’s just a matter of how patient, persistent, and persevering you are. You’ve just got to believe in that.”
It’s the attitude that kept him going after his February 2013 fight with Sturm in Germany. A 12-round decision winner in the IBF title elimination bout, Soliman was later stunned when the A sample of his post-fight drug test came back with traces of an illegal stimulant. The result of the bout was changed to a no contest, but Soliman wasn’t done fighting. His legal team had the B sample tested in the United States, and it came up negative, prompting the IBF to keep him in the number one contender’s spot.
“Of course it cost me an arm and a leg, around $65,000 in doing it, but it was worth every dollar because once my B sample came negative, even though I knew I’m clean, I just wanted the world to know,” he said, and in May, he got his second crack at Strum and this time, the unanimous decision stood and he got to take a world championship belt back home to Melbourne. It was that whole determination thing again.
“When I have an injury or I get a split decision go against me when I clearly won the fight, I always remind myself of one thing: I will lose twice if I let them beat me mentally and stop me from doing what I love to do,” he said. “So when something doesn’t work for me, I remind myself of why I do it.”
As corny as it sounds, for Soliman, it’s the love of the game, and as he approaches his 41st birthday this November, could he see himself staying long enough to approach Bernard Hopkins-esque levels of productivity in his late-40s?
“Randy Couture, the MMA champion, and Bernard Hopkins, the boxing champion of the world, I call them two my hope,” Soliman laughs. “But it’s not about what you do in the ring and the gym. It’s part of it, but only a small percentage. The big percentage is your lifestyle. You can’t drink, party, smoke, take drugs, or any of those things, and if you don’t do them you’ve got longevity. If you do, I guarantee that at 30 to 32, you’re way past your best.”
In that case, who knows, maybe at 40, we haven’t seen the best of Sam Soliman yet.