By Peter Lim
Eugenics has always been a highly controversial and misunderstood science. On the one hand it has been used to breed thoroughbred race horses, cuddly best-of-show canines, high-yielding dairy cattle and disease-resistant crops. But in the 1930s a monster of a man by the name of Adolf Hitler attempted to genetically engineer a master race. We all know how that turned out.
There might not be another human being more genetically predisposed to pugilistic excellence than 11-month-old Ali Yoka. But there was nothing deliberate nor sinister about his conception. Like most babies, his parents met, fell in love, got married and started a family. They both just happened to be Olympic boxing gold medalists.
Ali’s mother, Estelle Mossely, topped the women’s lightweight division and his father, Tony Yoka, the men’s super heavyweight division, both for France, at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
It might be a decade or two before young Ali decides whether to follow in his parents’ footsteps and prove if his super-concentrate boxing DNA will amount to pugilistic greatness. And Mossely, still preoccupied with first-time motherhood, remains undecided if she will pick up where she left off in her boxing career. So, for now at least, it will be up to dad to continue to build on the family’s legacy and blaze a trail of in the professional ranks.
Tony Yoka (5-0, 4 KOs) made his pro debut against a 12-0 fighter and the combined record of his five opponents is 55-13-7. But Yoka is impatient to up his level of competition by a few notches and join the likes of Vasyl Lomachenko, Naoya Inoue, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Oleksandr Usyk, Dmitry Bivol, Anthony Joshua – a new generation of titleholders who skipped the customary early stages of fighting palookas and journeyman and delved straight into fighting gatekeepers, contenders and titleholders.
Yoka, 26, envisages his ascent to a championship will not be as rapid as Lomachenko’s but faster than Joshua’s.
“Anthony Joshua took like four years to get a belt; Lomachenko did it after two fights,” Yoka said. “Everybody has his own way. I’m not Lomachenko and I’m not Joshua. I think I’m like between them. I don’t want to take four years like Joshua. That’s too much (time) for me.
“I don’t want to waste my time fighting guys I know I’m going to beat. I need a challenge. I’m not saying I’m going to fight the champion now or tomorrow, but I need to challenge myself. I need to fight for something and move up in the rankings.”
It took more than an Olympic gold medal for Richard Schaefer to sign the six-foot-seven Yoka to his promotional outfit, Ringstar Sports. Schaefer liked what he saw in Yoka and was convinced he had the style, size, mettle and work ethic to conquer the most conspicuous division in the sport.
“He told me he wants to get fast-tracked and he wants to fight for a world title sooner rather than later,” Schaefer said. “There’s really no rush but if the fighter says, ‘hey, I’m ready,’ then who better to judge where he is than the fighter himself.
“Today’s group of amateurs who are turning pro are really almost more pro than amateur. These amateurs turning pro, after 10 fights, might very well be fighting for a world title. They don’t need to, like in the past, have 20 or 30 fights before they can fight for a title.”
Yoka lists two fellow Olympic gold medalists – Mohammad Ali and Lennox Lewis – as the two most influential figures in his career, citing their propensity to exact revenge on fighters who had defeated them. (Yoka’s son was named after the former). Ali vanquished Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and Leon Spinks in rematches and Lewis did the same to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman.
Style-wise, Yoka said his modus operandi is a hybrid of the two. He is speedy and mobile like Ali but can also plant his feet and punch with authority like Lewis.
“I want to be a world champion many times with many belts,” Yoka said. “My inspiration was Ali and Lennox Lewis. Ali was the greatest for me and that is why I got his style, skill and footwork.
“Lennox Lewis was world champion in the amateurs and Olympic champion. When he turned pro, he lost two times but he beat them in the rematch. And he left with his belts. When he stopped he was world champion so for me, he was the top of the heavyweights.”
As for the current heavyweight world titleholders, Yoka said, any comparisons would be analogous to trying to equate apples to oranges. Improvisation and versatility is his forte, he added.
“Deontay Wilder’s got a big punch and Joshua too,” Yoka said. “I don’t really have a favorite punch but I’ve got more skills than any heavyweight. I’m really fast and really insightful. This is what I am. Everybody’s got his own advantage.”
From a marketing standpoint, Yoka’s appeal outside the ropes is as broad-based as his skillset in the ring in this era of globalization. The quintessential cosmopolitan, he is approachable, articulate, photogenic and fluent in French, English, Congolese, Spanish and Italian.
“He’s very charismatic and he’s a great talker so he really has all the ingredients to not only become a champion but to really become a star of the sport,” Shaeffer said. “The heavyweight champion of the world is the global ambassador of the sport and he’s already an Olympic champion.”
Shaeffer envisions Yoka’s global conquest beginning in France where he has fought exclusively since turning pro and expanding his fan base from there.
“He can make a big mark in France which used to be a big boxing market but has died down over the last 15 years,” Schaefer said. “I felt with Tony Yoka, we need to go to battle and that he can spark the French market in a similar way that Anthony Joshua has sparked the British market.”
But Schaefer’s plan hit a snag when Yoka was banned for a year from fighting in France by the French anti-doping agency AFLD for missing three doping tests within the span of a year. The ruling was handed down on July 4, 11 days after Yoka’s last fight in Paris. Yoka is free to fight outside of France while the ban is in effect. At press time, Schaefer has not responded to a request for a comment on the setback.
Yoka and Mossely became national heroes for bringing home gold from Rio in 2016. But while their celebrity status might sell tickets in France, it has impeded their ability to raise Ali with the level of privacy they enjoyed before their Olympic success. In May, the budding family relocated to California’s Bay Area where Yoka is fine tuning his craft under veteran trainer Virgil Hunter.
“That’s why we came to the U.S.A, so we can have some normal time,” Yoka said, “My wife won the gold medal and I won the gold medal too. We needed to come here to chill a little bit, go to a normal restaurant and go to the supermarket because we can’t do it in France.”