Have a conversation with junior middleweight
contender Kassim Ouma and you'll find yourself hesitant to bring up boxing. It's
not that "The Dream" discourages talk about his fights or ring future.
Conversely, he'll shoot from the mouth long enough to convince you that he's not
only a punch machine, but a quote machine as well. Nor does his demeanour
suggest a sullenness or sharp edge that makes him difficult to approach, a la
Mike Tyson on a bad scare day. In fact, the good-natured Tim Witherspoon, who
co-trains the southpaw, said of Ouma:
"It's the first time I've bumped into a guy
who's as happy as I am." It's just that when you consider where Ouma's been and
what he's been through, boxing seems so trivial. If this guy had any more
baggage, he'd be a jumbo jet carrying 300 vacationers across the pond. Like Anna
Nicole Smith, the junior middleweight division is changing shape before our
eyes. Moving up from welterweight, Vernon Forrest is coming, and moving up to
middleweight, Oscar De La Hoya is going. Winky Wright is hot, and Shane Mosley
is not. Fernando Vargas remains a player, but physical problems have shelved him
for now. Then there's Ouma, who has been defeating contenders and fringe
contenders for the better part of four years.
"If anybody has paid his dues, it's Kassim,"
said Dino Duva, who promotes Ouma with Russell Peltz. "There's not another
number one ranked fighter who's fought as many contenders." If Ouma's will is a
way, there's no doubting or denying him. If you're not familiar with Ouma's
history, you're not going to believe what you're about to read. If you already
know about it, you're wondering why somebody isn't turning his story into a TV
movie. The seventh of 11 children, Ouma grew up in Uganda, where his parents
were farmers. At the age of seven, he was kidnapped from school by the National
Resistance Army, which was in the process of overthrowing the government. By the
time he was 10, he was carrying a gun and a hand grenade and situated on the
front lines. Crying for his mommy no longer seemed appropriate.
More than once, Ouma tried unsuccessfully to
escape. As you might imagine, those who recaptured him were not particularly
sensitive to his emotional insecurity. Now 25, he knows there's no point trying
to escape the nightmares. "I can't get it out of my memory, so I have to let it
slide and keep going," Ouma said in reasonably good English. "Sometimes I get
bad dreams where I'm in the war. And when I wake up, I think I'm home." The home
Ouma refers to is not West Palm Beach, Florida, where he now resides with his
five-month-old son Oundo Rahim, but rather Uganda, where his daughter Alima,
nine, and son Umaru, eight, still live.
He hasn't seen them since they were infants.
His handlers are writing boxing-friendly Senator John McCain in an effort to
facilitate the relocation of the children to the USA. There's a good reason Ouma
can't visit them in Africa: In 1998, he defected to America during a trip with
the Uganda national boxing team. Political unrest continues to haunt Uganda, and
if there's a temptation to ask what might happen if Ouma returned home, the urge
is negated by the knowledge that in 2000, his father was beaten to death. "I'm
waiting to become a world champion," Ouma said. "Then I'll call the president
and see what he thinks of me."
After defecting, Ouma ended up virtually
homeless in Washington, D.C. At one point, he was evicted from a shelter because
he had no Social Security number. "I knew that if I could find a boxing gym, I'd
be okay," Ouma recalled. Sure enough, he met a boxing manager at a Mark Johnson
fight and ended up at the Alexandria (Virginia) Boxing Club. Soon after, he was
asked to spar with Zab Judah in Florida, where he's been situated since. "I
didn't have a childhood; I grew up as an adult," Ouma said. "When I first came
here, I thought about going back, but I knew I'd either be killed or go to jail.
It was a difficult decision, but I decided to stay.
"The adjustment was difficult, but I had always
loved America. [In Uganda] I called myself `Americano'. I had a Chicago Bulls
jacket and wore my pants low at the waist." Now his aim is to keep those
trousers up with a championship belt. The wonder of the story doesn't end with
the birth of Ouma's boxing career. He turned pro in 1998 and went 11-0 before
suffering his only defeat to date, a first-round KO at the hands of Puerto
Rico's Agustin Silva, who downed him three times. Silva was 10-16-1 going in,
and followed his win over Ouma by losing eight of his 10 subsequent starts.
"Can you skip over that?" Ouma said with a
laugh. "I'd like to fight him again … with one hand." Ouma's hot run started in
2000, when he stopped fellow prospect Alex Bunema in four rounds. Five months
later came a points win over Uzbekistan's Kuvanych Toygonbayev, who was 12-0 and
has since established status as a fringe contender. Ouma took that fight on
seven days notice. The streak continued in 2001, when, over a nine-week period,
Ouma decisioned a still-useful Tony Marshall and top-10 contender Verno
Phillips. Against the former, Ouma threw 953 punches and on one card, won every
round. Versus the latter, Ouma triumphed by close but unanimous decision. Over
the first three rounds, he averaged 123 punches. Phillips connected with the
harder shots throughout, but in the ninth, Ouma dropped the veteran with a hook
to the body, and at the final bell was the much fresher fighter.
But remember, this is Kassim Ouma's story, and
marching to the world title by defeating a handful of world-class opponents
would be a bit too conventional. In December 2002, Ouma engaged in an argument
with a co-worker. A few days later, he found himself in the hospital, the victim
of a drive-by shooting. Segments of his intestines were removed in surgery. (At
trial, his "friend" was acquitted.) "I said to him: `You suck,'" Ouma recalled.
"I don't think that's something to get shot
over. "I saw myself on the news the next day. I figured my boxing career was
over. I was ready to start over. I was going to fly to Hollywood and become a
movie star." Instead, he became a boxing star. Only six months later, Ouma
engaged in an IBF eliminator against rugged Angel Hernandez, who would challenge
for the world title later in the year. So much for tune-ups. The numbers would
suggest that Ouma won easily; he threw 1,190 punches and landed 374 — to just
144 connects for his opponent. But the 12-round decision was split. In most of
his fights, Ouma applies the pressure. Against Hernandez, however, he was
repeatedly forced to the ropes. "I feel I beat him all the way, inside and out,"
Ouma said. Rather than wait for a championship bout, Ouma kept challenging
himself by challenging others.
In August '03, he stopped Pernell
Whitaker-conqueror Carlos Bojorquez, and in January '04, he halted fellow
contender J.C. Candelo in the 10th round of yet another IBF eliminator. And
before you assume that Ouma is rolling on a smooth track, consider that while in
training camp in Pennsylvania last year, his car flipped over during a
night-time drive. The fighter emerged without a scratch. As is the case with
most volume punchers, the 5ft 8ins Ouma, 19-1-1 (13 KOs), isn't going to remind
anyone of his countryman, highlight-film KO artist John Mugabi. But against
Candelo, he was the muscleman. Well-conditioned pressure fighters are always
difficult to deal with. Add the fact that Ouma is an awkward left-hander and
he's a puzzle that's nearly impossible to solve. At the end, Candelo was broken.
"With Kassim, you never know what you're gonna get," said unbeaten middleweight
prospect Daniel Edouard, who spars with Ouma in Florida. Ouma doesn't want to
wait one more single day for his title shot — nor should he be made to do so.
But as is the case with many of today's
contenders, he remains a work in progress. Enter Witherspoon, who has joined
former junior welterweight champion Johnny Bumphus as co-trainer. (Bumphus, who
was a southpaw, has trained Ouma from the start, and when Kassim first moved to
Florida, they roomed together. Ouma is co-managed by Tom Moran and Jim Rowan.)
"When I was first starting, I sparred every day for a year and a half with Randy
Mack, who was a southpaw," Spoon said. "So I know how to fight a lefty. One
thing I can teach Kassim is to stay away from [his opponent's] right hand. You
have to stay away from the right side of your opponent, move to the right, keep
your left foot moving to the outside, and keep your left hand up.
"All we need is a camp for six weeks and Kassim
can get the job done. He doesn't need more time. You put a monster in front of
him and Kassim is gonna kill him." Winky Wright is the unified champion of the
junior middleweight division — but not for long. In all likelihood, he'll have
to relinquish either the WBC title (he must defend against interim champion
Javier Castillejo) or the IBF crown (Ouma is now the mandatory). If Winky elects
to face Castillejo, or if he opts for a big payday against Mosley or Felix
Trinidad, Ouma would presumably fight the next highest-ranked fighter for the
vacant IBF title. That's Verno Phillips, whom he defeated almost three years
ago. "They're all going to run away and go to middleweight," Ouma said. "Vernon
Forrest and Fernando Vargas would be interesting fights. "This is my year." If
you want to bet against Ouma, you'd be wise to do so with someone else's money.
As his story continues to unfold, it's become apparent that boxing isn't so
trivial after all. In fact, it's become Ouma's identity. Hollywood will have to