Amir Imam’s first chance may be Don King’s last
From the mid-1970s into the early-2000s, Don King was the Tyrannosaurus Rex of boxing, terrorizing or devouring everything in his path, whether it be a fellow promoter or boxer who refused to sign with his firm. Now King is just another boxing dinosaur holding on to his last vestiges of prestige. One of the few assets left in his stable of fighters is New York contender Amir Iman, a powerful junior welterweight King believes will morph into a new Felix Trinidad, helping King out of his current state of anonymity. Returning King to relevancy is a big task; the undoubtedly talented Iman certainly has the look of a future champion, given his athletic frame and recent run of results but has yet to show the kind of force of personality to engender crossover appeal. Judge for yourself on tonight (10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on Showtime), when Imam takes another step up in competition, facing Mexican power-puncher Fidel Maldonado Jr. as the television opener for the Bermane Stiverne-Deontay Wilder heavyweight title bout.
Reducing Amir Imam to a pure athletic package is foolish. He was a talented amateur in the deep New York circuit, registering a 98-14 record and winning five consecutive New York State Golden Gloves titles, topping out as a silver medalist at the 2011 U.S. Olympic Trials. After losing to Errol Spence Jr. at the Olympic Trials, Imam turned pro, strengthened by the knowledge that his power-based style is more suited for the pro arena. At nearly six feet tall, Imam is an extraordinary physical specimen for the 140-pound weight class, whom you can’t help but compare to Thomas “Hitman” Hearns on a superficial level. Imam has stopped 13 of 15 opponents but more importantly, he looked better as the level of opposition has increased, spurring Imam to higher levels of concentration. King sounds convincing when he says, “Amir Imam is a great kid and a very exciting fighter. I think Amir is going to be the next ‘Tito’ Trinidad. He can both box and punch and he is going to be a bad man. I want a title for Amir and this fight with Maldonado is en route to that.”
Television coverage is the best way to shorten that route, which Imam got more of last year, appearing on ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights.” Before that, he impressed in two outings on the “ShoBox” series that has a reputation for forging future champions by matching them tough. In his Showtime debut, Imam eviscerated former National Golden Gloves champion Jeremy Bryan with a right cross, one of 10 opponents who failed to make it out of the first two rounds. Followed that up by knocking undefeated Jared Robinson clear out of the ring and survived some rough early moments against former Cuban Olympic bronze medalist Yordenis Ugas last year. What impressed veteran observers in the Ugas fight was Imam calmly dealing with early adversity and his ability to employ a plan-B by timing and countering Ugas instead of overpowering his foe (as Imam usually does).
Imam believes 2014 has prepared him for a showcase fight against Maldonado and the 24-year-old is eager to start 2015 with the understanding that he needs to give an impressive performance. “This is by far the biggest fight of my career and I’ve got to show the world what I’ve got,” Imam said. “I know that Maldonado is a southpaw and he comes forward and throws a lot of punches. I plan on boxing the kid for 10 rounds but if the opportunity for a KO comes, then I will go get it. I’m not letting anyone take this opportunity away from me. I have worked too hard for it.” Imam’s first instinct to box is well advised, as his chin could be challenged by a rough-edged Maldonado who sports 16 stoppages in 19 victories.
A sign of Don King’s lack of influence is that Imam is only ranked in one sanctioning bodies top 15 (#8 by the WBA), so Imam needs to turn heads on this high-profile card to secure rankings with the WBC, IBF and WBO. If not, Imam has already scouted WBA interim champion Jessie Vargas, informing BoxingScene.com writer Ryan Maquinana after his win against Jared Robinson last February that he feels ready to take down Vargas. “I’m just cut from a different cloth. I only have a few fights but I fight like a guy with more experience than my opponents. I can outbox Vargas. I’d digest what he can do. I plan on becoming the champ by the end of this year.” Perhaps math is not Imam’s best subject but is his year to fulfill all that potential?
It’s a view that is probably shared by Imam’s trainer Stacy McKinley, who is best known for his work with heavyweight champions, helping to train Mike Tyson, Michael Moorer and Ray Mercer. McKinley refused to take any questions about future opponents during the the last press conference, giving his full attention to the task at hand. “Maldonado had a great amateur background; he’s very smart and he’s a very good fighter. It’s going to be a great fight.” Though McKinley did admit Maldonado has one advantage entering the ring. “Maldonado’s fought a better class of fighters than Amir but never fought a fighter like Amir and most have not.” McKinley then gave a succinct reason why Maldonado would not be able to deal with Imam’s skill set. “He’s not strong enough for Amir and Amir will walk straight through him.”
McKinley has witnessed Imam walking through opponents in sparring and live fire fights, just as he did with Mike Tyson and Ricardo Mayorga in their various incarnations. He told Fightnews writer Robert Coster that Imam compares favorably with anyone he has trained. “He’s one of the best prospects I have ever trained. What I like about this young man is that he is so well-rounded, the perfect boxer-puncher, combining skills and lethal power. He does not waste punches and chops down his opponents in a methodical manner.” At the teleconference to announce the Imam-Maldonado fight, the last sentence McKinley left with writers was, “Amir will be Don King’s next superstar.”
Many superstars, especially in Don King’s stable of legends, have great nicknames and Amir Imam may fall in that category for some (honestly, it has not sunk in with me yet), sporting the sobriquet of “The Young Master.” Unique for sure and so was the way Imam came by the unusual moniker. “I got that nickname when I first turned pro. My coach talked about fighters back in the day and I learned about Joe Gans, ‘The Old Master.’ I’m young, so they put ‘young’ instead of ‘old.’ I take that name with pride and I showed it in the ring. I took what Ugas had and I was a master out there.”
Yes, Don King’s is running out of chips to extend his stay at the boxing poker table but one of the few aces the aging Hall-of-Famer still has up his sleeves is Amir Imam. In a sense, Imam is lucky that Don is no longer the king of promoters. In the past, talented boxers got lost in King’s vast stable of boxers, not getting the full exposure for which he was renowned. Now, Imam is sure to get King’s full attention since, other than Bermane Stiverne, King has no other world champion. Let me put it another way; euphemistically speaking, Don King knows where a lot of the bodies from the past are buried and can raise Imam’s stake at the poker table by calling in gambling chips from the past to elevate who could be his final star.