A New Ali Forges His Own Path
Witnessing Naseem Hamed’s HBO debut, 17 years ago in Madison Square Garden, an eight-year-old Sadam Ali felt like he had been struck by lightning. The brash young champion was an epiphany Ali believed was showing him everything the future could hold. Ali sat transfixed, a spectator to Hamed’s seizure of an usually laissez-faire New York audience, enthralled by the athletic gifts, charisma and shared Yemeni-Muslim background on display. From that point forward, Ali worked tirelessly to emulate Hamed’s accomplishments – though in a more understated way – fashioning himself into a reasonable, early facsimile of Hamed. As a teenager, he matured into a highly decorated amateur boxer, becoming the first Arab-American to represent the United States at the Olympic Games. Now Ali is excited about the opportunity to pay homage to Hamed’s electrifying HBO debut, opening HBO’s “World Championship Boxing” telecast (10:45 p.m. ET/PT) for the highly anticipated Bernard Hopkins-Sergey Kovalev clash tonight.
Born in Brooklyn, Ali is a proud, first-generation American raised by Yemeni-immigrant parents with four sisters and a brother. Spurred into action by Hamed, Ali excelled at the Bed-Stuy Boxing Club, earning the gym two prestigious New York City Golden Gloves titles. He found success on the national level as well, winning a Junior Olympics medal, one National PAL and two National Golden Glove titles before claiming a bronze medal at the World Amateur Championships. As importantly, Ali restored local pride by becoming the first New York City boxer in two decades to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic boxing team. Constantly breaking new ground, as a professional, Ali took the route less traveled again, refusing to succumb to outside pressures and sign with a promoter out of the amateurs, working his way around to the boxing industry’s sometimes-archaic business structure to finally land an opportunity on HBO.
A trait Sadam Ali shares with Naseem Hamed is unshakable self-belief. When faced with contract offers from promoters he deemed unsuitable, Ali rejected them instead of “settling” in his first act as a professional boxer. Ali decided to remain a free agent and build up a respectable record, appearing as a special attraction on cards from Main Events and other area promoters, who hoped to eventually sign him. Afterward, Ali obtained a promotional license, aided by his father, Mahmoud, who does much of the paper and legwork. With that, Ali became the youngest boxing promoter in America at age 23. Ali waited four years after turning pro to sign with a major promoter in 2013, landing with Golden Boy Promotions, who helped smooth over the often-rough political path with the sanctioning bodies that remain one of boxing’s biggest hurdles.
When it comes to evaluating himself, the 26-year-old sometimes falls in line with the hyperbolic strategy his idol Hamed employed. Though it should be noted, in the verbal department, Ali seems more self-possessed than boastful while giving interviews this week, “There is no limit for me. I just want to keep going and going. This is the biggest fight of my career and I just have to be on my A-game.” New promoter Oscar De La Hoya shares the high hopes of his protégé, “We’ve watched Sadam develop over the years and he’s, without a doubt, a young man with the potential to win several world titles. He brings excitement in the ring and has a huge fan following. We’re confident that he has the tools to become a star on both the local level fighting in his hometown of Brooklyn as well as around the world.”
This fight could see Sadam Ali graduate from rising prospect, at 20-0 with 12 stoppages, to legitimate contender if he defeats the toughest opponent of his career. Luis Abregu is a power-punching Argentinean whose only setback was to pound-for-pound entrant Timothy Bradley and clearly represents the sternest challenge to Ali’s still-evolving skill set. During interviews, Ali seemed almost too respectful of Abregu’s power. “Abregu is not someone you should overlook or underestimate. He has power in both hands. He gives you a lot to worry about in the ring because of his tremendous power. I worked on defense a little more than usual in training camp; I think anyone who fights Abregu should.” Any misstep against Abregu sets Ali back immeasurably in the eyes of suspicious television networks and sanctioning bodies.
On paper, this fight presents an even match-up with Sadam Ali an inch shorter, at 5’9”, but owning a one-inch reach advantage over Luis Abregu. Ali is four years younger than the 30-year-old Abregu but this could be seen as an advantage for Abregu who sports 85 more rounds of professional experience against higher caliber opponents. Most worryingly for Ali supporters, this is the first real test of Ali’s skills as a pro and comes before his biggest audience. Two reasons why Ali is considered by many to be the underdog, which he seems to be comfortable with. “I’m the underdog now, which I’m not used to being. I have a tough opponent and I think a lot of people are underestimating me. Everybody is entitled to their opinion and I honestly like being looked at as the underdog. I want to be underestimated, that way you’re going to be surprised by what I bring to you.”
Not surprisingly, the rugged Abregu is preparing himself for a full-frontal attack, hoping to force Ali to engage him in a war of attrition, “I know he is a boxer who had a very good amateur career. I plan to give the fans their money’s worth and I will fight very hard. I hope that he will do the same so that everyone enjoys the fight. I’m hoping that after the fight, the real winner will be the fans.” Ali seems ready to oblige, with an important caveat based on what he perceives as his superior ring intellect, “I’m going to fight a smart fight. It’s definitely going to be exciting; that’s just the way I am. I want to excite the fans and I want them to want to see me again. I know Abregu is coming to fight too so it’s going to be beautiful.”
Given the importance of this fight to both men, it was good to see the duo showing mutual respect while sharing the same stage for a good cause when Ali and Abregu hosted a charity event at the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City as part of the promotion. Whether it is the small platform of a local Boys & Girls Club or the world stage HBO provides, Sadam Ali feels he belongs and does his best work when the pressure to perform is raised to maximum levels. “I’ve been growing up watching HBO and watching the most famous guys shine and I’ve always envisioned myself in that position. I want to be in everybody’s eyes and I want to be known as something special; that’s very important to me.”
By investing in himself (Ali owns his own boxing gym) and waiting for the right time to ally with a major promoter, Ali has visions of surpassing Hamed and becoming the Arab-American version of Oscar De La Hoya. “This fight is definitely a bigger step-up than people thought I was going to take but after I win this, I will prove a lot of people wrong. Everybody needs to take this kind of step if they want to be special and I want to be special. I know I am special.” Yes, Ali is aiming high but, to date, he has risen to meet his lofty ambitions. Naseem Hamed would be proud.