New promoter, new trainer, new Toka Kahn Clary?
One loss in any other sport other than boxing does not obliterate a lifetime of work or create irreversible doubt prompting derision from “fans.” Just one more reason why boxing may be the hardest sport in which to excel. Two years ago, Toka Kahn Clary was an undefeated prospect Top Rank was grooming as a future star. Then he walked into a punch, cold in the first round, that sent important people’s belief in Kahn Clary, 24-1 (17), into a downward spiral of doubt. Soon after Toka was released from his contract by Top Rank, leaving the featherweight alone to rebuild himself and restore a tattered reputation. It has been a hard road but the results of Kahn Clary’s hard work can be seen tonight (10 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network), when he faces rangy Mexican gatekeeper Emmanuel Dominguez, 22-6-2 (14), in a test of each man’s ability to overcome adversity.
At first sight one’s attention is drawn to Kahn Clary’s hard stare, that seems out of context for a fresh, young face. No doubt an involuntary defense mechanism built on the back of a hard life, an explanation for it can be found in the war-torn African nation of Liberia, where he was given the name “Toka,” which translates to “war child.” Kahn Clary escaped to America, at age five, but found no relief from death, as his father was killed on the streets of Philadelphia a year later. Kahn Clary didn’t sleep on a real bed until age 14, and, after a period of homelessness, found a hand up meeting Andrea Watson and Ron Clary. They frequented the gym Toka trained in, eventually becoming surrogate parents to the teenager. Kahn Clary admits, “I’d still have an angry part of me inside,” if not for the couple’s compassion.
The hard eyes remain but Kahn Clary has moved on and built a quality life for himself (welcoming a daughter six months ago) and, in a sign of gratitude to his adoptive parents, added the extension of “Clary” to his surname. An excellent amateur, unpaid record of 120-11, Kahn Clary fought elite national and international foes, winning medals at several tourneys. He topped out as an alternate for the 2012 American Olympic team. The southpaw turned pro with veteran trainer Peter Manfredo Sr., who has been in his corner from the first day, enamored by the “phenom” who walked through his door, “Toka is the best I’ve seen at our gym in 35 years and I’ve seen a lot of fighters. He has speed, skill, tremendous combinations and a big heart.”
The rebuilding of Kahn Clary has become a team effort since signing with Hall-of-Fame heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield’s promotional company Real Deal Sports & Entertainment last year. Thanks to the new ties, Kahn Clary has moved his training camp from Rhode Island to Los Angeles. There he is joining forces with Freddie Roach but keeping Manfredo Sr. as his chief second in the corner. They are building on a multidimensional platform, as Kahn Clary can box or brawl but admittedly has not used a stiff jab enough. Speed is his most valuable asset, both of hand and foot, which translates into stinging two-fisted power. The problem, as with most prospects seeking contender status, is reliance on reflexes that breeds lack of head movement and lackadaisical defense.
This gets us to Kahn Clary’s one setback, a first round stoppage at the hands of Filipino sparkplug Jhon Gemino, which Kahn Clary still has a hard time explaining, “The punch happened so fast; I did not have time to react to it. He landed a lucky shot while I was squared up with my hands down.” Recognizing an excuse when uttered, Kahn Clary made things clearer, “I take nothing away from him that night; however I know I am the much better fighter and I will prove that.” There were signs previously. In his 10th fight, versus Ramsey Luna, Kahn Clary was dropped twice but showed heart, fighting through the adversity, winning a 57-55 decision on all three scorecards.
Listening to Kahn Clary at the press conference, his one loss has produced the desired effect, “I am an extremely hungry fighter right now because I know I am not where I need to be in my career. That loss set me back and I need to make up for lost time. I not only need to win but I need to do it in convincing fashion, in order to prove to everyone that my loss was a fluke and that I am ready to become a contender in my division.” To better himself, and see what it takes to become a champion, Kahn Clary has sparred with former and current world champions Gary Russell Jr., Javier Fortuna, Rau’shee Warren, Joel Diaz and Chris Algieri.
Kahn Clary was a major signing, a three-year promotional contract, for Real Deal Sports & Entertainment, a fairly new promotional company. Kahn Clary chose them in hopes they will focus attention on him, so as not to get lost among a large stable of prospects, “There were promoters who wanted to sign me. I decided to go with Holyfield and his company because they wanted to showcase my talents by putting me on television, and promised to keep me as active as possible, with potentially five fights a year. He also has a great relationship with fighters and is always looking out for their best interest.”
A somewhat bitter-sounding Kahn Clary vented about his previous promoter as well. “Holyfield represented a major difference from what I was used to with Top Rank. Top Rank never gave me the bouts that I was contracted for; they never put me on television and they rarely had me box on the East Coast, where my fan base was located.” Then declared he is concentrating on the future instead of the past, “I wanted to impress Evander, letting him know I belong in his stable.” If Toka Kahn Clary is worried about Holyfield’s belief in him, he needn’t be, “Toka may be our first world champion. He’s a very disciplined person who has been through a lot. I come from the ghetto but, when I heard his story, wow, I couldn’t believe his (life) was harder than mine.”
Kahn Clary is happy to fight in Atlantic City and be near his fans, though Holyfield is aware of and warned of pitfalls, ”There’s a lot of pressure fighting in a big fight for the first time at home. I remember my homecoming in Atlanta, back in 1985, and there were a lot of distractions. Everybody who knew my name showed up, most looking for free tickets. I was skeptical about ever fighting there again. Everybody’s different, though.” Peter Manfredo Sr. believes Kahn Clary is up to the task, “Toka is a top prospect who is becoming a contender. This fight is a major opportunity to get him closer to where he wants to be. He wants to be a legend. He has to remain focused because this is the first time he’ll have a big crowd behind him.”
To avoid distractions Kahn Clary has removed himself totally and letting his management deal with ticket requests, “This has been a long, hard training camp. I’ve been pushing myself 10 times harder than usual, with no distractions other than missing my family.” It has worked out well, “All I do out here is concentrate on boxing. (Freddie Roach is) working on me being in total control in the ring; it always helps to add a new move here and there. He’s not changing my style, just sharpening my tools.”
After a grueling six-week training camp in California, Kahn Clary is declaring himself ready, “I will become a world champion because I have the heart, ability, determination and work ethic that no one else can match. I feel like since I’ve been boxing, I’ve grown to love the gym and love the people around me. That motivates you to keep boxing but stay around those people because they’re positive people.” This sport, which can tear weaker people down, is the steel that sharpens Kahn Clary’s blade. “Boxing opened the door for me; boxing’s an opportunity to be good at something where I can do things for my family. Boxing isn’t easy but it is the path I’ve chosen.”