Submitted February 18, 2002.
Ouma, Lubwama victorious; "doing it for Uganda"
By Carl Bialik
Philadelphia -- "I'm doing it here for Uganda, for the whole nation."
In a cramped dressing room at the Arts Palace in Philadelphia, crowded with well-wishers, trainers, friends, boxing legends and hanger-ons, a victorious Kassim Ouma (15-1-1) on Friday took a few moments to express his love for Uganda, his homeland, and his desire to go back.
Four years after defecting from the Ugandan national team to stay in the United States and go pro, junior middleweight Ouma had just defeated Michael Lerma (24-7-1) in a unanimous 10-round decision. While he did not dazzle, neither did he disappoint. And all in the dressing room could sense that Ouma's current path would lead him to a championship bout within a year.
His thoughts were on the big things in his future, but also on his past. "I miss Uganda," he told The Monitor. "I've got no beef with the people there."
Ouma still longs for his home is in Uganda, but the home of his boxing future is in Philadelphia. In November he signed a three-year, 12-fight deal with Peltz Boxing Promotions, Inc., a company based in Philadelphia. So while Ouma lives and trains in West Palm Beach, many of his future fights are likely to be here.
The Arts Palace is named rather whimsically. Housed in the Gershman YMHA and in atmosphere much closer to a gym than a palace, the "palace" is named for the Avenue of the Arts. The art on display there is purely of the boxing variety.
And the crowd in attendance was well-versed in this art. Many current and former boxers watched the eight fights on the card and talked knowledgeably about jabs, hooks and uppercuts.
This crowd solidly supported Ouma before, during, and after the fight, making him feel welcome in his new boxing home. He reciprocated, donning Eagles and 76ers clothing after the fight and professing his appreciation for the Eastern U.S. because of his roots in Eastern Uganda.
Ouma's Ugandan roots and his new ties in the U.S. are often entangled. The public address man introduced Ouma to the crowd before the fight with, "from U-gan-da, it's Kassim Ou-ma," punctuating each syllable to emphasize the exoticism of Ouma's name and home (on a similar note, the official program identified Ouma's home as "Uganda, a small nation in eastern Africa.") But then, as Ouma lifted off his shirt to reveal the chiseled physique beneath, the crowd was suddenly exposed to an etching on Ouma's back that read, Goldenpalace.com. In a very American gesture, Ouma had taken sponsorship money from the online casino company to have its website magic-markered onto his back.
Then there is the matter of his background. Ouma has given numerous interviews with the U.S. press in which he described being abducted by President Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Army in 1985, at the age of seven, to overthrow Milton Obote.
An article that appeared on the day of the fight in the Philadelphia Daily News was entitled "Ouma fights to save son in Uganda." In the article, Ouma says his son Omar, 4, is still in Uganda and lives in danger of being abducted by rebel groups.
The natural storyline goes like this: Ouma has had to fight for his own survival, and now he's fighting for his son, which makes him a fierce competitor. In the fight's official program, Ouma's coach Johnny Bumphus, former junior welterweight champ, says, "He goes into the ring like it's survival, which it actually is."
But on Friday, Ouma positively strutted into the ring. Rather than looking like a man fighting for survival, he looked like a man at a party. Ouma sported a big, confident smile while waving his fists and shaking his body to music that must have been playing in his head. The crowd screamed in adulation, and Ouma soaked it in.
If anything, one of the main weaknesses Ouma must overcome to have a shot at the title someday is his tendency to not fight like his survival depends on it.
Max Kellerman, studio analyst for ESPN2, the sports cable network which aired the fight, thinks Ouma has the requisite talent of a champion. However, "if he does start to dominate a fight, he tends to decelerate," Kellerman told The Monitor a few hours before the fight. "He is capable of scoring a knockout, but based on his past performance, he tends to just take his foot off the gas."
Yet this is not the worst weakness to have, Kellerman points out. Discipline can be acquired, while natural talent cannot. "There's something interesting about watching him," Kellerman said of Ouma. "There's reason to believe he has a high ceiling for his potential."
Kellerman's analysis proved to be spot-on. In the first two rounds of the fight, Ouma was dominant. Lerma is 28 and simply lacks the youthful vigor and punching speed of Ouma. This fight threatened to be over within six minutes of fighting.
Ouma knocks down Lerma with fast and furious punches in the first round - a wicked combination of a short right hook and a straight left behind the ear dropped his opponent. Yet Ouma's cockiness started to cost him even this early in the fight, as he let his guard down long enough for Lerma to land some punches. Lerma is three inches taller than Ouma, and with his long reach he can inflict some damage.
Still, Lerma was clearly outclassed early. In the second round, Ouma dropped Lerma again. The ref didn't separate the fighters well, so when Lerma started to get up, Ouma hit him again. The crowd, so solidly behind Ouma until then, let out a small boo. Ouma, remorseful, mouthed, "I didn't mean it."
A man fighting for survival doesn't mouth apologies to a boxing crowd. And this crowd showed no ambivalence; while they did not like cheap shots, they did want to see Ouma, the superior fighter, finish the match quickly, which he should have. After Ouma's second knockdown of Lerma, many in the crowd yelled, "finish him off!"
But Ouma did just as Kellerman said he had done before: He decelerated. Lerma, so close to defeat in the second round, fought off Ouma's more tentative feints in the third and fourth. In the fifth, he seized control. Ouma stumbled, the crowd surged, and it seemed one more solid Lerma punch would finish Ouma off. Lerma released, Ouma nimbly ducked, and he returned a quick combo. His athleticism saved him. But at the end of the round, the shocking had happened: Lerma had won a round. He turned to his corner and smiled. Ouma gamely waved his glove in a victorious symbol at his corner, but he had to know he had just let the fight slip out of his control.
For the latter half of the fight, Ouma remained clearly the superior fighter. Yet he barely held his own. Ouma seemed to do just as much as he needed to stay alive in the fight. He fought for survival, but not for the kind of ultimate victory that is demanded by boxing.
Maybe Ouma was simply too nice. He and Lerma seemed to be best friends in between rounds, and sometimes during. After getting tangled up, the two would tap gloves and back off.
By the 10th round, Lerma had done enough to make the fight close, but he knew he was behind on points, and his only chance was a knockout. And Ouma knew the same, so he stayed low, stayed standing, and when the final bell rang, he knew he had won the fight.
The crowd wasn't as sure. With Lerma standing toe-to-toe with Ouma in the last rounds, fans said to each other things like, "It was probably a draw." "It was probably six rounds to four." "Who won?"
Ouma did. The judges scored it 98-90, 97-91, 98-90.
Ouma was happy. He danced with the same cocky smile and dance with which he entered. Lerma was smiling as he congratulated Ouma at length, but Lerma's face surrounding the smile was pocked with welts from the quick blows he took from Ouma.
It was a victory, but not as convincing as it could have been. While well-wishers and friends told Ouma how well he had done, the professional opinion was a bit harsher.
Tim Witherspoon is a two-time heavyweight champion. He is also a close friend of Ouma's. Boxers and boxing writers seem to be drawn to Ouma, his captivating story and his impressive skills. But Witherspoon also knows Ouma needs to do more. While Ouma was telling reporters that Lerma is "a tough fighter, I give him credit," and congratulating himself for winning a "hard match, Witherspoon said, "That fight wasn't hard, you made it hard."
Witherspoon added, "He trains hard, harder than anybody I know. He's strong, he's ready. Now he's got to go to school. He's got to learn some things."
Lerma was impressed. He visited Ouma's dressing rooms and the two exchanged praises unlike most men who had just attempted to knock the other out for 30 minutes. "I didn't know there was anyone as tough as me," Lerma said. "I think he's ready to fight for a championship."
But Bumphus wanted to take things more slowly. He said he was "very disappointed. I thought Kassim would knock him out. He trades too many punches."
Bumphus thinks Ouma remains on track for a title fight this year, but he said Ouma's next fight, likely in April, will be against an easier opponent.
Kellerman is a little skeptical of Team Ouma's approach. "Why, when you’re stepping up, why are you taking exclusively guys who have lost their last couple of fights?"
But after this fight, it is clear Ouma could use more grooming before he is ready to face top challengers in his weight class. So he will continue to march ahead toward his goal of a championship, albeit slowly. And maybe his compulsion to merely survive will eventually become an imperative to dominate.
As Ouma's post-match cool-down continued, his one-time mentor James Lubwama entered the room, victorious. Lubwama's trunks bore the grandiose title of "The African Express," but his fight was an afterthought on the night's card. As Ouma and Lerma left the ring, the fans, TV crews, card girls, even the banners took the express route out of the arena. So the undefeated Lubwama, who captained Ouma when the two fought for the Bombers of Uganda, and who is nine years older than his protege, fought before a miniscule crowd.
Still, Lubwama (12-0) was glad to be fighting at all. His four-round technical knockout of Jameel Wilson (10-2-2), in which he outworked Wilson but did not greatly impress with technical proficiency, was his first bout in 13 months. "Seven fighters have canceled fighting me," he said. "They're all afraid." Lubwama is ranked No. 21 in the supper middleweight class, and he and Bumphus hope he will someday headline a Friday Night Fight.
For now, though, he remains in the shadows of his young friend, who is the real focus of attention in the dressing room. And finally, Ouma's duties were done. He had fielded all the autograph requests, answered reporters' questions, toweled off his sweat and listened to Witherspoon's harsh, candid assessments. Now Ouma was ready to get dressed and celebrate his victory and the promise of his boxing career. This reporter, too, was ready to close up the notebook and call it a night.
But before he could, Ouma turned to him and said, "I have one more thing I want you to tell the people back in Uganda."
His last words before moving on to post-fight partying were full of the ambivalence he feels for Uganda - his love for the people, and his resentment of the government.
"I want to send a shout-out to the UPDF boxing team. Tell them to keep working hard. I want to see them win a championship," Ouma said. "Tell the national team to keep it up, to keep working hard. And tell the government to treat them right."Copyright © 2002 Carl Bialik
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