Boxing

Fearful Symmetry

img_3961-2

Femi Oyeleye arrived at Los Angeles International Airport last March, a dreamer in a sea of dreamers. He had nothing but his bags, a friend’s phone number, and a pair of really fast hands. Though he’d won 166 fights as an amateur and won gold at the All Africa Games the previous year, petty internal politics had deprived him of his rightful spot on the Nigerian Olympic team at the Rio Games. He knew it was time to pursue his future in the professional circuit.

Femi is six feet in height–he’s tall for a junior middleweight. He’s also a southpaw. And it doesn’t take a Cus D’Amato to glance at Femi and his amateur record and conclude that he checks a lot of the right boxes. Jackie Kallen, his current manager, takes it a step further. “I only manage people I believe can become world champions,” she told us.

So it can be hard to appreciate Femi’s situation at that airport on that day. When Femi first set foot in LA he did not have a contract with Mayweather Promotions, or a deal with a legendary manager, or a support system of any kind. Femi had only one friend in LA when he landed. And when Femi called that friend, he told him he couldn’t show up.

Though Femi’s story may be unique in its level of romantic desperation, his tale is similar to those of the thousands of young boxers who come to America to seek professional careers. For all the talk that American boxing is dead, dying, in decline, or just past it, the United States remains the top destination for international fighters. Gennady Golovkin, Sergei Kovalev and many other foreign boxers train in and around the Los Angeles area, the new American center of fisticuffs, so Femi had come to the right place. But other than looking for the acquaintance who ended up leaving him in the lurch, Femi was looking for one other person in particular. This person knew his father from the boxing community in Nigeria, but Femi did not have his contact information. He knew there was a fellow Nigerian who’d had a substantial career as a pro, and who ran a gym in Los Angeles. But that’s all Femi knew. Los Angeles, for all the claustrophobia of Judd Apatow movies, is a big place, and Femi had never even set foot in the USA. All he had was the man’s name.

8808788956_1b248f3a2d_z

The boy who would one day become Young Dick Tiger was born Charles Nwokolo in Lake Benin, Nigeria. Unlike Femi, who is one of seven boxing children who all picked up the sport around age five, Charles didn’t put on a pair of gloves until he was a teenager. Growing up in the home village of Dick Tiger, the man whose name he’d incorporate into his own nom de guerre, a middleweight contender in the 60s who fought landmark bouts against Emile Griffith and Rubin Carter, Charles had grown up wanting to be a soccer player. The turning point for him, the moment he knew he wanted to be a fighter, was in 1974 when he watched the Rumble in the Jungle on TV. It was Muhammad Ali’s courage and charisma that first attracted him to the sport.

Charles immediately found a gym in the village and started training. Just two weeks after setting foot in a gym, with only shadowboxing for experience, he’d won a local tournament. It was a heady, and auspicious beginning. Charles had found what he wanted to do with his life. And decades later, when he’d experienced many disappointments and heartbreaks, Charles would be known simply as Tiger, and he’d still be able to look back on that first tournament and smile.

In April of 2016, FemI Oyeleye, five weeks into his new life in Los Angeles, was not smiling. “I had nowhere to go,” he told TheLead in an interview. Thankfully he got a couple lucky breaks. It turns out there are good people in the world, and a cab driver had taken him to a friend’s hotel where he could stay for a couple of days. After some calling around Femi had then landed on a couch at a barber shop. The owner trained at a local boxing gym and was happy to help out an aspiring professional fighter (it helps that Femi is also one of the nicest people in the world). Femi spent five weeks on that couch plotting his next pugilistic takeover. “It was pretty hard,” he said in an interview. He spent his mornings running, and his days training at the gym and trying to get hold of anyone he and his father thought might help, including Tiger. “I called everyone I could, but nobody knew who I was. I just tried to stay positive.”

Femi’s father called Tiger from Nigeria, and another Nigerian fighter contacted Tiger and told him there was a Nigerian prospect he just had to see.

But Tiger wasn’t interested.

“Tiger had had some unpleasant experiences training fighters in the past,” Elizabeth Wilson, Tiger’s wife, said. “He was wary of taking on another stranger.”

Elizabeth had met Tiger at his gym in 2008. A Harvard-trained violinist living in Los Angeles, she was an unlikely person to step foot into a training ground for fighters. She was recovering from the loss of her husband just six months before, and her niece took her there because she “needed to hit something.” Tiger and Elizabeth connected when they discovered they had something in common: grief.

Tiger had lost his own spouse in 1997, and the shock of this had ended his boxing career. Over time Elizabeth learned the story of his fighting life: how he’d been robbed in the ’84 Olympics in typical Olympic boxing fashion, how he’d fought on in a brutal professional career after losses, robberies, mismatches and knockouts. There were great moments: Tiger had moved up in weight in 1995 to fight defensive mastermind Winky Wright, and a thrilling twelve-rounder against Yori Boy Campas. Tiger had kept plugging away, even when his career lagged and his matchmaking value was mostly as an opponent. He found he no longer had the will to keep fighting after his wife was gone. Completely devastated, he’d hung up his gloves and set about providing for their young son. When Tiger and Elizabeth had met, the former fighter was running a gym, but he had spent a dark period working odd jobs. In a sadly comic episode all too common for retired boxers, Tiger had worked as a busboy at a coffee shop; the other busboys, sensitive to the racial hierarchies of that industry, harassed the quiet, gentle Nigerian in their midst–until their employer told them Tiger had gone toe to toe with Winky Wright and Yori Boy Campas.

Despite the darkness of these times, Tiger had no intention of ever returning to the fight game in any capacity, that is, until he had a vivid dream of his late wife telling him to open a gym and train fighters. Tiger has a spiritual bent and takes such visions seriously–so he opened the Tiger Boxing Gym in 2006.

teameagle

When he returned to the sport, he had bad luck training other professional fighters. Some had quit, some had abandoned him for other trainers, some had chased Hollywood dreams and become waiters, some had disappeared into the night and never come back. Though he was sympathetic to Femi’s situation, he had no interest in guiding another undependable dreamer.

Elizabeth was the person who ended up convincing Tiger to give Femi a look.

The connection between playing violin and engaging in fisticuffs may seem tenuous, but both disciplines require a lonely, monk-like dedication to craft and a singleminded passion.

So they decided to pick up Femi on the way to watch an amateur match and let him stay for the weekend. In Elizabeth’s words, “he never left.”

“He was just so quiet and polite,” she said. “He’s really a very nice boy. ”

One of the first things you notice when talking to Femi is that he is indeed a nice boy. One thing he is not, though, is in doubt of his skills. “I don’t think Tiger realized how good I was,” he told TheLead, when asked about those early days with Tiger and Elizabeth. After a few days that probably looked like a wholesome family sitcom, they had a chance to see Femi spar. At that point Tiger and Elizabeth knew they had something special on their hands. “I don’t know a whole lot about boxing,” Elizabeth said. “But even I could see speed and charisma.”

What followed was a period of trying to get the word out.

One of the first things Tiger did was get Femi over to Wild Card Gym and have him spar in front of some of the major players in the LA boxing world. Elizabeth says there was “a buzz in the room.” In just a few minutes Femi’s situation completely changed. The tall, pedigreed southpaw from Nigeria wasn’t a secret anymore, and professional boxing was paying attention.

Tiger and Elizabeth were now the trainer and manager, respectively, of one of the hottest prospects in town. To move Femi forward in his career they needed to get him signed to a promotional company, and they had their sights set on the best.

Take a second and check out the Instagram page of Floyd Mayweather. You’ll see that he’s a busy man. Mayweather Promotions is one of the best outfits for a pro fighter, and Femi’s team had heard Floyd was interested. They spent the coming months trying to make it easier for the Pretty Boy to take a look Femi. The summer of 2016 played out for them like a romantic comedy. After several missed connections worthy of Craig’s List, Floyd was finally able to take a trip to Wild Card to see Femi spar with middleweight contender Vanes Martirosyan. He was immediately interested.

img_4334

But nothing goes smoothly in the world of pugilism, and Femi had a long way to go before he would sign with Mayweather Promotions. For whatever reason, the Money Team didn’t want to fully commit yet.

“I felt like a rabbit amongs foxes,” Elizabeth told us. “I floundered a bit at first.” It was during those months of stalled negotiations with Mayweather Promotions that she considered getting some help managing Femi. She knew that aside from the nuances of negotiations, they would also need need another voice when it came to matchmaking. She turned her thoughts to Tiger’s career. In his first four months of fighting in the U.S. in 1986, he fought four fights for a total of 42 rounds. There was a period in ’88 when he fought 80 rounds in eight fights within six months. Elizabeth knew that a different approach would be necessary for Femi.

As the publicist of Tommy Hearns and the manager of James Toney, Jackie Kallen made her mark on the sport of boxing long before Elizabeth met her at a concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 2009. Elizabeth had gotten a positive vibe from Jackie but had no idea that one day she’d be calling her to ask for help managing a professional fighter. But when Elizabeth realized she needed help, Jackie came to mind. It’s not hard to see why: in addition to being the only manager Elizabeth knew, Ms. Kallen is also one of the most savvy managers around, in no small part because she’d navigated it in the 80s and 90s despite being one of the only women in the business. “I thought that because she’d been an outsider, she’d be a perfect fit for us and our situation,” Elizabeth said.

As an added bonus, Jackie Kallen is also a Michigan native and an old buddy of Floyd Mayweather’s. She seemed to have the magic touch, and the contract with Mayweather Promotions was soon signed.

“Jackie made it happen,” Femi told us.

img_4664

So now Femi is in Floyd Mayweather’s stable of fighters and scheduled for his professional debut on December 2 at Sam’s Town in Las Vegas. He’s got an enthusiastic trainer who seems to be a match made in fistic heaven, two managers, and a place to live. Seven months before today, he was stranded at LAX with nowhere to go.

“I’d say Femi landed pretty well,” Jackie told us.

We’d say he did, too.

To Top