It isn’t often I’m lost for words, but after reading former cruiserweight champion Ola Afolabi’s retirement message today, that I was.
It’s a first hand account in a boxer’s own words of what it really means to be a professional fighter through the voice of a fighter, that was handed little opportunity, with little advantages afforded to him when starting out.
Perhaps it’s best summed up by the man himself at the end when he enthuses:
“Life gave me lemons and I turned them into a fucking chocolate milkshake!”
For anyone even remotely interested in the sport of boxing, I implore you to read the following extract written today by Afolabi (composed on his birthday as it happens). It will be worth it. Trust me.
It reminds this Irish writer why I love writing about this special sport, that is boxing, which is lucky to have genuine once off human beings involved in it like Afolabi.
On behalf everyone at Boxing News and Views I’d like to wish all the very best to Ola Ofolabi for the future in retirement, and in whatever he chooses to do in the next stage of his life.
(Note: we have not edited the below and the following is in the words of Ola Afolabi):
“Around 16 years ago, I was hungry and partially homeless when I stumbled into a boxing gym in Hollywood, out of all places. With no prior training or experience in boxing, I decided to give it a go.
At the ancient age of 20, I worked hard every day. I would deejay in a shady club on some days, and on other days, I’d work as an overnight receptionist at a student hostel in exchange for a bunk bed in a shared room of six foreign students.
I would then hit the gym with barely enough sleep to spar with world champions like James Tony, Francois Botha, Julia Gonzales and other experienced up and comers. I did this for two years before getting discovered in 2002 by my managers, Victor Martinez and Pedro Rosado. These two amazing men fed me and housed me, and for that, I will be forever thankful. R.I.P to Pedro who recently passed away. I wish he was still around so we could all sit down at dinner and reminisce, and laugh about my career.
In 2002, I had my very first fight. It was a 4-rounder, but by this time I had been sparring up to 12 rounds.
I was so nervous. I remember thinking, “What if I lose? What if these people, especially my managers, discovered that I was a fraud? I’d be homeless and hungry again.” I had been going toe to toe with the likes of James Toney and others, but I went out there and drew with an average fighter. Still today I’m pretty sure I lost but got the draw.
Three years later, I took a fight against a comeback veteran and ex-world champion who had just drawn in his last fight against the current world champion. He had a record of 57 wins, 9 losses and 1 draw. I had a record of 10 wins, 3 draws and 1 loss. I took the fight with one week’s notice and I was just supposed to be his tune-up fight leading to his rematch with the champion.
I ended up knocking him out in the seventh round.
After this, no one would fight me and I went three years without a fight. If it wasn’t for my managers, training clients and becoming a sparring partner, I wouldn’t have made it. Meanwhile, while making a living sparring, I suffered a detached retina in my right eye, then I suffered an injury to my fourth cranial nerve which left me with permanent double vision. My injuries was also coupled with the fact that I didn’t fight from the age of 25 to 28. This means I missed my prime as a boxer. The years I was supposed to do my best work and feel my strongest were lost.
Three years later and I receive a call asking if I would fight a young up and comer with the record of 11 wins, no losses and 10 wins by KO. He had knocked out a young ex-world champion in 50 seconds. He was a killer.
By then, my weight had ballooned up to 245 lbs. which was 45 lbs above my fight weight. With no other option and being the first offer in three years, I took the fight with four week’s notice. I lost the 45 lbs. within those four weeks and went on to knock him out in the tenth round. At the age of 29, I hadn’t totally missed all my prime years, just the best parts of it.
Soon after that fight, I got another offer for a tune-up fight in Manchester England. About a week before the fight, I was having my last sparring session with a little-known heavyweight at that time named Tyson Fury. During that last session, I suffered a detached retina in my left eye. Two days before the biggest fight of my career, I was in an emergency room having surgery on my eye. The surgery was successful but I wasn’t to have physical contact for at least two weeks.
Two days after the surgery, I was fighting a guy with a 29 and 1 record with 23 coming by way of KO. I knocked him out in the ninth round and became the interim world champion. A few months later, still at the age of 29, I got the chance to become a full world champion.
I had to fight in Germany for the first time. I remember being in the locker room, having déjà vu of my very first fight. Again, I thought, “What if I am really a fraud? I’ll go back to sparring and training people for a living. If I lose, I’ll retire. I’m making $175,000, the most I had seen at that point. Don’t worry, you’ll have enough to start a decent life with.”
I went out there and lost by a close decision, a fight that I thought might have been a draw. I accepted the loss as he was the champ, and to become the champ, you have to clearly beat the champ. I didn’t, so I lost.
Right after that loss, I got lucky enough to sign with the Klitchos and Tom Loeffler from K2 Boxing. For the first time and almost at the end of my prime, I’d have someone looking out for me, and I’ll be fighting more often. The fights didn’t get easier or harder but they kept me active.
In 2011 while sparring Vladimir Klitcho in preparation for his fight with David Haye, I badly tore my right shoulder muscle which popped out my shoulder. I went on to fight the UK world champion and even in the locker room while warming for that fight, my shoulder popped out again. I didn’t tell anyone as I couldn’t afford to pull out of the fight. I went out 20 minutes later and knocked him out in the first round with the sweetest right hand I had ever thrown.
They wanted me to have surgery to fix my shoulder but that would have meant having to be off for a year. I couldn’t afford that in my 30’s because it may have been the end of my career. I chose therapy instead. Since then, I re-injured my shoulder at least 2 or 3 times during every training camp for the rest of my career.
Two years later, I was 32 years-old, and possibly in the last year of my prime, I fought Huck again in Germany. More confident and more active, I won the fight and became a full world champion. However, because of home cooking it was called a draw, robbing me of my dream.
A rematch was ordered but I had to wait a year. Boxers get old overnight. I was 33 now. With one year of rust from not fighting and a busted shoulder, I ended up losing the rematch.
I kept fighting and picked up the IBO world championship in the Mecca of boxing, Madison Square Garden!
At the age of 35, I got an opportunity to fight for the WBC world title, thanks to K2 Boxing. I gave up my IBO belt for this fight. On the way to the fight, we went through Mexico where I got Montezuma’s revenge from the water. Unaware of my sickness, I was completely dehydrated from going to the toilet at least 40 times in the two days leading to the fight. I lost the by decision. Seven months later, I had to fight an Olympic gold medalist with a record of 24 and 1 in order to get the belt I had given up back. I knocked him out in the fourth round.
Defending my belt against Huck set me up for my last fight.
Less than a month away from my 36th birthday, I was never a devastating puncher, I was just tricky and with good reflexes and timing. When you get old, the first things you lose are timing and reflexes. Although I tried my very best and worked really hard, I lost the fight.
This is why I have to wrap it up. I have always been a realist. Boxing has been painful, but it has also brought me so many positives that outweigh the negatives. I see my idols like James Toney and Roy Jones with damages like slurred speech and balance problems still fighting in their 40’s for 100k or less. These are guys with talents and status I could only dream of. If it can happen to them it will definitely happen to me. I will not let it happen to me.
The only regret I have not fighting at least ones in either of my own hometown. #Lagos/#London
I accomplished more with no experience, help or protection than most fighters with all the advantages in the world did.
So after two retina surgeries, double vision and a bad shoulder, I must say goodbye to #boxing at 36 years-old. I have enough money to live on, so I’ll get out while I can and still live a healthy life and be smart with money.
Thank you so much to everyone that helped and supported me on this long hard road.
“Life gave me lemons and I turned them into a fucking chocolate milkshake!”
(Top image credit: WBO Boxing)
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