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ATHENS 2004

Iraqi Boxer Wins His First Olympic Bout

Najah Ali adds to his country's triumphs with a win over North Korea's Kwak Hyok Ju.

August 19, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — A year ago, Najah Ali was trying to survive in the chaos of his native Iraq, hoping to earn a degree in computer science while the world exploded around him. The Olympics weren't even in his universe.

Wednesday evening, he was standing in the ring at Peristeri Olympic Boxing Hall, his arm raised in victory after his first Olympic match. A light-flyweight (106 pounds), Ali had beaten Kwak Hyok Ju of North Korea, 21-7.

"I don't know how I find myself here," he said.

Simple. He stepped out of the rubble of Baghdad, walked into a gym where Maurice "Termite" Watkins, a former lightweight contender/pest-control operator/used-car salesman was telling the local populace that he was looking for one fighter he could train for the Olympics and Ali declared himself the one.

Ali had fought as an amateur, under the tutelage of his father, before exchanging his gloves for books.

Sound like a corny movie? Watkins is thinking movie, book and mini-series.

Watkins has lots of stories:

* How he gave up selling cars to go to Iraq to work for a private contractor as an exterminator.

* How he specialized in removing snakes that menaced U.S. troops.

* How he saved the lives of two fellow passengers in a fire after the transport vehicle he was in, containing 60 gallons of fuel, flipped over in Iraq "while going 125 miles an hour."

* How he was blown across a tent by an exploding mortar shell.

Ali's eyes sparkle, though, when he speaks of Watkins, whom the Iraqis have named Abdullah "Termite" Hussein.

"He killed me," Ali said of the training regimen he followed under Watkins, "but he loves me."

Indisputable among Watkins' many tales is that, about a year ago, he began gathering the remnants of the Iraqi boxing program to find an Olympic-quality boxer.

"I was told there was a one-in-a-million chance of getting a fighter to the Olympics that quickly," Watkins said. "Great, I figured, I don't need a million. I only need one."

Ali told him, "Watch me. I will be your one."

Ali stood out among his Iraqi counterparts but he didn't fare so well in Olympic qualifying tournaments, losing all three shots he had to get to Athens. But thanks to a wild-card exemption granted to his country, Ali was given a spot. He then trained for six weeks with the U.S. team before Wednesday's match.

"I'm a symbol for my people," Ali said after the match. "All of [Iraq] knows I am here. If I could win a medal, I would consider it a victory for Iraq."

*

Two of the three U.S. fighters advanced. Super-heavyweight Jason Estrada of Providence, R.I., won a 30-11 decision over Ma'afu Hawke of Tonga. Heavyweight Devin Vargas of Toledo, Ohio, beat Rachid El Haddak of Morocco, 27-7. Light-flyweight Rau'Shee Warren of Cincinnati became the first U.S. fighter ousted when he lost to Zou Shiming of China, 22-9.

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