Two men entered the ring for their first professional fight. Then something went wrong.
By DAN BARRY
MARCH 27, 2016
In the Other Corner
DEARBORN, Mich. — The amateur boxer slept. Huddled in the passenger seat of his family’s sport utility vehicle, he rocked in slumber as his father drove out of Dearborn, then south and east around Lake Erie, verses from the Quran intoning softly from the speakers.
Now and then the boxer would rouse long enough for a snatch of small talk. But soon his eyes would close again, and he would sleep through the December blur of Rust Belt towns and rust-colored fields, right to the edge of the Ohio city where he was to fight his first professional fight.
This was Hamzah Aljahmi, 19, the oldest child and best friend of the man behind the wheel, Ali Aljahmi. The disabled-parking permit dangling from the rearview mirror hinted of the father’s middle-age worries, but no matter how bad things got, he knew that he could always confide in this beautiful man-child beside him, sleeping now to the rutted-road rhythms.
How could he deny his son’s passionate dream to box his way to fame and fortune? To become the pride of Dearborn? Of Yemeni people everywhere? This was Hamzah’s destiny: to make his professional debut at a Christmastime boxing event called Season’s Beatings.
Hamzah’s father had followed a different path. Born in Yemen, he had immigrated to Brooklyn, left high school without graduating — joked around too much, he says — and begun a life of manual labor. Store work. Factory work. Lifting and moving.
He gravitated to Dearborn, the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company, where two-fifths of the nearly 100,000 residents are Arab-American: Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Yemeni. Here are the Henry Ford museum and the Arab American National Museum, plants that make the F-150 truck and restaurants that make fahsa, a seasoned lamb stew that is shared with others and scooped with torn pieces of flatbread.
A mural on a building in Hamtramck, Mich., near Aljahmi’s Dearborn home, reflects the area’s Arab-American culture.
Now Ali Aljahmi was the married father of five, disabled by a job-related injury and living in a working-class neighborhood, a block from a massive factory. But he was an Aljahmi, a member of a fiercely proud extended Yemeni family with deep roots in two cultures. The Aljahmis, the Eljahmis, the Algahmis, the Aljahims — all there for him, and he for them.
Above all, he was there for Hamzah, his elder son, the boxer.
Years earlier, when the family was living in Detroit, three kids ganged up on skinny young Hamzah Aljahmi. The boy held his own in the mismatch, prompting an onlooker to give grudging respect: Your son is one tough character.
Sensing a purpose in life, Hamzah began training with one of his idols, Brian Mihtar, a prominent Yemeni-American middleweight boxer known as Brian the Lion, who compiled a 13-1 record, with 10 knockouts, before suspending his career in 2010. He took a liking to this fledgling boxer, who showed both talent and heart.
“Like a brother,” Mihtar said.
When Mihtar closed his gym, Aljahmi and his father searched the Detroit area for someone who could make the boy pro-worthy someday. They eventually chose Mohamed Hamood, or Coach Mo, a muscular former Marine with a shaved head who builds houses to support his family and his boxing fix.
The amateur’s determination and focus impressed Hamood. The boy had phenomenal hand speed, an ability to slip punches, and surprising pop for a flyweight. But his tendency to fight with his chin up often left him dangerously exposed; it was almost as if he were daring to be hit.
Still, Hamood said, “a very hard worker — very hard.”
Hamzah Aljahmi fought more than a score of amateur matches, winning most and learning from all. Turning pro became his obsession, his father said: “All the time, his mind go to the boxing.”
He admired the ferocious boxers of Yemeni blood. Sadam Ali, the tough welterweight from Brooklyn. Mohamed Adam, the young superfeatherweight from Dearborn. His former coach, the Lion, Brian Mihtar. And, of course, Prince Naseem, whose image even served for a while as the wallpaper on Aljahmi’s smartphone.
True, the young man had other interests. He attended prayer services. Doted on his mother and younger siblings. Abided high school, barely. Kept girls at a safe but friendly distance. Worked at a Tim Horton’s doughnut shop and then at the American Coney Island restaurant, serving hot dogs smothered in chili and onions.
But it was boxing that defined him. He craved cranberry juice, shunned bread and spent most of his spare time in Hamood’s gym, in Dearborn Heights, working out, sparring with heavier partners, itching to fight for a living.
“He was bugging me to go pro when he was 17,” Hamood, 55, recalled. “And I’d say, ‘Let’s take our time.’ ”
Some friends and relatives approached the inherent violence of Aljahmi’s passion delicately, occasionally suggesting that he give up the ring. Others accepted that he knew who he was, and admired him for it. He talked of becoming champion and parlaying his hard-won fame in a way that would help others in need — in war-ravaged Yemen and beyond.
Remember when he helped to collect clothes for Syrian refugees? And somehow persuaded his father to donate his three favorite coats?
Remember that saying he used to repeat? “You laugh at me because I’m different; I laugh at you because you’re all the same.”
Mohammad Yacoubi, 19, a classmate of Aljahmi’s and one of his closest friends, shrugged in mock surrender while trying to explain the young man’s charms. He had no enemies, he was respectful to his mother and father, he loved his siblings, and he was loyal to his friends.
“Just a special kid,” Yacoubi said.
Opportunity came in early December, when Coach Mo Hamood struck a deal to have Aljahmi fight in Youngstown against another amateur who was also turning pro. “He was ready,” Hamood said of his young flyweight.
Aljahmi girded for the day. After telling his father that a door had opened, he posted a photograph on Instagram of his application for a Michigan boxing license, along with a note sharing the date of his debut fight — “DECEMBER 19th” — and asking people to come support him.
“Alhamdulillah.” Praise be to God.
Making Final Preparations and Planning to Celebrate
As the S.U.V. approached the outskirts of Youngstown, some three hours after leaving Dearborn, Hamzah Aljahmi stirred into consciousness. Looking around, he said that it was his turn to drive.
His father laughed but surrendered the wheel.
Father and son headed to the prefight weigh-in at a government building in downtown Youngstown. The younger Aljahmi’s yes-sir-no-sir manner impressed the director of the Ohio Athletic Commission, a retired police officer and former referee named Bernie Profato — so much so that Profato told him, win or lose, “You’ll be welcome back in Ohio anytime.”
Photographs of Aljahmi and his father, Ali, with his recent high school diploma on the wall of the family living room in Dearborn.
After the weigh-in, Aljahmi joined his coach and the two amateurs from Dearborn, including an 11-year-old with a preternatural punching ability, for some carbo-loading at a Carrabba’s Italian restaurant, not far from their rooms at the Red Roof Inn. Aljahmi had pasta with cream sauce.
Before the night was over, the eager boxer posted one last photograph of himself on Instagram. Big smile. Throwing a right fist at the camera. “Ready for 2mrw fight night everyone keep me in ur prayers inshallah,” he wrote.
If Allah wills it.
The next morning, Aljahmi and his father ate breakfast at an IHOP — eggs and turkey sausage for more weight gain — then returned to the hotel for a short rest and the long wait. Since the next day would be the father’s 51st birthday, the two Aljahmis talked about getting a cake.
“Win and we’ll celebrate twice,” the father promised.
With the time drawing near, they drove with Coach Mo and his two young amateurs to the half-century-old community hall of Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church, on Youngstown’s west side. Joining them were four friends who had driven from Dearborn in a cramped two-door Toyota.
Down in the hall’s chandeliered basement, where curtains separated boxers from the opponents they were about to meet, young Aljahmi chatted away as his coach prepared him for his debut.
While Aljahmi sat with his arms propped on a white towel draped over a chair back, Coach Mo wrapped his boxer’s hands in protective gauze, carefully, almost clinically. He then slipped eight-ounce gloves over those hands and tied the strings. Finally, to cut down on the rudeness of leather against skin, he applied petroleum jelly with his fingertips to the unlined brow, the fresh cheeks, and the chin too often left exposed in the rashness of youth.
There was one last detail. With his first professional fight just moments away, Aljahmi still had no nickname. But if his opponent — a short fighter he had seen when the curtain between them suddenly opened — was calling himself the Tiger, then how about something just as feral? How about the Lion?
A protective entourage — his father, his coach, a few friends — escorted Aljahmi up the basement steps and into the parquet-floored auditorium, a Christmas-decorated bingo hall set up for a boxing event. Now here he was, for the night’s first professional fight, a four-rounder in the superflyweight division.
Aljahmi in an Instagram photo from December.
In red-and-white shorts with matching red shoes, the dynamo from Dearborn. The pride of the Yemeni-American community. His father’s best friend.
Hamzah “the Lion” Aljahmi.
A Sudden Shift in Mood After the Opening Bell
Before the first bell, Aljahmi had told Coach Mo that this was his time. I’m ready, Coach, he had said. Let’s get this thing going.
Now it was going, but not well. Aljahmi’s opponent was quick, active, and crouched so small that he made for a difficult target. The sight of their Hamzah being pummeled startled his friends, who had been harboring a more abstract understanding of what it meant to box professionally.
Then down Aljahmi went, tagged by a powerful left. His opponent had capitalized on the weakness that Coach Mo had been working on: the “boxing no-no,” he called it, of leaving the chin exposed.
“It felt like a movie when he went down,” Aljahmi’s friend Mohammad Yacoubi said. “He had gone into that ring like a superhero.”
A few seconds later, Aljahmi went down a second time, forcing Coach Mo to make quick assessments. His young boxer was more “wobbly” after the first knockdown, the coach later said, after taking a punch that was “right on the button.” But the second one?
“He had a little wobble,” he said. “But he can go.”
Aljahmi did bounce up quickly. He adjusted his trunks — as if recalibrating body and mind — and went back to work. Becoming more aggressive, he delivered a hard left that had his opponent backpedaling.
Then, while trying to avoid a swing that seemed to hit more air than flesh, Aljahmi fell against the ropes. He might have simply tripped, but it was not an impressive way to end the first round. Two knockdowns and one stumble.
He returned to his corner charged with energy.
What did I do wrong, Coach?
“Hamzah, your chin is way up in the air,” Hamood recalled saying. “And your right hand is down.”
Aljahmi went out to own the second round, exploiting his opponent’s fatigue and blocking out the shouts of a Youngstown crowd eager to see this out-of-towner fall. When the bell rang, he all but ran back to his corner after leaving his weary opponent on the ropes.
“Great job,” Coach Mo told Aljahmi. “Let’s keep doing what you’re doing. Use your jab. No need to wrestle with him.”
Aljahmi looked at his clutch of friends in the seats, smiled, nodded his head — and returned to the ring to follow his coach’s instructions exactly.
Round 3 repeated Round 2. Although his opponent tagged him quickly with a left from nowhere, Aljahmi answered with a hard right to the chin.
“There he goes!” Yacoubi, Aljahmi’s friend, shouted.
Soon another Aljahmi right found purchase.
“There you go! There you go! He’s tired! He’s tired! Hamzah, he’s tired!”
This was true. Aljahmi’s opponent was still recovering from having fought so aggressively in the first round. His own coach was shouting for him to push through it — which he did, briefly, during a late-round flurry.
The bell rang just as Aljahmi uncorked one more punch. A little late, it seemed, but clearly accidental. He tapped his opponent’s chest in apology.
Coach Mo gave Aljahmi water and applied more petroleum jelly, that translucent touch of protection, to his eyebrows, cheeks and nose. “We need this round,” the coach said, as if to make clear to his boxer the tossup closeness of the fight.
I got you, Coach.
Aljahmi then leaned over, found his father in the crowd, and shook his right glove in a gesture that seemed to say now is the time. Now.
He was so jacked up on adrenaline that he hurried to the center of the ring well before the bell. The blue-shirted referee had to nudge him back a step or two, while his coach called after him that he was the toughest kid he knew.
“Go get him,” Coach Mo commanded.
The two superflyweights gave it their all, each determined not to lose his professional debut, as the crowd urged them on.
“Give him one, Hamzah!” Aljahmi’s friends shouted. “There you go! More! More!”
“Get him, get him, get him!”
“Hamzah, get him! Hamzah, he’s done! He’s done!”
Then — a punch to their friend’s head. “Oooh!”
Aljahmi, who had been dominating, was suddenly backed into a corner by his flailing opponent.
“Get out of the corner!” a friend yelled. “Get out of the corner!”
Too late. Their superhero was squat against the apron, dodging swings, lurching forward, grasping to hold on to something unseen, then falling, drooping, legs not cooperating, arms down.
The referee stopped the fight, causing confusion about what had just happened. He tried to help Aljahmi to his feet, but the boxer could not find the strength. Panicking, Coach Mo rushed into the ring.
“Good job, Hamzah!” he said, mistakenly thinking the bell had rung. “Get up. You won the fight!”
I can’t. My knee. I twisted my knee.
He leaned back, or maybe fell back, onto Coach Mo’s shins.
Aljahmi’s father and friends had just been shouting that his opponent was “done”; now they were mute. A moment ago their Hamzah had been controlling the fight; now he was propped against his coach’s legs like a rag doll.
A dermatologist serving as the ringside doctor slipped under the ropes and donned surgical gloves. The Lion lay flat on the mat.
Then, Coach Mo said, “Hamzah closed his eyes.”