Iraqi Boxer Trains with U.S. Team


Another participant in the technical training camp is Iraqi boxer Najah Ali Salah. He earned a wild-card berth in the Summer Games, making him Iraq’s sole competitor in the event and one of about 25 athletes who will represent the country in Athens.


The 24-year-old Baghdad native is the son of a well-established boxer and trainer. His dad got him involved in the sport at a young age. Despite the difficulties of being an elite athlete within the late Uday Hussein’s sporting system, Ali has won a number of bouts and titles. His most coveted prize is a 2002 victory at the Arab Games, but he would like to add a gold medal.


“From the beginning, my dream was to compete in the Olympics,” Ali said. “Now I am doing it and I am very glad to represent my country. … I want to say thank you to the United States. The people love me and support me.”


Ali graduated from Alrifdin University in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. After the conflict with Coalition Forces ended that year, he went to work on reconstruction projects with his father. It wasn’t long before Ali heard of Maurice “Termite” Watkins, a former world-class boxer from Houston who came to Iraq as a pest exterminator, only to be recruited as the nation’s head boxing coach.


“I had a chance encounter with a British officer who liked boxing and wanted me to train him,” Watkins said. “Within days I was training some of the Coalition personnel. Word spread from there and the senior adviser for the Iraqi Ministry of Youth and Sport arranged a meeting. They asked me about the chances of putting together a boxing team for Iraq and qualifying for the Olympics. I told them it would be one in a million and they said, ‘That’s fine – all we need is the one; we’re not worried about the million.’”


Watkins gathered support and resources, including funds from Saddam Hussein’s assets, to create some semblance of a suitable boxing gym -- still disheveled by international standards. He rounded up the nation’s best-known fighters and recruited others rumored to have talent. Watkins said his efforts to resurrect the sport in Iraq put him on the list of targets identified by insurgents opposed to the American presence.

“I was willing to risk it because I believe so strongly in freedom and opportunity,” Watkins said. “It has been an honor and a privilege to coach Najah. His dad not only helped him develop his boxing skill, he made a great human being out of him. He is a good quality person who really symbolizes Iraq.


“If you believe what you see and hear from the media, Iraq is bad. That’s bull. What you don’t see are the 2,000 to 3,000 schools operating there, or kids running down the street with backpacks that have USA on them. There may be 10 percent who are bad, but that’s true of anywhere. Most Iraqis are wonderful people and it is a pleasure to know them.”


After the Olympics, Ali plans to go to Watkins’ home state of Texas to get his master’s degree at the University of Houston.



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Updated: June 14, 2004