Unusual circumstances lead to former U.S. boxer becoming Iraqi coach
Posted: Tuesday June 22, 2004 1:14PM; Updated: Tuesday June 22, 2004 3:11PM
Maurice "Termite" Watkins, a Houston car salesman-turned-bug man, is booked for a gig at the Athens Olympics. Even more unbelievable, Watkins, who first set foot in Iraq a year ago, will strut into the opening ceremonies under the red, white and black flag of Iraq.
His is the kind of tale Hollywood loves, and will no doubt smartly buy. You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried. You have a "Termite" character signing up as an independent contractor to assist Coalition Forces in Iraq in eradicating disease-carrying pests and snakes from military bases. Once on the ground in Basra, the story goes, word spread about the exterminator being a former pro boxer. And not long after, the 47-year-old was brought to Baghdad as coach of what remains of the Iraq national boxing team.
"Termite" is an infectious, tireless promoter who begins each day in the gym chanting with his fighters: "Iraq is Back, Iraq is Back ... Iraq is Back!" In his day, he turned pro rather than wait out a spot on the 1976 Montreal Olympic team. He strung together a 58-5-2 record and landed a WBC junior welterweight title shot in 1980, losing a 15-round decision to Saoul Mamby.
So we're talking about a pretty tough bug man. And if you're an American hanging around Iraq these days, you better have no fear.
As for Watkins' Iraqi boxing team, well, that's another story. Most days, approximately 13 fighters train at the team's headquarters in Hilla, the mostly Shiite city 90 minutes south of Baghdad. But the only Olympian is Najah Ali, a 106-pound flyweight who received a special wild-card invite to the Athens Games.
The odd Watkins-Ali tandem, joined by a couple of wrestlers and Iraqi sports officials, set up shop last weekend in Atlanta for the Titan Games. Ali came in chatting up his dream to win a gold medal in Athens, only to drop two fights by decision in the pre-Olympic festival. That's hardly a punishable offense these days back home, though by the sounds of things, it would have drawn a good butt kicking, if not worse, under the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Ali, 24, never had his feet canned or endured the jolt of an electric prod, but he, too, heard the stories of under performing athletes being tortured."I was lucky then to win," Ali says in fluent English."I was afraid for myself and family in Iraq."
Some of the Iraqi athletes and officials who were in Atlanta, however, told of having experienced first-hand the intimidation and torture by Hussein's late son, Uday, who ran the former Iraqi Olympic team with a goon-squad mentality.
Any way you look at it, Greco-Roman wrestlers Ahamad Weali and Ahmed Jassim couldn't have been tortured because of underperforming. They returned home from the 2000 Arab Championships in Syria with silver and bronze medals, respectively. The problem is another member of the squad went AWOL and didn't return to Iraq, so the triumphant wrestlers were punished with the rest of the travel party.
"They called all the team together after we returned," Weali said through an interpreter."Told us we were to be rewarded. Then, we were all taken to a prison -- shaved all our hairs, hit with belts and chairs . . . electric shock."
Watkins, the old boxer, says this is a sugarcoated version. It was worse, much worse. He's seen the pictures Uday and his underling took after the some of the beatings. It's stuff that brought a tear to the tough Texan.
When they were beat, it wasn't a spanking. They were beaten to where blood would run down their back. If they weren't lucky, they'd be killed.
So here's a real shocker -- Iraq's modest sports fortune eroded under Uday's abusive reign. The talent pool dried up. Fewer people gave a damn about sports. Parents of kids with some talent began steering them away, fearful of their catching the brutal eye of Uday & Co.
"These people are having to rebuild the structure of sports," Watkins says."The athletes you see now are the ones that had guts. There is about a 10-year gap behind them where there are no athletes. They had absolutely no incentive to go for sport, because if they didn't do good they may get killed. Families may be raped. Families may be murdered. Their families may be beat."
That isn't to say life in post-war Iraq is paradise. The ongoing military operation still faces deadly resistance and explosions remain a near daily occurrence in places like Hilla, where the boxers have been in training since last fall.
Watkins says he's been told al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups have targeted him, and he's been warned by officials in Pakistan and Jordan to not to leave his hotel when traveling with the team. He constantly worries about his athletes. At the training site in Hilla, four off-duty police with AK-47s are routinely stationed in and outside the building.
"People like al-Qaeda -- the bad guys we call them -- they like to mess up a good thing," Watkins says. "When I first went to Iraq, I didn't know what I was getting into. However, once I got the opportunity to meet these good folks of Iraq and surrounding countries, they showed me that they are no different than we are, except they have a lot of love. Ninety percent have big hearts. They will take you into their homes and feed you. Just some of the kindest folks I ever met in my life."
Of course, the young boxers say the same of people like "Termite" who have stuck their neck out. And even the U.S. Olympic Committee, plagued by its share of scandals recently, makes a nice impression in opening its training centers in Marquette, Mich., and Colorado Springs, Colo., to Iraqi athletes.
So maybe there is more to international sport than doping scandals and corruption.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.