The road ahead for Fatfat and Samarrai would be much easier if Iraq were infested with more Termites—men like Maurice (Termite) Watkins, that is. Watkins, a onetime boxer who grew up working in his family's pest-control business in the Houston area, was hired by a U.S. contractor last year to exterminate insects at U.S. Army bases in Iraq.
CPA officials heard that the 47-year-old Watkins was a former fighter who had turned pro at 17, gone 58-5-2 in several weight classes and even fought for the junior welterweight title in 1980. Knowing that the Iraqi boxing team was in the same state of disrepair as its training facility in the capital, the CPA challenged Watkins to build a team. He made the 280-mile trip from Basra, where he was working, to the Baghdad training facility. The ring was made of plywood, and the fighters trained in whatever clothes they brought from home. The team hadn't fought outside Iraq in more than two years, and some former members had vanished.
"We got together the guys we could find, took them to a soccer field and told them to start boxing, without headgear or mouthpieces," Watkins says. "They just started duking it out, and in less than a minute, blood was all over the place. I saw we had a little talent and a lot of heart."
Watkins moved the team to Hilla, a town about 90 minutes south of Baghdad, because he could get a better building there to train in. But the streets of Hilla are so dangerous that the team's grueling running program is confined to a small warehouse. Twenty-four boxers made the trip to Hilla, and nine have dropped out, leaving Watkins with too few fighters to spar in all 12 Olympic weight classes. Those who have stayed, Watkins says, have started to learn the art of the sport. "Mr. Termite has taught us so much," says Najah Salah, 24, a light flyweight. "He has taught me not just to swing but to get points. He wants us to be proud of our country. It makes me so happy when he walks through the door."
When he enters the Hilla training facility, Watkins chants at the top of his lungs, " Iraq... Iraq... Iraq is back!" Before long, every fighter, coach and trainer within earshot is jumping up and down, chanting along. The slogan has been emblazoned on T-shirts, hats and pins procured by the CPA for Watkins to give out as he and the team travel through the country.
"We really are back," says middleweight Zuhair Khudhair. "We're back to freedom, back to the world, back to living."