Boxing: Iraqis fight all odds on Olympic road

Ubdelzahia Juraid knew the ring was gone before he found the hole in the earth, he knew that his boxers had lost one of their last links with a normal life. He heard the rockets, the mortars, the guns and the sounds of fury that destroyed the boxing club in Hillah and he felt, not for the first or the last time, a sense of personal loss.

It was six months before Juraid, one of two Iraqi coaches in London this week, started to work with his boxers again. There was nowhere to train, no equipment and the ongoing death and struggle in Iraq occupied his mind. "Boxing was important to me and important to all of the boxers for many, many years but then all of the upheavals and deaths take over. Survival is important and boxing has to stop," he admitted.

Fifteen days ago Juraid, two other coaches, a translator, an Iraqi boxing official and eight boxers drove south from Baghdad heading for the Kuwaiti border. They travelled in an innocent convoy with the blessing of the governing coalition and their destination, with a bit of help from the people behind London's 2012 Olympic bid, was the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre. The type of crumbling wreck that Saddam Hussein himself would have been proud of.

At the border "Special Forces" stopped them and five of the boxers, the man from the Iraqi Boxing Federation and a coach were detained. Apparently, the seven fit the profile of various wanted men.

The remainder of the Iraqi national boxing team travelled on and arrived in London late last week: Three boxers, two trainers and a translator. A few days ago - it is not entirely clear - the seven men stopped at the Kuwaiti border were released after eight or nine days of detention. This weekend they will all be together in London and able to prepare for an Olympic boxing qualification tournament in Pakistan next week.

When the boxing convoy arrived at the border with Kuwait there was one man missing and that was by choice. Ten miles behind the boxers, in an unmarked car, was an American called Maurice "Termite" Watkins and he is the reason that Iraq has a boxing team.

At first Watkins appears to be yet another quiet American from one of the many mysterious agencies that operate in foreign countries. His profession is listed as pest controller, which is like a bad joke, and he has been in Iraq for over a year ridding American bases of pests like spiders, rats and cockroaches. He has a crewcut, loves God and the American flag. However, Watkins is genuinely a pest controller and in 1980 he lost on points over 15 rounds for the World Boxing Council light-welterweight title against Saoul Mamby on the same night that Larry Holmes stopped Muhammad Ali. His family business back in Houston is pest extermination; his ring nickname was Termite and last November he decided to save Iraqi amateur boxing. There is no secret to the Termite, no dark side. "I never travel with the team because that would increase the chances of them getting killed and they are already at risk because of me," admitted Watkins.

Last November, after some assistance from a British colonel called Steve Bruce, 24 of Iraqi's best amateur boxers gathered at a makeshift structure in Hillah for the first of many pre-Olympic training camps. "Some of us had not boxed for two years or even three. Boxing had stopped being part of our life and then word spread that a team was getting together and people started to get excited," said Zuhair Zuterklarer, the welterweight hopeful in Pakistan next week.

At the first session most of the boxers were cautious but Termite had also found some Iraqi coaches, including Juraid who had boxed at the Moscow games in 1980, and with a translator he started to work closely with all of the survivors. There was a lot of talent but they had all lost their competitive edge, they were all weary from six months of conflict. "When the fighting was starting I just kept away, stayed in my house and just waited for it to end. I knew it would end, it had to end. I waited and waited," said Najah Salah, the light-flyweight.

The boxing team was one of Uday Hussein's little pet projects and there are stories, there are always stories, that defeats in international contests led to reprisals. The present Iraqi amateur boxing team, the group gathered in London, just nod and shrug their shoulders whenever they are asked about the alleged acts of violence. They were paid a small fee from the government to be boxers and represent Iraq and apparently none of the boxers ever had to join the military. It is an odd but strangely believable tale.

I ask if any of the boxers or officials have had deaths in their families and both Juraid and Termite laugh at me. It is, they tell me, a stupid question. "Everybody has deaths. Everybody. Under Saddam or during the last year, death is death," said Juraid.

However, none of the 24 boxers that arrived in Hillah last November have been killed. Termite came close a few weeks ago when he was sleeping in a tent in Baghdad and a shell went off less than 100 metres away from his bed. "I did what thousands of Iraqis have to do every night when the artillery is falling: I prayed the next round would miss me," admitted Termite.

In February and March, Termite took eight boxers to the first two Asian Olympic qualification tournaments which took place in China and the Philippines. Nobody qualified but Termite believes that one or two could secure an Olympic place in Pakistan and, if that fails, there is a promise of a wild card entry for Athens.

At the Fitzroy Lodge gym in Lambeth on Tuesday night Zuhair completed his few rounds of sparring and was tired. "This is hard, this is what we need if we are to go to the Olympics. My dream since I was a small boy has been to go to the Olympics and win glory for my country, it is what I want for my family and for the new Iraq," said Zuhair. If he receives the wild card he will go to Athens, led by Termite with Juraid at his side and the new Iraqi flag high above their heads on a balmy August night in the Olympic stadium. That would be a picture, an unimaginable picture just six months ago.

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