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MaxBoxing, December 11, 2003

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Whole Lotta Soul: Tokunbo Olajide's Got It



Don’t make the same mistake I made and call Tokunbo Olajide at 9:55 PM two weeks before he has a fight.  If you do, the 27-year-old junior middleweight prospect will inform you (in no uncertain terms) that he goes to bed at 10 PM sharp.  No exceptions.

See, Olajide (19-1, 16 KOs) is putting the finishing touches on something sublime he wants to share with the world. In order for it to be flawless, he must put every ounce of his being into it.  Which means no short cuts, such as hitting the rack at 10:01 PM.

Larry Marks (24-6, 14 KOs), whom Olajide will face on December 12 at the Edgewater Casino in Laughlin, Nevada (ESPN2), will get a taste of what Olajide’s been dedicating himself to.  Have you guessed what it is yet?

It’s only the future junior middleweight champion of the world (for starters), Tokunbo Olajide himself.  Get used to that name, fight fans, you’re going to be hearing a lot of it.

You mean the guy who got dropped in the first round last year by an unknown named Epifanio Mendoza—albeit breaking his fibula on the way down, and dislocating his ankle as he struggled to get up?

Yeah, him!  But don’t take my word for it.  Take respected trainer Eddie Mustafa Muhammad’s, who has been working with Olajide since that shocking loss.  In fact, Muhammad takes it a few steps further.

“He will become a world champion in whatever weight class he chooses,” says Muhammad.  “We’re going to start from junior middleweight . . . he’ll probably grow into a super middle.  I would be very disappointed if Tokunbo doesn’t become one of the all-time greats—he’ll be a three-time world champion, no doubt.”

Muhammad, a former light heavyweight world champion from Brooklyn, knew of Olajide since he was a kid and marveled at his ability even then.  In his teens, sparring with the big gloves, the cagey counter-puncher threw technically perfect punches that short-circuited whatever they touched: as a result, one seasoned pro, who had just been released from prison, had his electricity turned off for ten minutes.  Another rugged 190-pound ring rat known around the city’s gyms, Frank “The Tailor” Shattuck, was jabbed so hard in the nose he says it never bled again—he theorizes the blood ran away and is afraid to come back.  When Tokunbo would throw the left hook while shadowboxing, it seemed as if he had an elastic band implanted in his shoulder it had so much snap—people would stop what they were doing and exchange “Holy Shit!” looks. 

Tokunbo’s father Michael is a former Nigerian middleweight champ.  He had developed his eldest son Michael Jr. into a middleweight contender; tall and sinewy, he was appropriately dubbed “The Silk.”  He lost both of his title shots (to Frank Tate, and at super middleweight Thomas Hearns) and the two had a contentious split.  Consequently, Tokunbo and his big brother were estranged for several years.  They have since renewed their relationship and are now close.

The Olajide’s moved from Vancouver, BC, to New York in the late ‘80s.  They opened the Kingsway Boxing Club in midtown Manhattan (now at a different location in the city).  The gym catered to white collar types and veteran pugs alike.  Tokunbo was a fixture there, instructing beginners how to jab and move their feet and helping his father with whatever needed doing.  He was a highly intelligent kid with various interests (initially, he considered being a writer), but his obligations to the gym were somewhat of a yoke.  However, many of Kingsway’s clients were artists, musicians, actors, and people of every stripe one may encounter in the city; in a sense, the boxing gym brought the world to him.

“I wanted to be doing things that I thought were more appropriate for someone who was my age,” explains Olajide.

But Tokunbo’s father had other ideas.  Like Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, the father saw in his son the makings of a champion—maybe one that would far surpass his eldest son’s accomplishments? 

And while the kid always loved to box, some of his reasons for doing so were questionable, if understandable. 

“I think very early on in the game, being a boxer had a lot to do with feeling my dad’s love,” he says.  “Cause it was kind of like if I did well at the gym, then he would show me his acceptance.  [We] always had a very close relationship but I think he always dangled that carrot in front of me.”

Olajide recalls training at the now defunct Times Square Gym as a youngster, and his dad telling him that if he used his jab properly all week, he would be rewarded with a Nintendo.  “You better believe I was working my ass off throwing my jab all the time!” he laughs.  “I got that Nintendo and he was like, ‘Yeah, if you think that you can fuck around now, don’t believe that, because I’ll take that thing back!’”

He got “serious” about boxing by the time he was 17; it was no longer about Nintendos or his father’s love, it was now about something burning inside him.  “I would go off and do weird things just to kind of ready myself for whatever I thought was ahead of me,” he says.  “I’d be out there running eight, nine miles, just working hard.” 

His amateur career was auspicious, though brief.  He went 14-1 with 8 KOs—“A lot of them were clean,” he adds—and won the New York Golden Gloves.  At 20, he felt ready to turn pro.  He then made the difficult—though perhaps wise—decision not to have his father guide his career.  His father was hurt, and Tokunbo moved out of their home.  He got his own place in the city, and the two didn’t speak for a year. 

“For me it was a matter of saying, ‘Listen, you’re going to have to respect me as a man.  I am your son but I’m also a man.  And I had to go out and be a man on my own before he could respect me as one.  And that is what I did.  So when I came back, the tone of our relationship was very different.  He wasn’t able to demand.”

During that year of separation, Olajide hooked up with a veteran of the New York fight scene, Tommy Gallagher, who assumed the dual responsibilities of managing and training the young fighter.  Olajide also started taking courses at Hunter College, where he joined their jazz ensemble and took up the trumpet—which he sometimes refers to as his “mistress,” boxing being his “wife.”

The pugilist/student/trumpeter racked up a number of impressive victories, mainly by early, devastating KO.  Five years into his pro career, facing his 18th opponent, a last-minute replacement named Epifanio “Diamante” Mendoza, Olajide experienced his first loss—on a nationally-televised card on ESPN2.  It was a fluky 1st round TKO.  In real time, it looked like Medndoza caught Olajide with a good left, turning him sideways, then finished him off with a long right flush on the chin—in fact, that’s exactly what he did.   Olajide hit the canvas and was seemingly dazed but immediately tried to get his feet under him, at which point he lurched into the ring apron and the bout was halted.  Many watching must have thought, To bad, talented kid—no chin.  Later, we learned what had happened to Olajide’s leg (the break and dislocation mentioned above), and upon reviewing a tape of the fight, one sees that Olajide’s eyes are alert—at least enough to continue.  There was over 30 seconds left in the round, and we’ll never know how things would’ve played out. 

Matchmaker Johnny Bos reminds believers that we won’t know what Olajide is all about “until he gets hit on the chin again.”  The way he responds will answer a lot of questions.

Regarding the loss, Olajide says, “I didn’t think that it taught me as much technically as probably most other fights that I had.  I just think that it taught me a lot more about some intangible things.”  Such as?  “You know, I’ve never made any excuses and I don’t, so I kind of keep those things tucked away to myself”—though he does admit that he is hungry to avenge the loss.

Another thing he admits to is constantly asking, How can I be better?  He concluded that bringing Eddie Mustafa Muhammad into the fold was the answer.  Olajide had watched Muhammad work corners before and admired the rapport the trainer had with his fighters.  “And the fact that he’s been where I’m going was very important to me as well,” says Olajide.

Olajide contends that he and Gallagher, who is still his manager and integral to his team, have always had a good relationship, and continue to.  His assistant trainer, Kwame Asante, whom he praises for his loyalty and dedication, has been working with him since he was 16.  While Olajide will do whatever he needs to do to fulfill his potential (in and out of the ring), he prides himself on his loyalty—and his track record bears this out.

As of now, Tokunbo trains at Gleason’s in Brooklyn between fights.  And a month or so before a fight he goes out to Las Vegas, where Eddie Mustafa resides and works.  Before his last fight, Olajide didn’t even rent a car in Vegas.  He says it’s easy to find him; he’s always doing one of four things: running, training at the gym, resting at home, or browsing at the local Barnes & Noble.  Not exactly a latter-day Sonny Liston, this guy.  His trainers say that Olajide is as hard a worker as they have ever seen.  “No one leaves the gym before me,” Olajide says, as if it were his epitaph. 

His new trainer has had some great fighters, such as James Toney and Iran Barkley.  He thinks Tokunbo has at least their talent, likely more; the difference is Olajide’s way to serious a cat to ever take things for granted: Toney would come into camp 60 pounds overweight and refused to do roadwork; Barkley would party till 4 a.m., and try to catch a few Z’s before his trainer woke him for roadwork.  Tokunbo requires no wake up call, he arrives at camp close to fighting trim.   

But how has he looked in his last two outings since that loss?  His first comeback fight was against Jesus Valverde (30-10 15KOs) at Orleans Casino in Las Vegas.  Valverde, a gritty journeyman who specializes in going the distance with but always losing to touted prospects (Kermit Cintron, Matt Vanda, Teddy Reid), did just that against Olajide.  Most reports say that while Valverde stood in front of Olajide, he fought from a defensive position and took no chances.  The winner was harder on himself: “He’s not a real capable guy.  It makes me realize I have a lot to learn.” Against a game Emil Baku (22-1 17KOs), on September 16, Olajide looked sensational.  The Russian Baku, a step up in talent from Valverde, came to fight.  But the New Yorker was too fast and too strong, and broke down his opponent over the course of four rounds, going upstairs and downstairs with seeming ease.  Olajide also looked busier than he used to, which is something his new trainer has been emphasizing.  Baku’s corner charitably threw in the towel before the 5th round began.

If I was a top ten junior midleweight watching that fight, I would either stick my finger down my throat and try to make welterwight, or give Victor Conte a call and get me some of that THG shit . . . time to move up a fight some bigger dudes!  As far as other prospect/contenders go, Tommy Gallagher told me that Alejandro “Terra” Garcia’s people turned down a potential fight with Olajide.  Let’s see how the 27-0 (27KOs) Mexican slugger looks this Saturday at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall against Norwalk, Connecticut’s also undefeated Travis Simms.  Gallagher would love to match his guy with someone like Kassim Ouma, or perhaps the victor of Ouma-Candelo in ‘04.  But he, as well as trainer Muhammad, is adamant that although Olajide still needs time to build, no one at 154 can take his power—De La Hoya, Mosely, Winky Wright, nobody. 

Listening to these guys (and between Tommy Gallagher and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad you have a century’s worth of hard-earned boxing knowledge), it is clear they aren’t trying to hype their fighter, they feel God made him with both hands. 

Eddie Mustafa Muhammad was close friends with Miles Davis.  He can hear Miles’ trumpet when Olajide does his thing in the ring.  

This is how Muhammad puts it: “Tokunbo is Bebop when everybody else is Hip Hop.  They’re going at a fast pace and hittin’ nothin’.  Tokunbo is breakin’ it down.  Smooth concerto, you know what I’m sayin’?  Keeping that jab going, makin’ the guy hit and then makin’ him pay.”

When I tune in Friday Night Fights this week, I’m going to mute the volume and put some Charlie Parker on the stereo.  I’m thinking the two should complement each other rather nicely.




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