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
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
“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
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’
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.