When Ouma lived the American dream

Thursday October 29 2020
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Feisty Punisher. Ugandan prize fighter Ouma lands a right to Phillips during the 11th round of the IBF junior middleweight championship bout at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2004. PHOTO/COURTESY

By ABDUL-NASSER SSEMUGABI

Fifteen years had gone since a Ugandan professional boxer won a legit world title. Then Kassim Ouma, “The Dream,” rose to the occasion October 2, 2004 inside Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. And sixteen years on, no one has matched the feat. 

Ouma was talented but had not won much as an amateur. And within a year after defecting to the USA, he joined the paid ranks in 1998. Within three years, he had fought 14 times, winning 12-1-1. In 2001, he defeated American Verno Phillips, who joined professional when Ouma was barely 10 years old. Ouma would defeat the same opponent to become a world champion.

Take student to school
Barely a fortnight to the epic rematch, East Side Boxing interviewed both pugs. Ouma expressed respect for his experienced opponent but spoke with conviction. 
On whether he felt being rushed into such a big fight, Ouma said “I am a student…I have been fighting warriors. But I will snatch this title. I am not ducking anybody. I will fight whoever comes into my face. The boxing world is about proving who is who, and I am fighting the toughest guy out there.”

Meanwhile Phillips, who was not a fan of trash talk, claimed he knew nothing about Ouma and did not prepare for their first encounter, but felt wiser now about dealing with the stylish southpaw. “Like he is a student, I am going to take him to school.” 

Since falling to Ouma in 2001, the American won six straight, the latest being the first-round knockout of Julio Garcia. At 34, he felt raw power and passion: “I feel like I am Ouma’s age. You can hit whatever you want because like Bob Marley said: ‘I won’t feel no pain.’ I will feel the pain after the fight when I have the title around my waist.”

 Ouma found motivation in nationalism. In 1997, Phillips had beaten Godfrey Nyakana, to deny him a dream world super welter title. That would be his last title in USA. 
Ouma confessed having nothing personal with Phillips, whom he respected so much but “It would be nice to win a championship from Phillips because he knocked out the last guy from my country and I have to represent.”
Yet, Ouma vs. Phillips II could have failed to happen. Three days to its initial date June 5, 2004, Ouma pulled out with a spinal injury.

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Phillips beat late substitute Carlos Bojorquez to win the International Boxing Federation World Super Welter Title. Ouma must have watched in envy, as the same Mexican, whom he had stopped 10 months back, surrendered to Phillips in six rounds. 
Yet this wasn’t the biggest setback in Ouma’s professional career. In 2002, he defeated Jason Papillion to win the vacant USBA light-middleweight title. Then he tested positive for marijuana after stopping Darrell Woods. His victory was annulled and he was temporarily suspended.
 
Worse still: Ouma’s backstory of being a child rebel and survival, touched the West, but his luck against bullets ran out when he was shot in the abdomen twice outside a restaurant in Florida. He underwent surgery but he was back in seven months, defeating three before dating Phillips.
Then came the spinal injury. But like he had overcome drugs and bullets, Ouma returned in four months to rip Phillips of the world title. Former world champion Tim Witherspoon, had been his trainer during since his TKO victory against Juan Carlos Candelo in January. So he was still in the corner. 
 
The fight
In one corner the champion Phillips, 38-9-1 and 20KOs, against the challenger Ouma, 19-1-1 and 13KOs. Phillips set the tone from the first bell, chopping Ouma’s body and hitting his head with fierce shots. Ouma, known for throwing a volume of punches and speed, was unusually slow. But in the middle of the third round, he answered Phillips with heavy right. The champion countered with a 1-2. Slowly, Ouma begun exerting pressure, gaining control, much to frustration of the champion. Ouma won most of the middle rounds.


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 After the fourth the press row judges Mark Butcher, Doug Fisher and Kevin lole had it: 40-37, 39-37 and 39-37 for Phillips. After the sixth round, Butcher had Phillips on 59-56, while his counterparts had it 57-57. 
 Prior to this fight, Ouma had won all his nine fights, beyond the seventh round. Meanwhile Phillips had won 15, lost six. 
Four rounds to go, Butcher had it 78-76 for Phillips, 
Fisher 76-76, and lole 77-75 for Phillips, whose corner demanded “discipline.” 

Ouma’s big finish
If Ouma slowed down in the eighth and ninth rounds, he became a lion, in the 11th, pounding Phillips with all manner of punches: hooks, crosses, uppercuts—most in 1-2-3 combinations—from all angles. Had Ouma been a hard puncher like his idol John ‘the Beast’ Mugabi, most probably Phillips would not have lasted the final two rounds. 

Under siege, Phillips went to the ropes and bent. But Ouma was unforgiving, unrelenting. Phillips looked tired. Ouma noticed it. And pounced. He wanted to be decisive. He cornered him, pinned him to the ropes; allowing him no break to contemplate surrendering his title. In retaliation, he swung his right. Missed, and kissed the canvas. Another sign of tire. Towards, the end of the round, Philips almost went out through the ropes. 

After the 10th, Butcher still had Phillips leading by 97-96, while Fisher and lole had Ouma leading 96-94 and 97-93 respectively. Their scorecard was never showed on the screens again. But surely, Ouma was closing in and in the 11th , he gained ultimate control. 

In the last round, Phillips wanted to keep Ouma at a distance. But Ouma wanted to keep Phillips closer. He chased him, to the ropes, again. Phillips was tired.  He bent and slipped to the canvas, again. A sign of wear. 
“Big finish for Kassim Ouma,” said the commentator as Ouma raised his hands, as if to congratulate himself for the epic performance. He hugged Phillips and his team carried him as he clenched and raised fists, smiling. 

Phillips sat on the stool, left eye swollen. 
Ouma tethered the Ugandan and American flags together, stood on the ropes and raised them. He wasn’t yet an American citizen but a proud Ugandan living the American dream. The judges scored it: 114-113, 117-110 and 114-113 in favour of Ouma, the new IBF World Super Welter champion, the first and last Ugandan world champion since Mugabi’s victory in 1989.

With Witherspoon still in his corner, Ouma defended his title against Ghanaian, Kofi Jantuah in January 2005. But when manager Tom Moran relegated Witherspoon to the audience, Ouma lost his championship to Russian Roman Karmazin after just eight months. 
 

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