- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

NEW YORK — Najah Ali studied the faded fight posters, dented dumbbells and flies buzzing over the spit buckets.

To the boxer from Baghdad, beaten-down Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn was a palace.

“This is very nice,” he said. “We don’t have this back home.”

Far from the bomb blasts and gunfire that became a part of daily life, Ali is now on his way to seeing another part of the world.

Next stop: Athens and the Summer Olympics.

“I consider it my responsibility to fight for Iraq,” he said.

Ali will be among about two dozen athletes from his country going to the Games. A light flyweight at 106 pounds, Ali will be the only boxer among them.

Iraq has won one Olympic medal, a bronze by a weightlifter in 1960, and it’s hard to tell what kind of chance the 24-year-old Ali stands.

Ali went 0-3 in qualifying bouts, losing decisions in China, Pakistan and the Philippines, but drew a wild-card spot based on his character, performance and background.

This week, Ali is training with the USA team in Michigan, and later this month he will go to the Titan Games, a tournament in Atlanta.

“A year ago, I could not have thought this would happen,” he said.

Not when he was busy helping his father — a successful boxer himself — on reconstruction projects after the coalition forces moved in. Ali was working at a factory making furniture when a nearby explosion shook him.

“Life is very hard,” he said. “At night, you cannot go out. You must shut your doors.”

Fortunately for Ali, his family was safe, and he was able to pursue his college studies, earning a degree in computer science.

Ali said he never met Saddam Hussein or son Uday, who ran the Olympics program in Iraq and reportedly had athletes tortured when they did not win.

“It did not happen to me, but I know about it,” said Ali, winner of the 2002 Arab Games in Cairo.

Still, training in Iraq was nearly impossible.

“When I started working with those guys, some of them were barefoot,” said Ali’s trainer, Maurice Watkins. “The boxing rings were concrete, and there were four metal posts stuck in the ground. There were four ropes for the ring — well, three ropes sometimes.”

Watkins fought for the WBC junior welterweight title in 1980 on the undercard of the Muhammad Ali-Larry Holmes bout. Nicknamed “Termite” because his father owned a pest-control business, Watkins went to Iraq last year to work with pesticides.

There, a chance encounter with a British officer who liked boxing led to an opportunity for Watkins to rebuild the Iraqi team. Help also came from Jon Epstein, who was in charge of a foundation called Playing for Peace that aids foreign athletes in difficult spots.

Ali wore a Playing for Peace shirt after his workout in Brooklyn last week and might sport its symbol in Athens.

“I am a sportsman,” Ali said.

He’s little — think of a horse racing jockey, only smaller — with a pleasant smile. He’s seen a lot of devastation, yet his bright eyes do not reflect the destruction.

Eventually, Ali wants to get his master’s in computer science at an American university and return to Iraq. He said the country is better off since the coalition came.

“Just give us time. We will be all right,” he said. “Just give us time to get a good government.”

In the meantime, he keeps in contact with his relatives by e-mail. He does not think his family will be able to attend the Olympics.

After Athens, Ali would like to turn pro and maybe fight out of Houston, where Watkins lives. Ali was there recently and met George Foreman.

He’s certainly got the right name — any boxer called Ali is sure to attract attention.

And he drew interest at Gleason’s when he unleashed a fast, eight-punch combination that sent the smack of sparring gloves echoing off the spartan walls.

“He looks pretty good,” said John Douglas, a local pro light-heavyweight. “For us to grow up in Iraq, we wouldn’t be as good.”

Told of Ali’s tale, Hungarian boxer Leyla Leidecker broke into a big smile.

“God bless him!” she said.

Ali was in New York for a couple of days. During a visit to a Manhattan office, he was excited to run into singer Ricky Martin.

“We know him, even in Iraq,” Ali said.

Ali hardly looks menacing when his gloves are off. He was sitting on a bench at Gleason’s, waiting for a ring to open up, when a female fighter almost twice his size walked by in a black satin robe.

Ali looked up, eyeing her warily. She scowled back.

“She scared me,” Ali said.

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