Born in Ghana, Made in Britain: Isaac Dogboe interview
Ghana’s latest world champion Isaac Dogboe learned to box in London and hopes to make a title defence in the UK. First, though, Dogboe tells Luca Rosi that he wants to face rival champs in a bid to unify the 122lbs division...
Since his devastating destruction of Jessie Magdaleno to become Ghana’s youngest ever world champion at 23 years and seven months, Isaac Dogboe (pronounced Dog-bay) has been a man in demand.
Speaking to Boxing Monthly at the start of his UK press tour, the diminutive WBO junior featherweight champion, known as “Royal Storm” (Dogboe has royal ancestry), had just returned from a hectic sojourn in west Africa.
“The reception I got was incredible. I was treated to a hero’s welcome in Ghana and was invited to many prestigious functions,” Dogboe said. “I met President Nana Akufo-Addo [former president Jerry John Rawlings is a relative of his, on his mother’s side], which was so humbling. He’s a big boxing fan and immediately sent his congratulations after the win. He was delighted that it happened during his term of government, as Ghana hasn’t produced a world champion for a decade [since Joshua Clottey defeated Zab Judah to win the vacant IBF welterweight title in August 2008].
“We also have a fantastic relationship with the British High Commission — both Iain Walker and his predecessor John Benjamin came to my fights and bring all their staff. It’s a great feeling to be recognised by such eminent figures and big organisations. It was also an honour to be voted sports personality of the year by the Sports Writers Association of Ghana [SWAG].
“I’m thankful to God for everything and to everyone in my team who is working so tirelessly behind the scenes. My aim is always to inspire the young, the next generation, and make them believe that anything is possible.
“I’m fortunate that my parents come from two of the most powerful kingdoms in Ghana [his father and mother are from Anyako and Kumasi in the Volta and Ashanti regions respectively], so we enjoy great support in Ghana, but also across Africa and the rest of the world.
“It’s been a privilege to read everyone’s messages, and hearing from boxing legends such as Azumah Nelson and Ike Quartey [who held the previous record as the youngest Ghanaian to win a world title at 24 years and six months when he defeated Crisanto Espana to claim the WBA welterweight title in June 1994] was special. It shows we’re doing something right. But it doesn’t stop here. We will keep working harder.”
A proud British Ghanaian, Dogboe came to the UK as an eight-year-old. His family settled in Stockwell (where he still lives), in the London borough of Lambeth. “As a young kid my dream was to become a footballer, but I guess that wasn’t my calling,” Dogboe said. “My father kept on at me to try boxing, so I gave it a go to prove him wrong, as he had been teasing me, saying that I was scared and not strong enough.
“I started training at my first club, the Fitzroy Lodge ABC in Lambeth. In my first year, when I was around 15, I managed to win the junior novices national championships. Before I joined, my father had been training me for about eight months in Kennington Park. I was the first person in the history of the club to win such a prestigious national accolade.
“When my father joined the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and started training their boxers, I moved to the Territorial Army and there I won the senior novices title.
“I was combining the boxing with my studies at St. Francis Xavier sixth form college in Clapham [Dogboe would earn a ‘merit’ in his BTEC diploma in sports and exercise science]. My father would pick me up during my long breaks and I’d go to spar with Carl Frampton when I was 16 or 17 at the McGuigan gym in Battersea. I had a great relationship with them. I would also go on to spar with the likes of Oscar Escandon, Chris Avalos and even Jessie Magdaleno.”
Then came the bittersweet experience of London 2012 — and a lesson he would never forget. “The opportunity to compete in my hometown was just too great to pass up,” Dogboe said. “At the time Team GB had already carried out their selection process, I had barely laced up the gloves. They wanted me to wait until Rio 2016, but there was no way I was going to miss out, so we had to pursue another avenue. Just imagine how fast my progress was — in just three years, there I am representing Ghana at the Olympics.
“The atmosphere was incredible, but the result was horrible. I was the youngest boxer in the tournament and thought I did more than enough to win [Dogboe lost 10-9 to Satoshi Shimizu, who would lose in the semi-finals to eventual gold medallist Luke Campbell].
“It was a dark moment for me but we chose to put it behind us and take the positives. I became more spiteful in the ring, so I go into all my fights looking for a stoppage as I don’t want to leave anything in the hands of the judges. I don’t want to go through that feeling again.”
The ferocious fighter, who adopted the nickname “Brave Son” in his younger days, went on to win the ABA lightweight title for the Territorial Army in 2013 and turned professional the same year. “We made the decision that I should have one pro fight and see how it goes,” he said. (Dogboe made his debut in the Swiss capital, Bern). “It was just after my grandfather’s funeral in Ghana. Funnily enough, he didn’t want me to box, but my father convinced him that I would continue my studies and that everything was under control.
“I had my second fight in Belfast [which remains Dogboe’s only UK appearance] followed by five fights in the United States. We returned to Ghana and I fought for the vacant WBO African featherweight title against George Krampah, which gave me a top 15 ranking. Then I got a shot at the vacant international WBO title [Dogboe stopped Argentina’s Julian Evaristo Aristule in seven], on the Joseph Parker vs Andy Ruiz card in Auckland. I kept climbing the ladder and by now I had earned a top five ranking.”
Despite Dogboe’s obvious talent, there were still plenty of doubters, especially in Ghana. “We were considered as outsiders, and sniping comments such as: ‘This kid doesn’t live in Ghana, he’s not one of us,’ were commonplace.
“You’ve got to remember that boxing was at an all-time low in Ghana. Even BoxRec didn’t recognise Ghanaian fighters and bouts were not being recorded. It happened to me in my first two or three fights and we had to write letter after letter to set the record straight. We had to win the hearts of the people, and with the help of our international advisers, we set up our own company — Rising Star Africa Promotions. We started to put on shows and we attracted big names, prominent people in our country.
“Despite the challenges, my popularity grew. I’ve had 10 fights in Ghana and fought at some iconic venues such as the Accra Sports Stadium and the Azumah Nelson Sport Complex. I also fought twice at the open air Bukom Boxing Arena, which is synonymous with boxing. The stadium couldn’t contain the crowd. There were people on rooftops. There were more people outside than inside — they had to call the military. Those two performances against [Antonio] Chacon and [Cesar] Juarez really put me on the map. Especially the Juarez fight, as he was a teak-tough and avoided Mexican. Fortunately, I managed to stop him in the fifth with a perfectly timed left hook to set up the Magdaleno clash.”
The one constant in the 23-year-old’s life has been his father, mentor and boxing autodidact, Paul. “My father had a grand vision for me early on and told me from my amateur days that I was ready and destined to be a world champion,” Dogboe said. “The world champions standing in my way could not shake my foundations. It was a matter of time. We had to make the numbers and then, when the opportunity came, we grabbed it with both hands.
“My father’s in his 40s, so we can have a laugh and a joke. We don’t only talk about boxing but many things in life. We’ve had to overcome many challenges along the way, but our belief and faith kept us going throughout.
“People said a lot of things about me — that I was too small to be successful — but we just shrugged it off and chose to look at situations positively. The people who now congratulate me are the same ones who turned their noses up at me then. Their words are empty to me. There were those who thought that my father should make way for someone to take me to the next level. But I never saw the need for that.”
Dogboe’s nomadic existence, which has seen him fight on four continents and base himself in three countries, shows no signs of slowing. “I love travelling,” he said. “That’s the best part of boxing — moving around the world. You’re always seeing new people and places.
“Training is the hardest bit, all the hours, the weeks, months, all the sacrifice that prepares you for fight night. Moving around the globe is almost like therapy. Boxing has given me a direction and a sense of responsibility, learning new things about life.
“After I finished college, I signed to an American management company who used to work with James Toney, and we moved to Woodland Hills in California, not far from Hollywood. It’s located in a valley, one of the most beautiful parts of California. We were there for almost two and half years.
“Even though I’ll keep travelling, I plan on settling in the UK [he trains at Miguel’s gym in Brixton]. Now that I’m a world champion, I’m far more experienced so I know how to structure my training schedule.
“One of the main reasons for staying is that I want to continue with my studies and go to university in September. I’ve applied to Manchester, Cardiff and Sheffield universities to study sociology.
“I just focus on studying, training and fighting. It’s not easy, but with people working around you, it makes everything much easier. I’m very proud to be British Ghanaian and that’s why you’ll see the two flags on my trunks. I keep saying that I was born in Ghana. However, Great Britain, Queen and Country have been great to me. I started to box here. I’d like to say a big thank you to all the fans here in the UK for their support. Even though I haven’t had a fight in England yet, we’re saving the best for last.”
So far, his best was his 11th-round knockout win over Magdaleno in Philadelphia in April. “We went into the fight to win by KO,” Dogboe said. “We knew that he was a good fighter, quick, but we never had any doubts. His camp were worried because I had knocked out Juarez, so he was avoiding me.
“He had had an easy defence and was then out for a year. Time was going to catch up with him, and it did. He came out trying to fight from the first round, he threw a left hook, I was square on and my leg got caught up inside of his, I lost my balance and went down. But I got back up quickly, my mind was clear, and all I could think about was that it would be a 10-8 round and that I needed to put him down.
“We knew he was a champion and we had to take the fight to him, and that if I kept hitting him to the body eventually he would slow down and give us a chance to knock him out. That’s exactly what happened.
“On a few occasions when I was chasing ahead too much, my dad was trying to calm me down and tell me not load up too much but relax and stick to the game plan — go down to the body and switch to the head. Magdaleno was slowly deteriorating and I was reacting to whatever he was doing, going after him.
“My plan right now is to unify the division, so all the current world champions have been served notice. I’ll have my first defence in August, which will take place either in Las Vegas or New York. Rey Vargas [the unbeaten Mexican WBC champion] avoided me when I wasn’t champion so there’s a big question mark over him. I hope he steps up to the plate this time. [NB. Dogboe will face Japan's Hidenori Otake in his first title defence on Saturday 25 August in Glendale, Arizona].
“Then there’s Daniel Roman [the WBA champion from the US] and Ryosuke Iwasa [Japan’s IBF champion]. Magdaleno made the division so dull and diverted all the attention to the heavyweight division. We’re looking to put that right and get the fans talking about us. There are exciting times ahead.”