Welcome to my world: Sadam Ali interview
On Saturday Sadam Ali defends his WBO super welter crown against Jaime Munguia. After defeating Miguel Cotto to win the title, the American of Yemeni descent spoke to Sean Casey...
Sadam Ali is still in a state of disbelief. “I don't even know if it’s fully sunk in yet,” he said over the phone from Brooklyn, New York. “I kind of forget. I feel normal, but then I remember I’m a world champion. It’s the greatest feeling.”
Given little chance, Ali scored one of the upsets of 2017 when he moved up from welterweight to junior middleweight to beat the great Miguel Cotto by unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden on 2 December.
Ali admitted he felt uneasy as the judges’ decision was being read. “In boxing you don't know what to expect,” Ali told Boxing Monthly.
He felt he had clearly pulled off the win, but knew it was a close fight.
“Sometimes judges see it differently,” he added. “I just prayed. I prayed and I hoped that the decision would go the right way.”
Even after the scorecards had been announced, however, it was hard to convince Ali that the judges had actually ruled in his favour. “When they said: ‘And the new,’ I didn’t even want to get too excited. I wanted to be sure that meant I was the champion,” he said.
Ali ended up turning to those closest to him for assurance. “I looked at my team and saw them jump up and I went ‘OK, I can really get happy now.’”
Ali’s path to that shining moment started when, as a youngster in Brooklyn, he was inspired by British great Prince Naseem Hamed (they share Yemeni heritage).
“When I was younger,” Ali said, “I would watch Prince Naseem, and the way he would just come into the ring, dancing, smiling, he just looked like he was having fun. He just loved it and I was like: ‘Wow, this guy makes people fighting each other look like it’s a video game.’ He made it so entertaining. It wasn’t [merely] two people fighting, to me. I was like: ‘Wow, I want to do this.’”
Soon enough, the young New Yorker found himself in the gym. “When I was eight years old, after school one day, my dad took me to the gym,” he said, “and, I’m not gonna lie, I kind of hated it in the beginning.
“I wanted to do it so bad, but my coach had me doing jabs to the mirror and jabs back and I didn’t know [at first] that when the bell rang I was allowed to rest.
“When I realised I could rest, I said: ‘Man, let’s do this.’ I was happy. And from there I just got better and better. I just kept learning.”
Ali eventually became a United States’ Olympic representative in 2008 before moving on to the pro ranks. His rise was steady, with 22 victories in just over six years, including one against Luis Carlos Abregu on the undercard of 2014’s Sergey Kovalev vs Bernard Hopkins bout and another over Francisco Santana on the Wladimir Klitschko vs Bryant Jennings show in 2015.
Then, however, came Jessie Vargas. Ali’s road to the top suddenly hit a bump, via a ninth-round TKO in a battle for the WBO welterweight title. “I can only blame myself,” he said. “I wasn’t prepared and I took it lightly. That was the biggest mistake I made in my career, and I paid for it.”
Ali came back with three wins in a row. Still, he was essentially off the radar of serious fight watchers, so much so that when the call to fight Cotto surprisingly arrived, most figured the match would be something of a walk in the park for a star on his way out of the door.
“Cotto is a legend,” Ali said, “and they just thought he would run through me. But I’ve been underestimated before and my plan was to shock the world.”
The days of taking major bouts lightly were over. Ali took this opportunity seriously. “I trained really hard,” he said. “I stayed focused throughout the whole camp. I had sparring with Danny Jacobs and Curtis Stevens, who are bigger guys than me. I definitely worked a lot harder. I knew I couldn’t get tired in there.”
Ali studied his famous opponent with scholarly precision. “I was aware in that ring,” Ali says. “I knew Cotto had a great left hook. I had to look out for that. I also had to look out for his right hand, to fight safe in there. But I also had to let him feel a little power, as well.”
Ali believes his punching power is under appreciated. “I feel,” he said, “that I do have some power that a lot of people don’t really respect, or don’t really see, or know that I have, because they just see a lot of speed.”
Before showing Cotto just how hard a hitter he could be, though (he rocked Cotto several times), Ali faced a strange scenario.
He is New York born and bred but it was Cotto who was being treated as the hometown hero. “It is my hometown,” Ali said, “and it feels amazing fighting in New York — even though it didn’t really feel like it was my hometown [that night], because when Cotto comes to MSG, all the Puerto Ricans and his fans come and support him, so it gets crazy.
“But I just handled the energy honestly and I kind of made it mine that night. I was prepared. I was ready.”
A great deal of that readiness was due to his trainer, Andre Rozier, who pushed Ali throughout the bout, urging him to greater efforts. “That’s just the way he is,” Ali said, “and that goes with training, as well. He always wants more.
“It doesn’t matter how hard I’m working, he always wants more. If I do 10 rounds and that’s all I’m really supposed to do, he wants two more. He just always adds on. He just wants to make me greater, no matter what, and it’s definitely a push. It can be frustrating at times in the gym. But hard work pays off.”
In a sense, though, Ali feels he had it easier the evening of the fight than Cotto did. “It wasn’t too much pressure on me,” he said. “There was pressure, of course, but not like the pressure that was on him. It’s like the song I came out with, Golden.
“I knew if I wanted to win I had to be golden and I had to be on my A-game and everything had to be right.
“On a personal level, I have a lot of respect for Miguel Cotto. He is definitely, definitely a humble, cool, respectful guy. I didn’t feel anything negative throughout the whole training camp. Everything was just so cool, even in the ring. No dirty tactics, nothing at all. He’s a great man and he’s a legend. He’ll always be that. I wish him and his family the best.”
It might seem logical that, having jumped up in weight to face Cotto, Ali would go back down to welterweight. However, he seems happy at 154lbs. “I felt comfortable at that weight,” he said. “I have the world title. I shocked the world. I shocked a lot of people. I’m still getting better. I still have more to prove, honestly, and yeah, I feel like I’m staying here.”
Ali said he now wants to be involved only in big fights although he doesn’t have any specific names in mind. “I’ll leave that to Golden Boy [his promoter] and what they have for me and we'll see what happens.”
In the meantime, though, Ali is savouring his success. “I’ve been spending a lot of time with my family,” he said. “I feel great. It’s the greatest feeling.”
He made it clear, though, that he doesn’t intend to let success go to his head. “I’m still really, really humble,” he said. “I don’t care how successful I will get, I will always be this humble.
“Everybody that wants pictures or anybody that wants autographs, I will always be great when it comes to that. I’m really grateful and I really enjoy those types of things.”
Ali’s father, Mahmoud, and a friend came up with his “World Kid” nickname, he said. At first he didn’t particularly care for the moniker but he has found reason to embrace it.
“I’m American,” he said. “Also, my parents are Arab. So I’m an American-Arab. But I love the world, man. I just love all people. I love everybody and I want to entertain the world.
“I’m not just fighting for my people. I’m fighting for everybody who wants to see me.”
He believes he still has more to prove. “I want to do more,” he declared, “and I’m just happy for what’s going on. I’m blessed and I’m grateful.”