Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Making of Silk

Michael Olajide, Jr. found the smooth road after hard times and injuries ended a world class boxing career

Mark Connor
© Copyright 2010, Mark Connor

Michael “The Silk” Olajide, Jr. built a successful professional boxing career from December 17, 1981 through April 25, 1991, compiling a record of 27 wins, 5 losses, 0 draws and 18 knockouts. Debuting professionally as a Jr. Welterweight nine days after turning 18, he knocked out Johnny Gains, 0-1, in Vancouver, British Columbia. Olajide knocked out two more fighters who respectively had 0-1 records before fighting an 8 round battle with veteran Lightweight Al Ford, a 31-year-old with a record of 55-18-0 with 19 knockouts, who’d gone the distance in a 10 round loss to eventual Lightweight Champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. Olajide won a unanimous decision, and suddenly, after only six months and less than 13 total rounds of professional boxing, he was on the road to world class competition.

The high level of early competition and the tender age at which Olajide’s professional career began indicate the situation he and his father, a native of Nigeria, found themselves in as immigrants. Olajide had been born in Liverpool, England, but hard times prompted a family move to Vancouver, where his father worked in the shipyards. After his father coached him through roughly 18 amateur fights, Olajide turned professional immediately upon entering adulthood because of financial necessity. So there was no time to move slowly and no time to avoid challenges when larger purses were available against tougher opponents.

“Yeah, I fought some really tough guys when I started,” he said in February as we sat in the front lobby of his boxing fitness gym, Aerospace High Performance Center on West 13th Street in New York. Although he grew in physical size to fight at the 160 pound Middleweight and 168 pound Super Middleweight divisions, the fight against Ford would be considered risky and bold for most beginning professional boxers. Physically, Ford was made for Olajide because he was shorter—5’-5” to Olajide’s 6’-1”—and Olajide is smooth with a long jab and good movement, but a man with that much experience is able to relax and minimize a younger, stronger fighter’s physical prowess so as to go the distance or even win. Olajide’s ability to defeat him so early in his career came from a combination of his own talent and the strategic skill and motivational influence of his father.

“There’s the fighter, but then there’s the trainer,” Olajide says. “And I think one of the trainer’s responsibilities is to develop the skills of this individual so when he does come up against that guy who’s beaten everybody as you’re beating everybody, you’re gonna know what to do.”

Such high expectations backed up with an accentuation of his strengths and a concentration on his weaknesses in the gym prepared him for his fights and enabled him to continually progress to world title challenges. It was an intellectual approach that probably brought Michael Olajide, Jr. much further than if Michael Olajide, Sr. would have concentrated on just strengthening him up for brute force battles.

“I think too many trainers just take for granted . . . that boxing is just about punching someone in the mouth, and if you’re not hitting somebody then that’s because you didn’t train right, because you didn’t eat right or run right or something, when really it’s about, ‘what kind of skills have you given this individual?’. That’s what training’s about, because a fighter’s only gonna do in the ring what he did in the gym. You can’t do any better than that.”

It’s true. Even a fighter with tremendous athletic talent and natural boxing skill can’t sustain success at a high level without the guidance of a competent trainer. Michael Olajide, SR’s understanding of this along with Michael Olajide, JR’s athleticism and willingness to learn facilitated a decade of success. But in retrospect, says Olajide, Jr., it’s preferable to have more time to develop oneself as an amateur before tackling a professional endeavor.

“I would have loved to get more experience because what happens, especially when you fight on the international level, is you see so many different styles. But when you’re just in Vancouver you have that focused style. So most people fight the same way; they’re just coming in at you head first,” he explains. “So that would have been amazing [to have more amateur experience], because to have to figure out [a difficult style] in the middle of a 15 round fight is not cool. You know what I mean? When the title’s on the line it’s like, ‘Oh, man, how do I get by this one?’”

He had that experience on October 10, 1987, while fighting 1984 Junior Middleweight Olympic Gold Medalist Frank Tate for the vacant International Boxing Federation (IBF) Middleweight Championship of the World.

“His style to me was really awkward,” he says. “A lot of people thought he was very beatable. I thought, looking at him, he was beatable, but when you’re in the ring with someone—you know as a fighter—things change up . . .”

Olajide lost a unanimous decision to Tate, and although he was dominated in that fight he felt he had the skill to win and wished he could have been better prepared for it. He and his father were not getting along at that point as much as when he’d begun, and he had trouble adjusting to Tate’s strategy.

“I’m like, ‘Man, this guy’s punches are coming from weird angles,” Olajide says, describing the moves Tate made; “he’s dropping [bobbing downwards to the right] and then the right hand’s coming, and I’d never seen that before, it was so strange.”

It was a move Tate used regularly and one that is effective in different variations for a number of fighters. By rolling to the right and dropping down from a right hand punch at his face, Tate was able to draw his opponent closer to him because of the momentum generated by the punch; then he countered with a right hand of his own. It’s the kind of punch that catches a fighter coming in, capitalizing on the momentum generated both by the opponent’s punch and his body’s tendency to automatically follow the direction of the target that moved just at the presumed moment of impact. Olajide mentioned former Heavyweight Champion of the World, Tim Whitherspoon, and Junior Middleweight Buster Drayton as fighters who were good at that move. (I couldn’t find Olajide’s challenge of Tate on line, or any of Tate’s other professional fights for that matter, but I did find Tate’s Gold Medal performance against Canada’s Shawn O’Sullivan at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and he uses that move very effectively.)

“He would drop,” Olajide says, “and then the punch would come afterwards, and it was a delay, and I’d be like, ‘Wow, that’s weird.”

Olajide recounts the story respectfully, with a sense of awe and humor revealing a degree of gratitude that seems to outweigh any regrets.

“So there was a lot of figuring out and there are a lot of things that kept me hesitating, but that’s the game of boxing.”

Olajide followed that title fight with two wins, a 6th round TKO over Franklin Owens and a 10 round unanimous decision over Cecil Petigrew, before fighting Bronx native Iran Barkley in a World Boxing Council (WBC) Middleweight title elimination fight at the Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden. It was a classic New York event wherein two of its sons, the adopted transplant from Canada who’d established his credentials under his father’s guidance in Manhattan and a neighborhood kid from the Bronx chasing his own dreams, battling for the chance to become stars. It began just as intensely as it ended, with Barkley pressing the action and Olajide moving a lot but also standing and punching with him. While Olajide suffered a flash knockdown in the 2nd round he got up and survived, and in the 4th landed a left hook that dropped Barkley. Barkley was back on the offensive from the opening of the 5th, and when Olajide tried to match his aggression and brought his right hand back low after delivering an inside body shot, Barkley landed a left hook Olajide did not see, dropping him again. Olajide moved and fought back, but as he was pressed against the ropes for a sustained period referee Arthur Mercante, Jr. stepped in and stopped the fight against Olajide’s vehement protest. Olajide appeared to know where he was and was determinedly attempting to block and slip punches, but he wasn’t fully out of trouble yet and Arthur Mercante, Jr. apparently thought him shaky enough to stop the fight. (The fight is available on Youtube in three parts. Although the referee is the man in the ring with the clearest view of each fighter’s condition, Olajide looks well enough and is making a great enough effort to support his contention that the fight was stopped too early.)

“I think it’s very important for the referee to know the fighter,” Olajide says. “There’s never been a case in my life when I’ve fought that I’ve been hit and I’ve been dropped that I didn’t come back. And if you know that, that’s kind of like, ‘Okay, I know he’s not out on his feet.’ I mean I’ve seen guys get hit and they’re out on their feet and their eyes are just dazed and rolling in their head and they’re defenseless. Is that fighter showing the ability to defend himself? And in every case I was. Even when I was falling back into the ropes you can see me moving my head. I know what’s coming at me. I just needed that one second to gather it; you know what I mean?”
Olajide made the fight very competitive and obviously had the ability to win, but he mistakenly slugged with Barkley too much, trying to match him left hook for left hook. If he could have controlled the ring more with his superior movement and made Barkley move into his combinations, the fact that he’d put Barkley down earlier suggests he may have been able to win the fight.

If Olajide could have survived and won the fight he could have challenged Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns for the WBC Middleweight Championship. There’s no way to know what would have happened had he faced Hearns exactly three months later on June 6, 1988, but Barkley—who Olajide was able to drop—defeated Hearns with a 3rd round TKO. Hearns then moved up to the 168 pound Super Middleweight division, where Olajide would eventually face him.

Michael Olajide, Jr. won by a 7th round TKO victory over middleweight Troy Watson in September of that year, followed by a 4th round TKO over Jr. Middleweight Kenny Lopez in late June, 1989. Then, after a December 1, 1989 10 round split decision loss to Dennis Milton at Middleweight, he was granted a challenge against Hearns for the World Boxing Organization (WBO) Super Middleweight Championship of the World on April 28, 1990. He lost a 12 round split decision. But knowing now how diminished he was at this point of his career because of a debilitating eye injury, Olajide’s performance is beyond impressive.

After the Barkley fight Olajide’s father turned trainer responsibilities over to Barkley’s former trainer, Hector Rocha at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. For the Hearns fight Olajide and Rocha traveled together to Florida to train with Angelo Dundee, who added his motivational and strategic brilliance to the overall arsenal. But Olajide had already suffered some retinal problems in his right eye at that point of his career, having sustained an orbital fracture while sparring at Gleason’s in 1986, followed by an exacerbation of the injury when sparring with contender Merqui Sosa. He had gotten medical treatment but was not describing how serious his vision problems were to his doctors and trainers, and after already having a detached retina he suffered an orbital fracture against Hearns that caused severe swelling of his eyeball. His final fight was a 8th round TKO loss to Ray Moncrief in Mobile, Alabama on April 25, 1999.

At 28 Michael Olajide, Jr. was through with professional boxing. He wasn’t world champion and didn’t retire rich and famous, but he found a new form in which to practice the profession. For the last two decades he has used boxing to teach fitness along with self defense, and his Aerospace High Performance Center is thriving. He has been a personal trainer to some top actors and business professionals, and he also worked as a consultant on the film ‘Ali’. Our February interview included a discussion of that transition, as well as the differences in the trainers—his father, Hector Rocha, and Angelo Dundee—who guided his career. Furthermore, we discussed the ability of a fighter to come back from injury, the marketing of a career, and the financial challenges facing actively professional boxers and trainers. These subjects will be explored thoroughly in subsequent articles.