EARLY on the evening of February 16, 2006, Anthony Ottah took the subway from his home in Brooklyn to 34th Street in Manhattan. Ottah was a large muscular man, 40 years old, with a dignified presence and honest face. He came to the United States from Nigeria in 1982 and had been married for 18 years. He and his wife had a 15-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter.
Ottah was wearing black work-pants and a blue denim jacket over a green sweatshirt. He had shaved earlier in the day. His face and scalp were smooth. At 250 pounds, there was a little extra weight on his 6ft 1in frame, but he was in good shape.
Ottah had fought as an amateur from 1988 until 1990 and returned to the ring a decade later. His first professional bout was a four-round loss in 2001 to a fighter who was also making his pro debut. On February 16, as he rode the subway, his record stood at one win, four losses, and one draw with no knockouts either way. He trained two or three times a week after his day job for an hour at the Kingsway Gym. “I like to box,” he said. “It teaches you to respect other men. I do it because I enjoy it. It’s inbred.”
Ottah was what is known in the trade as an “opponent.” He fought with dignity and he fought to win. He simply wasn’t at a level where he could make a living doing it and never would be. On this particular night, he’d been penciled in as a “learning experience” for a young prospect named Kevin Burnett. There were fighters who Ottah could beat, but he’d been chosen for this evening with confidence that he simply wasn’t good enough to beat the gifted young man who would be in front of him.
Fights like this are essential to boxing. They’re part of what goes into building a young fighter. If a prospect like Burnett goes in tough too many times, there will be excess wear and tear on his body and any losses will make it harder for him to get to the big dollars. Hence, mismatches. A mismatch is a fight in which a fighter’s physical assets and skill level are so superior to that of his opponent that the outcome is a foregone conclusion. In other words, a mismatch is about watching a highly-skilled, physically-gifted athlete beat up another person.
Burnett was 6ft 6ins tall and 23 years old with a 2-0 record. In 50 amateur fights, he’d registered 37 knockouts. His trainer was Don Turner, who’d worked with Evander Holyfield and Larry Holmes. There was money behind him.
When DiBella Entertainment (which was promoting the fight) suggested Ottah as an opponent, the Burnett camp asked around and got a uniform response. Ottah was a tough guy who would stand and fight, but his skills were limited. Very limited.
“That’s what we want,” Burnett’s manager, Craig Hamilton said. “We don’t want an opponent who will run and hold and make Kevin look bad. We want a guy who will stand in front of him and fight. I know Ottah is tough and I know Ottah is coming to win. But if Kevin can’t handle him, then we’re very wrong about Kevin.”
Ottah knew his limitations. “I’d have more of a future in this game if I was young,” he said one day before the fight. “But what can I do? In life, there is always joy and there are always regrets. I hope to win this fight. Then I’ll talk about more.”
Meanwhile, the much-respected Jimmy Glenn, who gave Ottah a hand early in the fighter’s career, acknowledged, “I don’t call promoters for him anymore, but sometimes they call him. He told me a few weeks ago, ‘Jimmy, I took the fight.’ I try to be nice to everyone and let them down easy, so what could I say? He’s a fighter at heart. There ain’t no quit in him. He should have retired a few years ago, but everybody sees that George Foreman thing and thinks they can fight forever. Hopefully, he won’t get hurt. And when he retires, he’ll have done what he wanted to do.”
Ottah was hardly a typical fighter. After coming to the United States to get an education, he graduated from the State University of New York with a degree in accounting. At the time he fought Burnett, he was an examiner for the New York State Department of Insurance. His job was to audit the books of insurance companies to make sure that they were in compliance with state law. He wasn’t fighting out of desperation. He was fighting because he wanted to fight.
“I come from a fighting clan,” he said. “Where I was born, in a village called Nenwe, we box as a tradition. The men box and the whole village comes to watch. From the time I was three years old, I was boxing.”
Other than his health, Ottah had nothing to lose by fighting Burnett. But he didn’t have much to gain either. The fight was scheduled for four rounds. His purse would be $1,000. DiBella was pleased that Ottah lived in Brooklyn. That meant he wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel room and airfare to bring him in for the fight.
As Ottah was travelling alone on the subway, Kevin Burnett walked from his room at The New Yorker Hotel to the Manhattan Center next-door where the fight would take place. Don Turner, Craig Hamilton, and Johnnie Ray Kinsey (his weight-training coach) were with him. Burnett, Turner, and Kinsey had come to New York from their training camp in North Carolina three days earlier. Hamilton drove in from Long Island on the day of the fight.
Burnett’s management team had three participants. Hamilton did the nuts-and-bolts day-to-day work and was the expert on the business of boxing. Previously, he had guided Michael Grant to $8 million in purses highlighted by a $3.5 million payday for fighting Lennox Lewis at Madison Square Garden. New York attorney Gary Friedman provided legal expertise. Steve Geppi (a Baltimore businessman who owned several auction houses and was one of the largest comic-book distributors in the world) was the money guy.
Pursuant to contract, Burnett received a stipend of $2,000 a month. Management also paid $1,000 a month for weight-training, $1,000 a month for training camp expenses, and other boxing-related outlays such as the cost of sparring partners. All of these expenses were advances against future earnings.
In return, management would receive 30 per cent of each Burnett purse of one million dollars or less. The percentage would be adjusted downward on a sliding scale to as little as 15 per cent on purses above that number. So far, Hamilton and company hadn’t taken their share of any purse, but Burnett had been required to pay Turner his 10 per cent trainer’s fee. For the Ottah fight, Burnett’s purse would be $800. The amount was irrelevant. It was the learning experience and the expected “W” on his record that were important.
Burnett was one of seven children from a single-parent family in Georgia. He started boxing at the Augusta Boxing Club when he was eight years old. Initially, Hamilton had concerns about Burnett’s conditioning and eating habits. On Thanksgiving Day 2005, he weighed 338 pounds. Then Turner and Kinsey got their hands on him. Fat was being replaced by muscle. He now weighed 290 pounds with a projected goal of 265. “Being a fighter is healthy if you do it right,” Burnett said. “You have to take care of your body, exercise and eat right. I know that now.”
Burnett had never been knocked down as an amateur or pro and maintained that he had never been badly hurt either. “My best weapons are my jab, my left hook, and body shots,” he said the day before he fought Ottah. “I don’t know my weaknesses yet. But as the competition steps up, I’ll find out what they are.” Then he added, “I’m in boxing to make history. I daydream about being heavyweight champion of the world and one of the greatest fighters of all time. Boxing gives me the opportunity to create my own historic legacy.”
In the dressing room at the Manhattan Center, Don Turner looked around the room and smiled. “The journey has begun,” he said.
Ottah arrived at the Manhattan Center at 6:30pm. His fight against Burnett would be the first bout of the evening, the spot generally reserved for the least-competitive match-up of the night. He had been assigned to the “opponents” dressing room with Jose Spearman, Anthony Hunter, Cliff Walker, and Christopher “Shaka” Henry, each of whom would be knocked out later in the evening in less than three full rounds.
Ottah stripped down to white briefs and white socks and did several minutes of stretching exercises alone on the floor. Then trainer Willie Dunne joined him. A New York State Athletic Commission doctor came in and checked his blood pressure. Ottah put on his protective cup. Dunne rubbed Vaseline on his legs and arms.
“Does anyone have a towel?” Dunne asked.
No one did, so the trainer left the room to find one.
Ottah took a pair of creased black trunks out of his gym bag and put them on. Dunne returned with a towel. There were more stretching exercises. Dunne taped Ottah’s hands, put Vaseline on the fighter’s torso and face, and wiped his hands with the newly-acquired towel. Ottah gloved up and began working the pads with Dunne.
“If he’s coming at you,” Dunne instructed, “stand up to the man. Get one in there so he stops coming. The minute he cocks his hand – BOOM – left hook to the body. Hook to the body; then the right hand behind it. Two shots at a time. Don’t go for three.”
Each time Ottah jabbed, he lifted his head and brought his left hand back slowly, fatal flaws in boxing.
“Don’t raise up, damn it,” Dunne cautioned. “Stay low; close it up. Don’t leave a lane for the guy to come back at you. Look; this guy you’re fighting is soft. He’s overweight; he weighs 290 pounds. This is an easy fight for you. Just don’t get hit with something you don’t need to get hit with. Fight smart. Keep him in the center of the ring. Put your weight behind your punches. This is an opportunity for you, man.” Don Quixote and Sancho Panza tilting at windmills.
At precisely 8pm, Ottah entered the ring. To those in attendance, he wasn’t an educated man, a husband, or father. He was an opponent. He looked lonely, like a bull being led to slaughter. A minute later, Kevin Burnett stood opposite him. Referee Tony Chiarantano gave the fighters their final instructions. On paper, it was an easy fight for Burnett. In the ring, it would be hard.
Seconds into round one, Ottah landed an overhand right flush on Burnett’s cheek, then another. They didn’t do much damage because throwing punches is an art that Ottah hasn’t fully mastered. But they sent a message: “I’m here to fight.” Burnett began stalking but he was neglecting his jab. That enabled Ottah get off first. It was Ottah’s round.
Round two was more of the same with Ottah throwing wide looping punches. A stiff jab would have stopped him in his tracks. Or Burnett could have stepped inside and beaten him to the punch with a left hook or uppercut. But the prospect did neither, nor was he showing much in the way of head movement. He was losing form. Ottah was loading up on every punch and landing from time to time. Burnett scored with an overhand right that stopped his Ottah momentarily. Then Ottah came forward again, anxious to trade. Again, it was his round.
A trainer and management team can bring a fighter only so far. In the end, the fighter has to get in the ring and do things for himself. “You’re down two rounds,” Don Turner told his charge. “There’s two rounds left. Get it together now.”
Burnett came out more aggressively in round three. Finally, he was effectively working his jab. Ottah was tiring. He was a 40-year-old man who had only three hours a week to train. His hands were dropping lower and lower, his punches coming in ever-widening arcs. Burnett landed several hooks to the head and body followed by an uppercut, the best punch by either man in the fight. Clearly, it was Burnett’s round.
Round four. The prospect’s pedigree was showing. Jab, jab, body shot, hook to the jaw. “My best asset as a fighter,” Ottah had said one day earlier, “is my ability to ride out the punches when I’m hit.” Now he was in trouble. It was time for Burnett to pour it on, knock him down, hurt him, make it a 10-8 round to win the fight. Gut-check time for both men. Ottah landed an overhand right. He was going to fight till the end.
And then Burnett did something that a fighter should never do if he’s intent on becoming great. With 30 seconds left and victory within reach, he made a silent compact with his opponent. He backed off and, by his conduct, told Ottah, “I’m not pressing the action anymore, and you shouldn’t either.”
Ottah had gotten 100 per cent out of what he had. For every second of the fight, he’d pushed himself to the limit and done everything he was capable of doing. Burnett fell short of that standard. Burnett won the round, but it wasn’t enough. The decision of the judges was a draw.
After the fight, Ottah took a quick shower, dressed without drying himself fully, and picked up his paycheck. He had earned every penny of it. “This is a game where you have to prove yourself every time out,” he said. When he spoke, he put emphasis on the word “every.”
Anthony Ottah took the blows of a younger stronger man and kept coming. He’d matched his heart and will against his foe in the same way, if not with the same skill, that Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier did against one another. He had earned the respect that is due to a professional fighter. That was a good note to end his ring career on. He never fought again.