Sport Wednesday, February 10th Words by: Adam Knight

'Someone's 0's gotta go': Undefeated Hereford boxer Yusuf Abdallah ahead of his first major hometown show

Sport Wednesday, February 10th

'Someone's 0's gotta go': Undefeated Hereford boxer Yusuf Abdallah ahead of his first major hometown show

“I’ve been boxing for two years. Anthony Joshua was boxing for five before he won Olympic gold. I can get there.

“See,” Yusuf Abdallah, adds, “I didn’t even flinch when I said that.”

Not much – nothing in fact – seems to cause the 20-year-old to flinch.

On questions about religion – he is a practising Muslim – to the modern morality of pro boxing, the former karate prodigy talks quicker than he fights. And he fights quick.

Too quick for my camera lens, which - after two hours in the gym - came up with just six useable shots, unblurred by the welterweight’s constant motion.

And too quick for his first two opponents in the amateur ranks (“With respect to the guys I fought, I’ve had tougher spars than my first two fights put together.”)

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This Saturday he will fight for the first time in front of a hometown crowd, the sole Herefordshire representative on the televised England v Wales amateur card at Hereford Sixth Form College.

His opponent, a stocky 71kg paratrooper, was substituted in after an injury to his original opponent three weeks ago.

Abdallah’s camp only found out last weekend.

At the same time, the mystery paratrooper extended his own amateur record to 3-0.

“Someone’s 0’s gotta go,” Abdallah smiles. “And it won’t be mine. Not in my hometown. No chance.”

He’ll wear England colours, but in more ways than one as he’ll be representing Egypt – the land where he was born and raised, and the country that put a fire in his heart and steel behind his punches.

A former student at the sixth form college, Saturday’s venue is the same sports hall where Abdallah first met the coaches who will corner him on the weekend.

It was there he learned his first heavy-footed push steps during the kind of grinding technical practices that form a key part of any young fighter’s fundamental introduction to the sweet science, a million miles from the Muhammad Ali YouTube clips that entinced them into the gym in the first place.

He followed coaches Vince McNally and Richie Roberts to the South Wye Police Boxing Academy to continue his education, soon becoming the gym’s golden boy.

He featured on his first amateur card at Birmingham’s Gatecrasher nightclub in October, following up with a second victory a month later.

And when the lights go down in that sports hall on Saturday night - as the heat in the building rises, and the cheers from those suited and booted at ringside builds to a fever pitch - the simple gym from his schooldays will appear every bit as transformed as the fighter that started there. 

As a second-year medical student at Birmingham University, Abdallah studies brain trauma by day. yusufeditedited

By night he pulls on the gloves and, in essence, trains to inflict it.

From the outside it’s a slightly uncomfortable dichotomy.

And Abdallah admits himself that when he’s watching a pro fight and sees a boxer is hurt, he instinctively falls into a kind of dual perspective – as a doctor, looking for the tell-tale physical ticks that indicate it’s no longer safe for the fighter to continue, and as a boxer, knowing that fighters can rally and overcome and that every win, every battle is the pro’s chance to “put bread on the table”.

“From a moral standpoint, pro boxing is immoral,” Abdallah said.

“There’s no way around it in my eyes. Amateur boxing is a little different.

“The BMJ – British Medical Journal – collated all the research and said that 20 percent of all pro boxers will end up with some sort of brain injury. Whereas in the amateurs there is no link to brain injury.”

There are simple, small reasons for this – bigger gloves, shorter bouts, which in turn lead to shorter spars in camp, and a clear learning culture in the amateur ranks – but there is one that looms large, casting a shadow over all of pro boxing. 

“There is no point in being a journeyman boxer unless you’re going to get paid,” adds Abdallah.

“There’s no point in getting hit in the head unless you are going to get paid. If you didn’t have pro boxing as it is, if you didn’t have that side of the game, the number of injuries would be much less.

“[Cuban world champ] Guillermo Rigondeaux won his last fight throwing 7 punches a round. He sucked the life out of his opponent. But people don’t want to see that. They want a bloody spectacle.”

Abdallah is a charismatic figure. He quotes Tyson and Lennox Lewis, listens to hip-hop and, on rare occasion, blasphemes in English – in Christian, in fact. 

But he also places absolute trust in the traditional pillars of family and faith to be the driving forces behind an incredibly driven young man.

“When it comes to winning in the ring, as a Muslim we say, Inshaallah – God willing.

“Some people might interpret that as a weakness, that you’re leaving it to God. But it’s not – I left it all in the gym, and I’m sure God will deliver what I want to get done.”

Abdallah’s ability to move between circles, and to simultaneously hold in his head two separate ideas with comfortable certainty, and to do so with ease and an ever-present smile, may seem surprising until you learn about his younger years.

 

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He's lived in Britain for six years, moving when his parents - one a doctor, one a dentist - relocated the family to England for work.

His father, who works at the County Hospital in Hereford, preferred squash to boxing.

But in him Abdallah always has someone to sort his hands out after a fight, he jokes.

“He’s a great parent. But I go to him with a messed-up hand and he’s got that mentality – 'just put a paper towel on it'. He knows if it’s serious I probably would have gone to a doctor in hospital.”

Before moving here, Abdallah lived in Egypt, rolling through a laundry list of sports.

At six, he placed third in the national junior Karate championships in Cairo. He would later leave the martial art on the advice of doctors, an inflammation in his hip leading them to suggest a lower impact sport. He chose water polo.

“The biggest thing I gained from those sports wasn’t physical, it was mental. That work ethic,” Abdallah said.

“I remember that to warm-up – and this might sound like child abuse but it made me tough – we would run on a sand track, and this is Egypt so it is hot, with ankle weights.

“We were six-, seven-year-olds.

“At water polo, to develop strength we would wear jeans in the pool with the belt done up, then for our upper body we would have to hold a plastic chair above our heads while treading water.

“Now when I’m doing conditioning, it’s 12, 15 minutes of hard work. You can be strong for 15 minutes, that’s nothing. Enjoy the pain.”

Moving to Hereford, Abdallah started at The Bishop of Hereford Bluecoat School in Year 9. The ‘terrorist’ jokes started in his first week.

“Coming at that age when friendships are formed, as a foreign kid – it wasn’t the easiest,” he said.

“At the start I took it on the chin, part of it was that I didn’t want to get in a fight during my first week at a new school.

“Eventually I had to draw a line. To be fair the teachers were really supportive about it. But they were supportive if you bugged them about it.” arty

Those playground politics have never fully left him, because, sadly, they have never fully left Hereford.

Recently the city’s Muslim community raised money, and bought the land for a mosque, Abdallah said. Although apparently it’s not that simple.

“What you hear is that people are worried about us waking up at 5am and going ALLLLAAAAH AAAAHKBAAAR out in the street.

“That’s not going to happen. It’s just a place for people to pray.

“It’s just Hereford. It’s pretty mono-cultural, it’s a small place.

“Coming from Egypt it’s a very forgiving culture. I don’t care what religion you are, your skin colour – if you’re bright pink, I couldn’t give a s*** – if you treat me well, I’ll treat you well.

“But the smaller the population of a place, the more isolated the people are. They haven’t met that person – that Muslim, that Sikh, that Jew – it’s almost just a fear of the unknown.”

The list of Muslim world champions is arguably as long in boxing as in any other individual sport. From Muhammad Ali to Bernard Hopkins, trainer Naazim Richardson, and Britain’s Prince Naseem Hamed and Amir Khan.

For Abdallah, who doesn’t drink, choosing to train in the late-night and early-morning timeslots his opponents spend clubbing – he doesn’t have a girlfriend, in order to avoid the temptation of pre-marital sex - that link is not a coincidence.

He trains six times a week, three times hitting pads and bags, and three sessions a gruelling combination of Marvin Haggler hill sprints and longer runs.

“It’s all an element of discipline,” he said.

“When you have that mentality in your everyday life, when it comes to boxing, discipline is not going to be a problem. It’s not new to you. You are just changing your goal.

“They say ‘what is your why’?

“And in pro boxing often that why is women, money and alcohol. And that’s not strong enough to keep you there in a fight. But if your why is your pride, representing your country, if it is strong enough, nothing can stop you.

“I can wake up early Sunday morning and do my running, then work for the rest of the day.

“The only thing that lacks is that social side. I’ll hold my hands up to that. But for me I enjoy my boxing enough to make that sacrifice.

“Look at Ali in the Liston fight, he wasn’t a Muslim but he was living like one. He was a monk. He was training on his own. Not worrying about women. Not drinking. And he went in and demolished the man.

“After that he gets the fame, the money, the women come in. By the Thriller in Manilla he was introducing his girlfriend to the President while his wife was at home, and you can see how much more difficult that fight was for him.

“Boxing is 90 percent mental, 10 percent physical. But that 10 percent requires 100 percent of your physical capacity.” 

In preparation for this fight, Abdallah has worked closely with McNally to design fitness drills. In one session he alternates between punch-out drills on the heavy bags, and dumbbell thrusters – an exercise specifically designed to draw every drop of lactic acid to his shoulders and thighs.

Other days he spars for four three-minute rounds with just thirty seconds rest – Saturday’s fight is three threes, with a minute between rounds.

Abdallah said: “Most people find boxing difficult because they gas out. There’s getting punched in the face, but mostly it’s gassing out.

“No-one’s going to out-condition me. I’d do sprints the night before the fight, but Vince won’t let me.”

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He has also been working with GB coach Alan Keast in Tamworth, and sparring against fresh faces in Aston and Stafford, where he’d take on experienced amateurs with up 20 fights under their respective belts.

In one spar, against a Hereford heavyweight – Abdallah is a welterweight – he describes getting caught right on the button and having to hang on to bigger man like he was “hugging his dearest love.”

But fighting bigger boxers in camp gives him confidence, Abdallah said.

“When I go in against someone my weight, I know they can’t hurt me.”

Last time out, he left a 28-year-old Polish fighter bloody and beaten. And in his third fight, Abdallah is predicting the more of the same.

“I never look past my opponent,” he said. “I look through them.

“Before I go in the ring, I’ll put my mind on doing my family proud. I’m not going to let them down. That’s one thing that’s really important to me.

“In football or hockey, you can go out as a team and win because you played well as a team. And that’s great, some people like that bonding.

“I don’t function as a team, I function as me.

“In the ring, it’s on me. I like that kind of pressure.

 “You go out there and do your best. And because I’ve trained my ass off, my best is going to be good enough.”

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You can find out more about the England v Wales boxing show @ Hereford Sixth Form College this Saturday - including how to get your hands on some tickets here.

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