Get in the Ring!

When Sijuola Ade Shabazz was 15 years old, he moved from a small New Mexico town to the larger city of Las Cruces and found himself in conflict with his new peers.

“I got into a lot of fights,” the 25 year old admits today. “But I was always one to be smart about it and know how not to get caught.”

Much of his energy was channeled into his efforts on his high school football team and into running track. Along the way, he became friends with an older boxer who always encouraged him to consider the sport.

“My senior year, I finally went to the [boxing] gym and I fell in love with it immediately,” Shabazz said. “I got into it and I never left.”

William Williams said he was barely out of diapers when his interest in boxing was inspired.

“I was about four years old and saw a boxing match and I knew that was what I wanted to do,” Williams, 20, said. “I even had a little punching bag. I’ve been doing it almost my entire life.”

Both Shabazz and Williams come from athletic families and both received support from their fathers – perhaps busting the angry, isolated young man from- a- rough- background boxing stereotype. Williams’ father played football for the Midwest powerhouse Nebraska Cornhuskers.

“When I showed real interest in boxing, my dad started training me,” Williams said.

Shabazz’s father was a grand master in the martial arts.

“I was always interested in it,” Shabazz said. “Plus I had a lot of brothers, so we were always fighting.”

Williams and Shabazz have a few other things in common. Both came up just short in amateur boxing’s U.S. Nationals; both are aspiring Olympians; both have significant accomplishments in the international boxing arena. They are both, at the very least, fighters to keep an eye on in the very near future.

Thanks to another commonality, the committed young men’s careers will be particularly convenient for South Florida boxing fans and general sports enthusiasts to monitor.

Williams and Shabazz are two of the approximate 15 members of the Miami Gallos, South Florida’s newest sports franchise, set to launch on November 23.

The name Gallos most closely translates to “Gamecocks” in American sports lingo.

Miami’s was the first of the four North American World Series of Boxing (WSB) franchises to announce its name.

For the uninitiated, WSB is the vehicle through which mankind’s oldest sport is evolving for the 21st century. That evolution begins in earnest with this November’s launch of the inaugural season. Initiated by the International Boxing Association (AIBA), WSB will be the only professional series in which boxers will retain their Olympic eligibility and federations will receive a return on their investment in boxers. The WSB will crown both individual and city-based teams as world champions. The WSB boxers will compete within teams across three global regions: Europe, Asia and the Americas.

The Americas’ teams are Los Angeles, Memphis, Mexico City and Miami.

“Over the last few years, the AIBA has worked on this concept to create a hybrid of amateur, Olympic and professional boxing to have commercial appeal and to support people training for the Olympics,” said Miami Gallos General Manager Mike Sophia. “In the past guys would train for three years for the Olympics, then go compete and afterward a promoter would usually make them an offer and they would jump at it. The WSB creates a system that allows them to compete, to provide for their families and to maintain their status for the Olympics.”

As Sophia rightly pointed out, boxing is one of the last sports to head down the road to professionalizing.

“Because the AIBA created the league, it created rules to allow for players on teams to maintain their amateur status for the Olympics,” Sophia said.

In the past and in other sports, critics have complained that rules that permit millionaire American athletes from Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association to compete in the Olympics against 20 year-old amateurs from other nations.

However, both the sport of boxing and the AIBA, are international – creating a legitimately level playing field.

That playing field is advantageous to athletes, global boxing and fans.

“Boxing is a tough game,” Sophia said. “As young boxers are coming up, most don’t have the resources they need. When someone comes along and offers them 20 thousand, thirty thousand, forty thousand dollars…in a contract…it looks good…even if it’s not friendly to the boxer. The WSB gives these fighters a chance to compete against some of the best boxers in the world, to work with great coaches and to [support themselves].

Rather than working in a relative vacuum in preparation to climb the boxing ladder rungs to the Olympic team, the WSB brings together the next generation of great fighting talent in a collective, structured environment.

Sophia said that each team will have six home and six away matches. Winners of each of the three international conferences and one wildcard advance to the playoffs.

Although the WSB has been in development for a number of years, at least for the Miami franchise, things came together fast. Unable to attract private ownership groups –which the international conferences did – the league itself owns the North American franchises. The Miami-Dade Sports Commission is managing the business aspects of the Gallos for the time being. Miami was awarded the franchise from a short list of cities in contention and clearly both its history with the sport and its international nature must have been determining factors in addition to geography.

This inaugural season certainly has had some bumps in the road, with the schedule already changed at least once and with the Gallos coming together for the kickoff competition a little late because of the time it took for team members from overseas to arrive in Florida.

Still, all signs point to a very competitive team in a terrifically competitive new sports league.

“The WSB is the best going against the best,” Sophia said. “Fighters aren’t going to have to build records by competing against lesser boxer. All of the guys are part of the Olympic boxing system. Some are past Olympians; some are future Olympians. In terms of amateur Olympians, these are the best boxers.”

Sophia said he is excited about the makeup of the Miami Gallos.

“These guys have a ton of talent,” he said. “I feel like we are going to be competitive right from the beginning.”

The team consists of three boxers per weight division in each of those five divisions.

Gallos members are excited about the opportunity that the WSB is providing them.

Shabazz said he was ready to turn pro but decided to “stick around” for the WSB.

“I’m looking for the Olympics,” Shabazz said. “I want to represent the United States in the Olympics and to win the gold medal. I also want to be the champion of this league and to help the team win the championship. I might even want that more than I want the Olympics.”

Williams said he is looking forward to three years of the WSB in advance of the Olympics. He too is eyeing the Olympics and WSB championship.

“I think the WSB is going to change the sport,” Williams said. “There are a lot of young boxers out there looking for something like this.”

Although it might be a subtle difference to the very casual fight fan, one distinct aspect of the WSB is mightily appealing to Shabazz and Williams.

“With the league, it’s pro-style boxing and that gives you a better chance to make the Olympics,” Williams said.

Shabazz feels his second place finish at the U.S. Nationals last year would have ended in a victory had professional rules been in effect.

“In amateur you have head gear and I thought I should have won because [his opponent] just touched me,” Shabazz said. “Pro scoring will be a big change. The changes showcase a fighter’s true skill. This will show who the real boxers are.”

Fight fans are in for a treat with the launch of the Miami Gallos – once they find out about them.

“A lot of people don’t know about [the WSB] yet,” Sophia said. “Those who do, love it.”

In marketing terms, Sophia said the franchise is focusing on two strategies.

 “We’re reaching out to the grass roots, to boxing fans, to the local boxing gyms – people we expect will be interested,” he said. “Then we’re targeting general sports fans and we want to bring them in. It’s not an easy process. We want to make sure that we’re providing a high quality product to help create buzz about it…and so that people will keep coming back.”

Sophia said the grassroots approach is preferable because the team feels it is the most effective. Gallos team members have already been active at youth, charitable and other events in South Florida.

“We won’t have the marketing budget that the Miami Heat or the Miami Dolphins have,” Sophia said. “We got a decent advertising budget and we will do that. But in this market, it’s about reaching the right people with the right message.”

Miami boxing enthusiast Joel Simpson said that he remembered hearing about Miami’s WSB franchise but was surprised that the season was at hand.

“There is so much sports in South Florida that I guess it’s easy for a whole new league and team to be kind-of lost in the shuffle,” Simpson said. “I like and follow a lot of sports, but the big teams here get most the attention. The Heat with the LeBron thing…the Dolphins season at midway…there is a lot of attention focused on those things. I want to see how the Gallos do but I think I would like to see one of their matches.

Hollywood’s David Gimmel said he has followed all of the news related to the Gallos. The former Navy boxer said he remains a huge boxing fan.

“I wasn’t this excited when Miami got the Marlins,” Gimmel said. “This is such a sports crazy area with such a history in the fight game, I’m surprised the Gallos haven’t generated more attention. I guess it will take a while.”

Gimmel, though, said he would definitely make the short trip to Miami to see the Gallos’ fighters box.

“I don’t think casual fans understand yet just what an improvement on the old ‘system’ that the WSB is,” Gimmel said. “I also think it will have a big impact on the Olympics.”

Sophia said that his goal is to fill the 4,000 available seats at matches at the American Airlines Arena.

“I’m not sure about opening night, but we’ll get there,” Sophia said.

For more information on the Miami Gallos and the team schedule, visit www.miamigallos.com.

About Michael W Sasser

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