Kassim Ouma: A Former Child Soldier Fought to Be a World Boxing Champion. Then Things Got Interesting.
“I don’t get scared in the ring,” says Kassim Ouma, former World Junior Middleweight Champion. “I get a bit nervous before a fight but sometimes, in the ring, you don’t even know that you get hit.”
“If I didn’t have boxing then I don’t know what would have happened. Maybe I would be dead or something. Hopefully, I would have stayed in school. Who knows? That is why I say that boxing is my therapy. I love it. It helped me get out.”
Kassim Ouma and I are sitting in a booth in a chain restaurant by a shopping mall car park just outside Trenton, New Jersey. Outside, cars and trucks rumble and fly by on a freeway. Inside, in the late afternoon, only a few other tables are occupied as we drink — at Kassim’s suggestion — strawberry yogurt smoothies .
The smoothies, it’s agreed, are a good choice on this late summer day. Kassim, though, remains restless. His leg twitches, he takes a call on his cell phone when it rings, he slurps on his drink, he looks around at whatever in the restaurant might distract him.
It’s probable, and not unreasonable, that he can think of a thousand places he’d rather be than here, talking about his past, present, and future. Kassim is like a child with an attention disorder. But to be fair, he maybe has his reasons. Inside his present, there’s a lot of past. It’s a past that would make you twitchy as all hell, too.
So, let’s get this out of the way. Kassim Ouma is a killer. Not “killer” as in a description of a feisty boxer who hits hard. Kassim is a real killer. A child killer. When he was younger, about seven years old, he killed people. A lot of people. Some may even have been friends. It doesn’t make him — a World Champion boxer — any tougher. It makes him sad — and a little mad. Mad as in angry. And mad as in crazy.
Way back then, back before Kassim knew this fast food chain, strawberry yogurt smoothies, and Trenton, even existed, he lived in Uganda. At the age of about five, maybe six, soldiers from the army of Yoweri Museveni, a Ugandan rebel leader, stormed his primary school class and kidnapped all the young boys in the room. They drove them off in a garbage truck to what would fast become a living hell. Whether he wanted to join, or not, Kassim was recruited as a soldier for Museveni’s National Resistance Army.
“There’s no more mummies and daddies,” the boys were told. “If you cry then something is going to happen to you.”
Kassim was given a gun — an AK-47. He was ordered to shoot and kill. The choice was simple. Kill or be killed. He was no older than six years old.
At that time, Museveni was leading an uprising against Ugandan president Milton Obote. Today, he is president of Uganda. When Museveni’s army won the civil war, Kassim flipped from rebel soldier to a member of a legitimate national army. There were some benefits. He was selected to fight for the army’s boxing team. It turned out he had a talent. He was picked to box at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games but didn’t make it to America that time. There was no money to pay for the trip.
The following year, a similar opportunity came to fight at the World Military Boxing Championships in the United States. Ouma found sponsorship for a flight from Kampala to Washington DC. He arrived alone in America in February, 1998. He walked out of the airport, onto the street and, leaving a wife and two children behind in Uganda, set off on foot into America and a new life.
“The weather was the strangest thing,” Ouma recalls. He speaks quickly and quietly. “It was too cold. When I stepped outside the airport it was so cold that I stepped right back in. It was so cold. And the trees! The trees were all dry! Trees are supposed to be green but they were all dry.”
A curious taxi driver eventually picked up Ouma. The driver was an immigrant from Ghana and took Ouma to a budget motel more popular with junkies than tourists. The motel owner befriended Ouma and when she discovered he was an aspiring boxer (if being a member of Uganda’s national team qualifies you as ‘aspiring’) she told him she knew former world champ Joe Frazier had a gym in Philadelphia and Sugar Ray Leonard ran another in Maryland.
Kassim bought a bike and started pedaling along the six-lane interstate highway to Philly or Maryland. The cops stopped him and gave him a geography lesson. Philadelphia and Maryland were further than pedal power could take him. He turned his bike around. He needed another plan.
Kassim landed a job as at a nearby pizza restaurant, delivering junk mail ads door-to-door. A pattern emerged — Kassim does not do things the way most of us do. Rather than leave leaflets in letterboxes, he hand-delivered each flyer personally to each resident. He asked at each house if anybody living there knew of any boxing gyms he could train at.
He found the nearby Alexandria Boxing Club. It was not Sugar Ray’s place nor Joe Frazier’s but it had a ring and a bag and weights. Kassim returned to training and a few months in went to watch a nearby Golden Gloves bout. A fighter withdrew. Ouma stepped up to the ring to take his place. He won the tournament.
That victory also won attention and eventually led to a guy called Tom Moran, — who would prove influential in Ouma’s unfolding career — offering to be Kassim’s manager. Six years later, Kassim Ouma was handed the IBF’s World Junior Middleweight belt. He was a champion. Kassim had lived his dream.
“Hello, I am Kassim Ouma, World Boxing Champion,” Ouma announced when we first met at a train station in New Jersey. He was right but also kind of wrong. The train station, in the way out suburbs, was not just a long way from Uganda but also a long way from 2004 when Ouma actually was a world champion.
But Ouma, truly, has skills. They include machine gun punches that pound rivals. At his peak, when he won the world title against Verno Phillips in 2004, he landed 193 punches in one round.
“In one fight, I made 1331 punches in ten rounds,” Ouma explains.
I ask him to repeat the number just to check I heard right.
“One thousand, three hundred, and thirty one,” he says.
Manager Tom Moran nods.
“I love boxing,” Kassim adds. “ It’s fun. Boxing is my therapy.”
But since that 12-month title flash in 2004, Ouma has battled to rattle off hits. He lost his belt — most say meekly — to Russian Roman Karmazin in 2005. He struggled to put together enough fights to have a serious pop at another title.
“I’m not in the ring doing it and it’s easy for me to sit back and say it,” suggests Tom Moran. “But Kassim lost his zest for the sport and he lost his passion. It is hard to get up. But there is no doubt that if he can get back to where he was then he may end up having the most incredible story.”
As his manager reveals this, Ouma, now 30, ignores Moran and adds his own version of the situation: “I say to people that I am retired but I am not retired. I am just on an extended break. I love boxing. I love the sport. The sport still needs me. I’m old but not that old.”
A reason, some suggest, that Ouma is not the fighter he once was is he’s too easily distracted. He likes to gather friends around and party, often at the expense of training. On occasion, he smoked pot outside a gym when he should have been sparring. When a key fight is looming fast, he agrees that’s not best preparation. But Ouma probably has a right to be distracted. He carries his past with him wherever he goes.
“Sometimes, I am sleeping and then I wake up and I think, ‘What’s going on?’” he explains. “It will be like a dream. I’ll be like… ‘C’mon, I am tired. I have been walking all day and all night.’
“We used to do a lot of walking in Africa. From place to place — there were no cars. We would walk from right here…” — he points to the table — “… to New York City. That’s why I don’t like walking right now. I’m tired right now.”
He sinks back into the booth, slurps his smoothie, and looks out the window at the speeding traffic.
“I have never met anyone who is as jovial as Kassim,” says Kief Davidson. “He has an amazing attitude. For someone who has been through what he’s been through, it is stunning that he walks around with a smile on his face.”
Davidson is the director of a documentary film — Kassim The Dream — that followed Ouma’s bid to regain his title. He also travelled with the boxer and manager Moran back to Uganda to revisit Ouma’s homeland with his world title belt.
“He genuinely enjoys life but there are two sides to him,” Davidson explains. “There is the happy optimistic Kassim Ouma, who you always see with a smile on his face and then there is the dark side. He is a man of many extremes. He doesn’t like to think about his past but when he does…”
“He definitely missed out on his childhood,” Davidson adds. “He was kidnapped at the age of six — which is before the age of reason. He still lives his life as a teenager would. He missed out on his childhood so he is trying to make up for it now. He is very jovial and likes to play hard and party hard. It will be interesting to see where he is in 10 years and see if he is still acting like a teenager.”
Ouma is the seventh of 13 children. His return to Uganda with Moran and with Davidson’s cameras was complicated not just by his fame as a world champion but also, privately and personally, by visiting the grave of his father, beaten and murdered after Kassim fled to the United States.
Then there was the Ugandan government’s response to Ouma’s flight from the country while enlisted in the army. Government and military officials were unimpressed and keen for Kassim to not be painted as a returning legend.
“It was like going back with a national hero,” Moran recalls of the trip. “It got to where I told Kassim not to put his head out of the window because we would get mobbed. I went to Indonesia with Muhammad Ali in 1993 and it was similar in a way but the love for Kassim in Uganda was overwhelming.”
The army threatened jail — or worse — for Ouma’s desertion.
“As much as Kassim wanted to go back to Uganda, he was very scared to go back,” Davidson explains. “He was not sure if the government would try to arrest him or if the someone would try to take a shot at him. [Thankfully] they looked at it as a good PR opportunity for themselves.”
Davidson’s cameras accompanied Ouma and Moran as they met with Ugandan government and military officials to discuss the boxer’s future. Smartly, Ouma received a pardon. All was forgiven (if not forgotten) but Ouma is unlikely to permanently return home any time soon.
“I miss Africa,” he explains. “I miss Africa a lot. I would like to go back and live in Uganda but there is no money there. The US is my home away from home. I have kids in the US who are American citizens and I am looking to be an American citizen, too. So… I am American.”
There is yet another challenge for Ouma. With Moran, he’s working to build awareness about African causes within the corridors of the United States government and flagging suggestions for simpler, more direct, methods of aid.
“We need to get the aid straight to the people direct,” Ouma says. “One thing about African leaders is that they put the family and friends first not the people. That is what this is about. They have to put the people first.”
That is Ouma’s roundabout diplomatic way of suggesting that many leaders in Africa are probably corrupt and all the good stuff that is generously sent as aid from abroad goes to the friends and family of government officials rather than for whom it was originally intended — the poor.
“He has been given a gift and it is his responsibility,” Moran says of Kassim’s latest mission. “There are pop stars for Africa but where are the African celebrities?”
Moran’s guiding light shines bright for Kassim, who refers to the American-Irishman from Philadelphia as his “Uncle Tom”. The boxer calls himself “Black Irish” in reference to Moran’s family roots and their bond. Moran the manager has become Kassim’s father figure and role model.
“Tom is the only guy who Kassim really trusts,” says Davidson, who spent time with both. “He is really a father figure although Kassim calls him his Uncle Tom. I don’t know if he understands what an ‘Uncle Tom’ means.”
“But Tom really took him under his wing and he is the only person here in America who has stuck by him though the highs and the lows — not only as his manager but his close friend.”
Moran is himself a fighter. He has clashed with infamous boxing promoter Don King, a man he calls “Chicken Bone Legs”.
“Don King — he was like the wizard,” Moran says. “People think that he’s big and powerful and nasty. He threatened my life and did all kinds of things but one time I saw him in Vegas. He was sitting down and I saw that he had these really skinny legs and I just started laughing. He had chicken bone legs! From that point on, I always thought of his chicken bone legs and I stood up to him.”
“I always enjoyed picking a fight with him,” Moran adds. “Don King is usually the guy who takes advantage of boxers — which I didn’t like. Boxing has a lot of colourful characters, a lot of slimy characters. It is a sport full of hustlers and conmen. There are a few good people but it is a dirty, dirty, business. That, though, is what makes it fun. I had my morals and scruples when I got involved in boxing and I will have them when I leave.”
Right now, Moran is maybe facing a tougher challenge than anything Don King may throw his way. Moran has to get Kassim’s derailed career back on the tracks. In his corner, Kassim has faced tougher adversity. Why would a comeback be such a challenge? Then again, in the other corner, having won it all already, why would Kassim bother?
“It is very frustrating for Tom to see Kassim go down the road that he has gone,” says Kief Davidson. “He struggles with that himself. Kassim’s biggest challenge right now is getting back on track with his career. He is starting from the bottom. I don’t think you ever get Kassim out of your head but if he doesn’t start winning it is pretty much all over.”
Back in New Jersey, Tom Moran is explaining the simple logic behind African armies recruiting children as soldiers.
“It is easy,” he suggests. “If you want to take over a government and you want to start a revolution, then an adult wants to get paid. A kid can easily be manipulated mentally and physically. They also gather in schools and playgrounds and it’s easy to find them.”
“Also, because a child is not fully formed — their morality — they get them to do something dramatic, something really sick, and when they do that they are bonded to those who made them do it.”
As Moran explains this, Ouma slurps on what remains of his smoothie, puts it down, and begins to play with his cell phone. The manager nods at his boxer.
“He still carries enormous for what he did as a child but to me there should be no guilt.”
I ask Kassim to list his favourite fighters.
“Roy Jones Junior,” he says, still tapping in his phone. “And I love Ali.”
“You are supposed to say Oscar De La Hoya,” Moran interjects, laughing.
“My friend Robbie Peden,” Ouma adds, naming the Australian Flyweight.
Dark Ouma has flipped sunny side up and is now smiling, focused on listing as many Australian boxers as he can recall.
“Mundine… Shannon Taylor… Danny Green!”
A month after meeting in New Jersey, Kassim Ouma headlined a low-key card in the low-key Philadelphia National Guard Armoury. It was not Madison Square Garden but Ouma won, against Martinus Clay, a guy you have probably never heard of and never again will. Still, there is now talk that Kassim Ouma may be back on the rails.
“I am not going to stop,” he says.
In August, 2015, a Los Angeles judge issued an arrest warrant for Ouma after the boxer failed to appear in court to face charges related to cocaine possession. Ouma’s lawyer told the judge that the boxer was in Uganda.
The movie: http://www.kassimthedream.com/
This story originally appeared in a 2009 edition of Men’s Style magazine.