Fighting Reno’s Joey Gilbert Saturday Night
Fighter Kassim “The Dream” Ouma has escaped from the depths of Hell.
In the dark world of war in Uganda, he was kidnapped while just a boy and forced to kill–or be killed. Now in the cushier confines of the United States, the southpaw will go to “war” once again–but this time only in the boxing ring.
The scrappy boxer (26-7-1, 16 KOs) will go toe to toe against Joey Gilbert (20-2, 15 KOs) at the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino TOMORROW night, September 25 in his foe’s own backyard of Reno, Nevada. The challengers will be duking it out for the vacant NABA middleweight belt in Saturday’s “Reno Xtreme Fights VI” presented by brothers Terry and Tommy Lane’s Let’s Get It On Promotions.
The African slugger, who had been previously living in Florida, has now traveled west and is currently training in Riverside at the Capital Punishment Boxing Club. He’s also been out and about at various Southland fight cards in support of his new SoCal stablemates.
“He’s been here about three months now,” says gym mate Kaliesha West, who just fought last Saturday night scoring a KO victory over Angel Gladney for the vacant WBO Female Bantam Championship. “He’s starting to come along FAST,” she remarks. “He works very hard and he’s an overall sweet funny guy. But when it comes to training he’s all business!” Her father and trainer, Juan West, also works with Ouma, alongside head trainer Ruben Castanon.
Ouma returns the compliment. “She trained really hard,” he observes of K-West’s new belt. “I knew she’d get a victory and the title; it’s been a longtime coming!”
And one person who knows both of the boxers well also echoes Kaliesha’s comments about Kassim’s humorous side.
“I love him! He’s funny; he’s comical,” raves PR Manager and boxing advisor Claudia Ollis. “I love to watch him in his comeback. His drive is great and I expect the best for him.”
Always searching and striving for the best, his relocation seems to be bringing him more opportunities. At local boxing shows, he’s been embraced by the fight community and besieged by the L.A. boxing fans. Just last Friday night, he was shaking hands with fellow sluggers Micky Ward, Chris Arreola, Bobby Chacon, Patrick Lopez and others as he was introduced up in the ring at a Thompson Boxing event in Ontario. He fits right in with the Cali crowd and I ask him how he’s been adjusting to his new life on the West Coast.
“So far I’m loving it already!” Ouma answers in that distinctive cadence of his. “I am loving it but I will have to see what winter is like here.”
“Winter here is pretty much the same,” I tell him. “You can still wear tank tops and flip flops even in December.”
He exclaims, “That’s like Florida! I will love it then!”
Kassim is still deciding whether this will be a permanent home for him. “It depends…It looks like I may move here.”
“What inspired you to move to Southern California?” I inquire.
“I just wanted to change, to change things around,” he answers. “California has different hours, different people. It’s a new start. Another new life.”
For this boxer who had his childhood stolen from him, starting over is nothing new to him. After suffering 12 years as a soldier, this prizefighter (who learned the sweet science through the military’s boxing team) can adapt to anything. Since turning pro in 1998, this former champion has always found the strength to survive and to battle on during his now 12-year boxing career. Jermain Taylor, Vanes Martirosyan, Sechew Powell, Cornelius Bundrage, Roman Karmazin, Gabriel Rosado, Marco Antonio Rubio, JC Candelo, Carlos Bojorquez, and Verno Phillips are just some the tough foes Ouma has faced.
Now his next foe awaits. “Joey Gilbert is a tough guy; he’s got a lot of power in him,” assesses Ouma of this weekend’s challenger. “But I’m gonna win! I will make him quit; I will bring the boxing to him!”
But facing just one man, staring into the eyes of just one defender is nothing like the massive rebel armies that Kassim, as a boy, had no choice but to fight.
Speaking with Ouma, I mention to him how the documentary about his life has made quite an impact on both those in and out of the boxing sphere. I recently reviewed “Kassim the Dream” and I was curious how his family is doing now in the time since the film was first made.
“I have my sons and a daughter; she’s beautiful!” raves the proud dad.
“And how is your beloved grandmother?” I ask next. He is the very first grandson of Maria Wandera, who was shown in the movie living in stark and humble circumstances prevalent in her war-torn village–with no working electricity and lack of medical assistance for her teeth ailments and eye problems.
I miss her! I miss her the most, the most, THE MOST!” he lights up and exclaims, clearly wearing his heart on his sleeve.
“Do you think she’ll move here to be with you and your family?” I say.
“I can’t…I ummm…I…I don’t wanna think about it; I can’t talk about her,” his voice changes. He says she’s still in his homeland and he hasn’t been able to see her since the filming. He’s forced to stop with the raw emotion catching in his throat.
Out of respect for the boxer, I push no further. I cannot intrude on the demons that haunt him stemming from his tragic childhood. But after seeing the film, I can’t get those sights and sounds of his incredible story out of my mind.
He is relieved when I change the subject, but then quickly offers a telling admission.
“You know, I’ve NEVER seen the whole movie!” he admits.
“What?” I counter, incredulous that he has yet to see the entire portrayal of his life.
“I went to a lot of premieres but I’ve only seen some parts of it,” he shrugs.
“What were you doing when it’s on the big screen?” I prod.
“Uhhh…I fall asleep,” he claims.
Since the compelling images and thumping soundtrack would be extremely hard for anyone to really sleep through, he’s aware of the doubt resonating in my reply.
“Well…” he confesses with a quiet voice, “I can’t really sit through the whole thing…”
This brave warrior–afraid of no one and nothing–cannot bear to watch the atrocities that happened to him when he was just an innocent little schoolboy plucked from the classroom and forced to eventually murder others. Forced to desert the evil army, the punishment upon his return is death. We all cope in various ways and I can completely understand why Ouma doesn’t want to see or hear his story retold on the celluloid screen. He lived it. And he lived through it. And as painful of a past it is, he’s now a hero and inspiration to many, which I express to him.
“Thanks for getting the word out!” he says with his usual light-hearted persona back intact.
“No problem, Champ!” I reply. “Good luck in your fight!”
“Thanks, Michele!” he signs off in his sing-song pitch of his, always upbeat. I think he must choose to be chipper and cheerful. I’m sure it’s much easier to go down that path then to let yourself remember the darker road where he came from. But they say it’s not where you come from that’s important, it’s where you’re going. For Ouma, he’s livin’ the dream in this journey that led him toward an open road filled with freedom and fame that boxing has afforded him.
Tomorrow night when the bell rings, you will know if “The Dream” continues for Kassim.
Gilbert vs. Ouma
“Reno Xtreme Fights VI”
Let’s Get It On Promotions
Saturday, September 25
Grand Sierra Resort and Casino
Doors open 7:00 p.m./ First bout 8:00 p.m.
Tickets: 1-800-648-3568 or www.grandsierraresort.com
(Bouts subject to change)
Photos by Michele Chong: Ouma and Micky Ward; Kassim and Claudia Ollis/ Additional photos courtesy of Kassim Ouma