There is no shortage of hard-luck stories in boxing, of youthful poverty and violence propelling angry young men toward a life in the ring.
Mike Tyson’s first fight was beating up the bully who killed one of his pigeons.
Bernard Hopkins remains to this day driven by the taunt of the prison guard who sneered at him as he was released that, “You’ll be back.”
Heck, Manny Pacquiao’s dad ate his dog.
But few can match the upbringing of Nigerian Oyewale Omotoso (plain “Wale” to his friends), who fights fellow welterweight Jessie Vargas in the co-main event of Saturday’s World Championship Boxing broadcast from Carson, California.
One of five children, Omotoso was orphaned young, forced to fend for himself and his siblings in the tough ghettos of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city.
To survive, he and his brothers joined a street gang – during which time, according to a Nigerian news article, he saw “people shot, bashed and slashed with machetes. He learned to run zigzag to avoid bullets. Six days a week the ‘street boys’ preyed on shopkeepers, passersby and weaker gangs.
But on Sundays they went to church and prayed for forgiveness ‘in case we got killed any moment.’”
When a member of another gang confronted Omotoso’s sister, Wale’s group ambushed their rivals, resulting in a machete-and-club -driven street battle so violent that Omotoso’s gang splintered and vanished into the night, fleeing that part of town for fear of reprisals. Which is how, in 2000, Omotoso and a friend found themselves at a boxing gym in a different part of the city, and which is when Wale began channeling his aggression in a more focused direction.
As it turned out, Omotoso was pretty good at unarmed combat; so much so that in 2006, Murray Thomson, an Australian boxer-turned-cornerman who was in Lagos training another Nigerian fighter, heard about the young man who was becoming one of his country’s most talked-about amateurs. Thomson took him to Australia on a sporting visa, where the former machete-wielding Nigerian street gang member turned professional, settled down, married a Melbourne woman and had a child.
But a good backstory and 25 cents won’t even buy you a cup of coffee any more, and it certainly won’t earn you any favors in a boxing ring unless you can fight. Fortunately for Omotoso, there are plenty of seasoned observers who believe he can do just that.
In 2011, after running his record to 18-0, Omotoso flew to California to meet Freddie Roach and try his luck training at the Wild Card Gym, because “I heard so much about him. Freddie is the best trainer there is in boxing.” While there, Roach put him to work sparring Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in a session that became so spirited, it caught the eye of Bruce Trampler, matchmaker for Top Rank, which swiftly signed Omotoso to a promotional contract.
And now, on Saturday, he makes his debut in the bright lights and on the big stage of an HBO broadcast. Victory would catapult him into the ranks of young welterweight prospects and contenders who are jockeying for position as the old guard nears the end of its collective reign. But win or lose, it has been a remarkable journey, one with a destination that could have been so much different. Which is why Omotoso takes as his ring nickname the words that he has tattooed across his chest: