Who Is Rashad Raheem?
28.03.05 - A Short Story by Phillip Przybylo: This is something different. What you are about to read is not done, attempted, or even thought of elsewhere. This is a work of fiction inspired by true events and lives in a small but very successful gym in Cincinnati. Penned last year, the story and its plot are imagined but its essence is all too real.. If you ever wanted to know what reporters of this and similar websites endure and strive for; if you ever wanted to know what life is like in the gym; or if you ever had a taste for serious boxing literature, then I urge you to read on and enjoy.
Article posted on 28.03.2005
Who Is Rashad Raheem? Part I
“There’s nothing like a good story,” the hard veteran explained, “but I ain’t got one for ya.”
Remnants of the dynasty known as the Cincinnati Herald adorned the chipped, smog-white walls. Plaques, awards, pictures—none of it seemed to matter anymore, least of all to Connor McNally. They were in the past, along with the promising group of reporters he had come up with who all went across town to the Tribune. He figured, from here on out, he would mail in the stories, and he would be mailed the check that would spend a day’s time in his hands before being transferred to his ex-wife and daughter.
The contented laissez-faire attitude of his was being soured by his editor’s ramblings on a dreary Tuesday morning. He did not see why he was the one questioned constantly when the editor was supposed to be the answer-man. “Since you’ve got jack shit,” Mr. James said before pausing with a more trademarked deceitful approach. “Con, I realize we’re hurting, but that’s why I’ve slated you for the Rashad Raheem piece.”
“Otherwise,” he hinted amid the slouching sleuth, “prepare to be covering the high school sports beat more than anyone with your experience would like. Be sure to bring Phillips with you one day this week for some pics.”
It was a story that had local flavor and could have a unique, credible angle, he was told. Something to help supply headlines during winter’s dog days would have been more appropriate. No one cared about boxing anymore. McNally had not written a word about it since a fighter bit his opponent’s ear off on a confusing night in Vegas seven years ago. Any notable incidents after that were filtered down to the less-experienced and hungry-for-anything scribes. But keeping his daughter in his good favor mattered more than anything, and writing about things of little interest to him was a means to doing that in the strictest monetary sense.
He set out on Wednesday with nothing but a tape recorder in hand. “This should be good,” he muttered to no one in particular as he left the structured clutter he called a desk. “An ex-con turned prospective Olympian will make a great story. An even better one if I didn’t have to fit in his simple-minded quotes.”
“Bloody right,” he agreed with himself with a chuckle. He slammed the door of his 1993 Chevy Berreta, lit up a smoke, and embarked on something that would not change his life in the least.
Getting to the gym where the young pugilist trained at was almost an adventure in itself. Driving along Vine Street with his skin was a dangerous task. Unable to judge the omnipresent stares, he did not know if he would be propositioned for drugs or threatened to get ripped out of his car. He knew how to hold his own in the inner city, but he would never learn to blend in with his gray-speckled stubble and blue eyes. “I wish I had a running back or centerfielder to interview,” he thought.
McNally walked into the facility, which doubled as a community center. As he walked down the sweat and urine-scented halls, the young ones would fidget and then grin. The older ones would grin and fidget. With each step, the rigid February air had been replaced by smothering human-generated heat. The situation did not resemble anything unbearable, but it had been farther away from his semi-regular routine of the last four years. One day of this and I’m done,” he told himself. “Phillips could go by herself.”
He went through the double doors, and opened himself to a deprived world of hungry fighters. The world was only 25 by 50 feet, but a baker’s dozen of fighters and a handful of trainers had enough space to ply their trade. A few of the younger combatants were satisfied throwing crisp combinations of punches to assorted heavy bags. Two older guys were changing clothes in the corner, cracking whatever joke was timely at the moment. In an average-sized ring, two boxers, neither of them over the age of 21 or 150 pounds, were in the middle of an intense exchange of blows while two trainers yelled out instructions. “To the body! You can’t forget the body.”
“Pump that jab, baby. Don’t let him get inside. Jab. Double jab. Keep him honest, son.”
McNally sauntered over to a nearby bench where an elderly gentleman resided, eyes fixated on the happenings in the ring. He gave the old guy a nod, indicating he was bout to talk over the chaos. “Hey,” he said while offering and receiving a handshake, “Connor McNally. I’m with the Cincinnati Herald. I’m looking for Ricky Green. Do you know where I can find him?”
“Yeah,” the gentleman replied. Pointing to a corner post of the ring, he said, “He right over there.”
Green had the body of a Greek god despite being well into his 40’s. Wearing a multi-colored bandana, gold chain, shorts, shoes, and a concentrated look, the trainer could be perceived as intimidating. More timid, the reporter slowly waddled towards Green in hopes of getting his attention without looking like he wanted to interrupt.
McNally made a vain attempt at straightening his wrinkled blazer and cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Ricky Green?” he asked. The man nodded slightly. “We talked over the phone briefly last night about your fighter, Rashad Raheem.”
Green’s face lit up after a second or two passed. “Yeah! Yeah, of course. He’s around here somewhere.” The trainer looked around expecting to see his fighter close to him but to no avail. “Ey! Hey, Mo! Go check out back and see if Dubs is there. We gotta reporter here waitin’ on him.” A man with a shaved head and goatee, who apparently went by the name of Mo, limped out of the gym and toward the exit of the building.
“You have to understand,” Green explained, “Rashad’s in the most challenging part of his training right now. The days are certainly getting longer for him as he prepares for the Trials. He’s probably outside doing roadwork as we speak.”
“Well, there’s no need to cut into his routine like this,” McNally said. “I can wait for him to finish; it’s really not a problem.”
“Naw…” Green shook his head a couple of times. “Nah, it’s alright. Perfectly alright. You came all of this way…and besides, ’Shad’s gonna have to get used to guys like you if he’s going to the Olympics.”
“You’re either extremely nice or extremely desperate for any publicity you can get,” McNally thought. For him, it was still tough to pick out who was which on occasion. McNally gave an all-purpose shrug, and Green eventually set his eyes back to the ring. Even if the fighters were to turn out as future tomato cans, he was giving them his attention again while shouting more instructions. “Drive to succeed or not, these kids only learn when you give them attention,” McNally mentally quipped.
A young man walked to the other side of Green. He stared along with him at the ring until the automated bell rung, ending the latest round. The stylized cornrows suggested he was in the right place, but the plaid button-up shirt and khakis did not. “Coach, you wanted me?” he asked. He gave a playful jab to his trainer’s shoulder.
“Yeah. The reporter from the Herald is here and wants to talk to you about some stuff. Wants to write an article on you.”
“Cool, I guess. What’s his name?”
McNally jumped in and extended his hand. “Connor. Connor McNally. Pleasure to meet you. Could we talk somewhere there aren’t punches thrown and men screaming?”
Raheem smiled and nodded. McNally led the way even if it was his first time in the building. He took a left turn outside of the cracked gym doors and headed to the area near the back exit McNally had noticed upon his initial entrance. After sipping from the water fountain, Raheem followed. The double doors were propped open by some wooden crates and rocks, letting the bitter air come in at its leisure. He dug into his coat pocket, revealed his recorder, and hit a red and black button near the edge of it.
“So, Rashad, you’re looking good—all dressed up.”
“Always gotta look good, man. I had a job interview earlier in the day. When I heard you might be coming in, I didn’t make a switch into the casual wear.”
“How’s all of this excitement and pressure treating you?”
“Ha. Yeah, I like it,” Raheem responded. The 20-year old abruptly closed his mouth and raised his eyebrows, waiting for the next question. McNally thought he had just reached and passed the apex of the interview. The boxer was too short and to the point with most of the following questions that he failed to even be deem concise. McNally shifted gears and started to talk about his two-year prison stint.
“Boxing’s not keeping me out of prison necessarily,” Raheem elaborated. “Boxing is the thing that got me OUT of prison. I was enamored with the easy way out, and that’s how I was able to buy expensive jewelry and a car, too. So, that got me IN. But if it weren’t for boxing and visits from family, I would’ve never have gotten through those two years. I painted some, lifted weights, ran, and talked to my mom. It filled the day at times, but it was no joke. Being incarcerated as a teenager is what’s KEEPING me out.”
If it were not for Raheem’s last comments, visions of cracking his recorder with a sledgehammer would have still been bouncing in his head. There was something to this story, but the guy was not going to open up on the first visit and to a stranger when it had be one of his first times talking to the press. McNally combed through his black and gray hair slowly. He decided to prematurely end the interview ten minutes in. They exchanged thank you’s and goodbye’s. The man who would regularly tell friends, “I’m too old for this shit,” told Green that he would be back the next day.
Who Is Rashad Raheem? Part II
“Do you have to smoke on the way there?” the rookie photographer questioned. Sasha Phillips was making a living covering sports like lacrosse and women’s volleyball; boxing would be yet another way to circle around more mainstream ventures. She could stand the hint of cynicism in everything he said while chatting, but the petite female had no choice but to protest if that stench from his Marlboro latched onto her new perm or her stylish gray sweater.
“I’ve heard these things could kill ya,” McNally remarked. “But I’m banking on the creation of a mechanical lung by the time I get the big C. Besides, I’m a journalist—I’ll be looked down upon if I don’t consume at least a pack and two shots of whiskey a day. And I’ll be honest if we keep this between you and me: I only average about one shot.”
McNally felt the need to prepare her for what she was going into.
“This isn’t your average jock situation. We’ll be the only two white people there. You’ll be the only woman there. You’re probably going to be hit on by half a dozen male suitors just because you’re a skirt. As you know, pay them no mind. I’ll point out Rashad and you get a couple of action shots. As far as human interest pieces in sports go, this could be front page, so, no foolin’.”
Phillips walked into the building with her head held up high, beaming with bravado. McNally officially felt stupid for letting the unfamiliar scenery temporarily knock him off his game a bit the day before. He thought, “This time,” he thought, “ I’m in and I’m out. Nothing but business. The moments in between, Rashad Raheem is going to let me through the door into his home, into his life, and into his heart.”
“Hey Connor!” Ricky Green bolstered affectionately. “How ya doin’, man? I see you’ve brought a lovely friend with you. Sasha? Ah, Sasha’s a photographer. Nice to meet you, Sasha. I’ll see if I can find Double R for yous cause he’s gotta spar anyway. We call him Dubs. Ey Mo!”
After a minute of wandering by unknowns looking for him, Raheem appeared from a bathroom in full attire—black gloves which he was still fiddling with, red trunks with a white stripe going down the side, head guard, and boots that had to be second-hand because they had seen better days a decade ago. He gave a slight nod to McNally and walked up the steps and floated into the ring. According to Green, he was in there with a fighter five years his senior and thirty pounds heavier than his product’s 140-pound frame. The opponent had been a pro for the last three years, but had plateaued after his first year.
“Hey, you married to that reporter?” the opponent asked Phillips, who was now nestled against the ring apron. She laughed and gestured that she was not.
The bell sounded. Raheem glided around his opponent, peppering him with left jabs to the face and mid-section. He was feeling the big guy out for the first minute. The big guy had other intentions and snuck in a short, crisp right hand to the young one’s nose. A collective, “ooh,” arose from the growing number of on-lookers followed. A trickle of blood from Raheem’s nose followed after that.
Raheem composed himself for a moment, but the next exchange between the two was anything but pedestrian. The pro had no idea what was coming next. The amateur threw blistering combinations consisting of left hooks and straight rights, first down at the waistline and then making his way to his opponent’s head. Shaken and staggered, the opponent needed the ropes to hold him up. Raheem went inside throwing, outside throwing, eventually demoralizing him with a looping, powerful right hand to the liver. The man dropped to a knee, and then he dropped to all fours a few feet away from Phillips’s flashing camera.
“Alright, alright, that’s enough, man,” Green soberly said as he entered the ring to check on the fallen fighter. Raheem gave a quick wink to McNally and proceed to shadowbox. He was just beginning to work up a sweat.
Raheem spotted a couple of heavyweights leaning against a wall a few feet away from the ring. He waved them over with a flick of his wrist. “You two, c’mon,” he laughed. “I’ll take you both on at the same time. You guys could lose some weight anyway. I’ll help knock some pounds off.”
The two nameless men laughed. One looked oddly intrigued at the offer. The other just shook his head. Neither of them cared enough to move. Raheem continued to bounce around the ring until more suitable sparring partners could be found.
“Amazing,” McNally said to Raheem twenty minutes later after Raheem had come close to dismantling two other opponents during the session. Raheem took off his gloves, helped a child with his own pair, and motioned that they go to their designated area from the day before. “I heard you were good, but I couldn’t have fathomed that you were THIS good.”
“I have my days,” Raheem said while wiping perspiration from his forehead.
“I wanted to talk to you about your family, your love for them, and how they continue to serve as inspiration from you. How was life growing up?”
“It was okay, I guess. No different from most others around these parts—no father, but lots of brothers and sisters. It was okay.”
“Could you relay some significant moments of this family life that kept you strong enough through the more trying times?
“Well…you know, I can’t really think of any right now.”
“Un-fucking-believable,” he thought. “Doesn’t this kid know I want to help him out and give him free publicity? Doesn’t he know that, with the right line, the community will rally behind him and serve as a major support system? And what happened to the same guy who could unleash hell on another man and wink to me afterward?”
The fairly repetitive interview wrapped up with a few serviceable quotes on tape, but nothing as eye-opening as the knockout McNally had just witnessed. Phillips had her gear in a bag she was carrying. She was standing near the water fountain in the hallway while acting like she cared about the straps on her equipment bag, but no one could say how long she had been there.
“So, you gonna be here tomorrow, Connor?” Green asked.
“All I can say is maybe,” McNally said in return. With a quick handshake and a wave to some unknowns, the two left the building and into the Beretta. He took out another cigarette and started the drive to their office building.
“Whadya think?” he wondered aloud.
“He kind of looks like an ogre,” she solemnly stated. “I mean, I’m sure he’s good, but he’s not a looker. I can’t work miracles with this camera, either.”
A swelling of pride in the sport he once covered and maleness in general within McNally compelled him to say something. “This kid is a prodigy. A burgeoning superstar, perhaps. He’s got a charm to him, too. Just because he’s not a young Morris Chestnutt does not mean that he’s an ogre.”
“So sorry to offend, but whatever. I got my pictures. That’s all I know.”
After dropping her off, it was a long drive back to his home. Late that night, he took out a shot glass and some Crown Royal. Before drinking, he would call his daughter up to “make sure” that this weekend was their weekend together. He needed some sort of spiritual uplift. After the five-minute conversation had passed, he downed the shot of whiskey.
“To hell with it,” he said. He poured himself another shot. He only had one more chance to go to the gym before he had to start typing. He thought he loved these new characters in his life, but he did not have enough to write more than a fluff piece about them. He gave himself no other option
Who Is Rashad Raheem? Part III
McNally made the dangerous drive to the gym for the last time. Hopefully. He could not understand why Raheem had this apparent distrust for the press. “This time,” he thought, “ I’m going to talk to Rick. He’ll know what’s up, and he’ll probably give me that quote I’m looking for, too.”
The same kids he saw the first day were now high-fiving or looking for a handshake from McNally. The kids could sense passion and compassion. This was not like the other white guys in suits that came and left after one day, talking legal lingo. “I feel good,” McNally said to himself.
McNally sat on the bench right next to the elderly man he talked to when he opened his mouth for the first time on the first day. It was Friday, so, only a few of the boxers were around. Green was late today working his day job, so, he conversed with the old-timer in the meantime. They talked about the different kids and about Raheem. The man had never seen anyone quite as good as the potential Olympian, in and out of the ring, he confessed.
Interrupting the poignant moment was Raheem’s trainer. He put a hand on both of the sitters’ shoulders and exchanged pleasantries. After setting down his gym bag in the corner, Green started to go on about the fights on television taking place the ensuing weekend. McNally interrupted and asked if they could talk a little for the article’s sake.
“Sure, man, anything you want,” Green said while adjusting his black bandana. “We want to do you right.”
“First, there’s Rashad. Is he doing okay?”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s seemed kind of distant with me. In the ring and around the guys, he’s charismatic and energetic. I just don’t get why he would want to be borderline uncooperative with me when I’m only trying to help him out.”
McNally knew he was exaggerating while calling Raheem uncooperative, but this was his last day and his point needed to be made, his personal struggle known. He did not relish denigrating a kid half his age in front of the man who may have loved the kid the most. Yet, he thought Green would understand that he was just doing his job.
“I still don’t get what you mean,” Green said with a quizzical and distraught look.
“It’s just that…”
“Listen, man, you got kids?”
“Yeah, I have a daughter. She’s 10. Going to be 11 in June.”
“Well, these are my kids in this gym. Article or not, I won’t stand for any bad-mouthing. These are all good kids. You see them in the gym almost every evening, working on their trade with an adult ethic. They could be out in the streets, but no! They in here.”
“Look—I realize that I’m new around here, and that gives you and the fighters reason not to trust me. Being new to low-profile fighters, I’m taken aback by what I’ve seen. I agree that these are good kids who are trying to find their way. And I want to help. So, why can’t Rashad see that?’
“You know what Dubs told me last night after you left?” Green interjected and McNally halted. “He said, ‘That writer is a good guy. Nice, too. But talks a little bit too much.”
McNally now possessed the quizzical look.
“Did it ever occur to you that Dubs is just shy? That the ring is his platform to perform and that’s it? Did it ever occur to you that he’s just shy and honest? That just because he went to prison does not mean he has hidden motives? Did it ever occur to you that he may be the most genuine athlete you’ve run into?”
McNally look at the tape recorder in his hand. He had forgotten to hit the red and black REC button. He had forgotten too much to admit. The accomplished journalist had been staggered by Green’s words. He began recording anyway.
“How does it feel to be the trainer of the most genuine athlete I’ve ever met?” McNally asked.
“God, I’m sorry,” he then thought. “ It never occurred to me.”
Green smiled and put his hand on McNally’s back.
“It’s alright, man. Perfectly alright.”
This story would not have been possible without the hospitality of boxing trainers and gentlemen Mike Stafford and Ricardo Williams, Sr., who let me rove around Mount Auburn Gym for a six-month period. I would like to specifically thank Rau'shee Warren, Terrell Nixon, and Rashad Saleem, three extraordinary amateur boxers at the time I was there who let me bug them as often as possible. They provided the insight and inspiration to this story. Lastly, I would like to thank all of the hard-working boxers and trainers at the Mount Auburn Community Center during my stint there.
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