BECAUSE he was about as subtle as his fighting style, it didn’t take me long to realise an interview on a Monday afternoon wasn’t something Omar Sheika wanted to do. It was pretty clear, too, that it wasn’t the day that was the issue, nor the time of day. Instead, it was the interview itself.
Which explained why it was delayed, then delayed again, and why it was the fighter and not the interviewer who asked the first question: “What’s it for?”
Rather than an attempt to glean the name of the publication, or any information regarding the type of interview, this was a softer way of saying: “What’s the point?” So first I made my case, then Sheika made his. I listened to him, appreciating the fact that seven years had elapsed since his last fight and 14 since his last world title shot, and soon figured my reason for wanting to do it and his reason for not wanting to do it were essentially one and the same.
Another of his reasons was this: in being interviewed he was sure to be reminded of something he loved but would quite like to forget; reminded of fights tinged with disappointment and regret; asked to pick away at wounds he believed had scabbed over and started to heal.
“Yeah, those were good fights.”
That’s how Sheika described a couple of thrilling ‘Fight of the Year’ contenders against Scott Pemberton, two of the finest battles ever showcased on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights.
That he lost both might explain Sheika’s reluctance to wax lyrical, but even his victories, I soon discover, are referenced as though they were mere sparring sessions from which not a thing was gained.
“Listen,” he said, “if I could go back and change elements of my career, I would. There were a lot of bad mistakes I made in fights and in training and you wish you could go back and be smarter. For most of those fights I was in nowhere near the right kind of shape.
“I get depressed and disappointed to this day about certain fights and find myself wishing I could do things differently all the time.
“But, hey, that was then. You can’t live in the past.”
So, Omar Sheika agreed to talk. He agreed to talk with all the enthusiasm of a fighter asked to come out for a surprise 13th round but hauled himself off the stool, nonetheless.
“I started at 12 or 13 because I used to like fighting a lot,” the New Jersey native told Boxing News. “I’d fight in the streets and David Toledo (a future pro) asked me one day, ‘Why don’t you just go to a boxing gym?’ He had gone to the gym before me and was another boxer from Paterson. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll go.’
“So I started going and it quickly became like an addiction, like a disease. I kept going back and started getting good at it and next thing you know I’m winning trophies. I was doing what I wanted to do. All I wanted to do was fight.
“There was trouble here and there all the time (on the streets) but once people started knowing who we were, and knew we were boxers, they didn’t try nothing. They started to respect and like us. That’s how I met Nettles (Nasser, coach). He used to be on the streets with me. We basically grew up together on Madison Avenue.”
As part of his ring education, Omar studied the likes of Mike Tyson and ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard, though a particular fondness for Roberto Duran became clear once he got going in the sport. “I only knew boxing as a hobby when I was younger,” said Sheika, who went on to become a three-time national champion and compete 75 times as an amateur. “I didn’t know you could make a life out of it. I just did it for fun, then I ended up loving it.”
After turning pro in March 1997, Sheika won his first 14 fights, nine via stoppage, and stopped British prospect Toks Owoh, 8-0 at the time, in Cardiff in 1998. It’s another result Sheika plays down, recognising it only as a “decent win”, perhaps doing so because he knows it led to a third fight in Britain, this time in Sheffield, against Tony Booth, who, at 28-44-7, was anything but a prospect.
Booth was in fact a Hull fisherman used by promoters whenever a prospect required rounds. He also somehow walked away with a 77-76 verdict from referee Tony Green after eight rounds in Sheika’s company. It marked the American’s first defeat as a pro and an experience he would rather forget.
“Yeah, I remember getting robbed very bad in England,” he said. “The guy, Tony Booth, never even showed up for the weigh-in. He came in at like 207 pounds. It was no surprise I couldn’t knock him out. All that weight kept him up. You could see in the fight how heavy he was.
“I also never knew at that time that the referee also judges the fight. I didn’t realise that before the fight. That was crazy. We don’t do that in America.”
Sheika returned to American to win six fights on the spin, including decision victories over Glen Johnson and Simon Brown, and was then back in Britain by August 2000. This time, however, Sheika wasn’t gearing up for an eight-rounder against a fisherman with 44 defeats to his name. No, this time Sheika was booked to challenge Joe Calzaghe, the WBO super-middleweight champion, in the first of his four world title shots.
“Joe Calzaghe was good, obviously, but our fight was ruined by a bad headbutt,” he recalled. “We hit each other with our heads and the referee ended up stopping the fight on the cut. We couldn’t really fight the way we wanted to fight because of the cut. It happened so fast.
“I can’t say he was the best because he didn’t really get the best of me and I didn’t really get the best of him. I respect what he did after fighting me more than what he did during the fight with me.
“He was an awesome fighter, though, and retired undefeated as a champion. Not a lot of people can do that. I give him a lot of praise and respect for that.”
Cut and then stopped in the same round, the fifth, Sheika attributes the defeat to the cut rather than any brilliance on Calzaghe’s part and admits that one of his many regrets is not getting the opportunity to face the great Welshman with an unblemished face, two open eyes and a game plan unspoiled by sudden panic.
“It’s boxing, so you never know,” Sheika said. “I was very well prepared for that fight and I knew that was a good fight for both of us. We were both pretty much unknown at that time and it was being built up as a battle of young fighters. Unfortunately, the cut stopped it becoming the fight it was going to become.”
Later, to continue the Calzaghe connection, one of Sheika’s four world title attempts would arrive against then-IBF champion Jeff Lacy, the American against whom Calzaghe unified the division in 2006. “You know why Calzaghe finally fought Lacy, right?” said Nettles Nasser. “It was because Omar beat up Lacy when they fought. That’s why. After that, Calzaghe’s people knew he was beatable so decided to take the risk.”
Sheika doesn’t deny it. “I thought I beat Lacy,” he said of their 2004 encounter. “I thought it was a good, close fight, but I think I won at least seven or eight rounds. Roberto Duran was there, and he told me I won that fight. That was good enough for me.
“I wish I could go back to that fight and do it all again. If I would have stood there more and threw more power shots, I think I would have knocked Lacy out. I almost had him a couple of times.”
It’s a word Omar Sheika, 32-12 (21), has uttered more than any other in his 42 years. Almost beat Lacy. Almost became a world champion. Almost got it right when he needed to get it right.
“With (Eric) Lucas I broke my hand, with Lacy I thought I won, with Calzaghe I got the headbutt,” he said. “Unfortunately, in my big fights I’d go in there and something bad would happen. But that’s boxing, man.
“All I wanted to do was become a world champion. I had my opportunities to do that but unfortunately things happened during the championship fights and it never happened for me.”
Since retiring, Sheika has had to live with the reality that he will never be able to call himself a former world champion. He had four bites at it, including a final one against WBC champion Markus Beyer in 2005, but not once did the stars align.
It means he now only watches boxing casually, through his hands, careful not to get dragged back in. It also means he has to do his best not to resent the boxers nowadays fortunate enough to grab one of the half a dozen so-called world titles available in any one weight class.
“Not winning a world title is my biggest regret,” Sheika reiterated. “I wish I could go back now and become a world champion and quit again.” He laughed at the very idea, though it was clear he was at least semi-serious. “You see fighters who wouldn’t have done a thing during your era making all this money and winning world titles easily. There’s so many bull***t titles and bull***t fights now.
“It’s all about money now. It’s all about social media and selling yourself. When we were coming up, it wasn’t like that. It’s got a lot soft. There are still some good fighters, but most are soft. They’re demanding a lot of things now and they’re getting it. They can make good money just pretending to be fighters.
“I have nothing against them making money. They deserve it. But you have to still try to put on good fights and keep some sort of standard.”
Like a scorned old flame, Sheika observes the super-middleweight and light-heavyweight divisions from a safe distance, pretending not to care, doing his utmost to remain oblivious to their movements, but remains certain, whenever he sees them in action, of two things: they have downgraded and his time has passed.
“I think I would win a title at super-middleweight and light-heavyweight today,” he said. “I don’t think the fighters out there now are anywhere near as good as they were when I was fighting. I don’t even know who fights at super-middleweight these days. I haven’t watched a fight in the super-middleweight division for I can’t tell you how long. That says everything.”
As well as four world title shots, Sheika broke his hands four times during his 15-year professional career and therefore had no qualms bringing it all to an end in 2012.
“To this day I want to train and get in the ring and spar, but your body lets you know when you can no longer do what you used to do,” said Omar, who invested in real estate in retirement. “We can all train and get in shape but there are different types of being in shape. I hit the bag but that’s about it.”
When reflecting on his career, he acknowledges the ups and downs and pines for a rewind button. Yet Sheika knows, too, how lucky he is to have escaped from boxing with something far more important than a world title – namely his faculties.
“It’s a brutal sport, man,” he said. “Your intentions going into a fight are to hurt the guy. I’m sure their intention is to hurt you also.
“Anything can happen in there. That’s proven every year and has been proven again in recent months. It’s very tough. You’ve got to be stupid. You’ve got to somehow love this. You’ve got to have that stupidness inside of you. You’ve got to have the balls to do it, man.
“Any other sport you can play. You can teach someone to catch a baseball, throw a football or bounce a basketball. But to teach someone how to be a fighter is impossible. It’s a different sport, man.”
In the end, to both my surprise and relief, Omar Sheika said he enjoyed it. All of it. The good and the bad. The ups and the downs. The career and the interview.