THE security guard’s eyes widened and his mouth opened in disbelief.
He quickly removed his baseball cap and struggled to find the words he was looking for, as if a combination of Elvis Presley, Tupac Shakur and Queen Elizabeth II had decided today was the day for a trip up the Empire State Building.
Instead, before him stood a beaming 5ft 9in man from Ghana who was hoping to take a picture with his red and gold world title belt 102 floors above the mayhem of Manhattan. All he needed was permission to take the elevator with strap in hand.
“You’re Richard Commey,” the security guard finally said. “Yes I am and I am very pleased to meet you,” replied the IBF lightweight champion of the world.
“Man,” he sighed. “I’ve been following you for so long – you won that Robert Easter fight!”
Recognition of this type, particularly in New York City, has been a long time coming for 28-2 (25) Commey, who remains one of the most underrated world champions currently operating in the sport.
He has been a resident of the Big Apple since 2017 but unless you train at Andre Rozier’s gym, or live in the small area of the Bronx where he lives, you would never know it.
“My life is very simple,” Commey says. “It’s from the gym to home. From home to the gym. I could be living anywhere. That’s me, that’s how I like it – I like a simple life. I don’t party much, or ever. In fact I don’t go out. I don’t really have any friends here.”
But his encounter with the security guard, who he later discovered was called Kevin, on one of his rare trips across the Harlem River and into Manhattan, showed Commey that he is not as anonymous as he might like to think he is.
“That’s the beauty of boxing,” Commey adds. “I can connect with people.
“It’s an amazing feeling but it’s strange though, I’m quite a quiet person who keeps myself to myself so to have people recognise me is amazing.
“From where I’m from, it’s hard for us to get to that level. For me to walk around the streets of New York City and meet people who have been following me for years, a die-hard fan, man, that’s unbelievable.
“It inspires me. When I see these people, see the passion and love in their eyes, I just know I have to keep going and keep doing it for them. I always want to do more so I can put a smile on their faces.
“That was the first time I’d ever met Kevin but from the way he spoke, I could tell he was always a happy guy whenever he saw me win.
“People stop me and say ‘wow, man, you did it!’ That really lifts up my image in one sense but other than that it hasn’t changed me as a person or the way I am.”
Commey hails from Jamestown in Bukom, the area of Ghana’s capital Accra which is estimated to have produced more world champions per square metre than any other place on the planet.
When he beat Isa Chaniev to claim the vacant IBF belt in February, Commey joined the likes of Azumah Nelson, Ike Quartey and Joshua Clottey as a man who has gone from those few fabled blocks on the Gulf of Guinea to the very top of the boxing world.
“When you go to Jamestown, every little kid knows Richard Commey,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about. You could ask any kid ‘where’s Richie?’ and they would lead you straight to my mum’s house.
“I have a month in Ghana after every fight and then I’m straight back to work. It’s great being back in Ghana because a lot of people there look up to me, I like to put a smile on their faces.
“When I was a kid, all I wanted to be was a soccer player. I loved Abedi Pele and CK Akonnor and then obviously Ronaldo – the big [Brazilian] Ronaldo, the original Ronaldo. Man, I loved him so much. That’s who I pretended to be.
“That’s who I looked up to but they seemed so far away. Because of that I want to stay close to my people when I can.
“That brings a pressure. Some people might feel it but I don’t because when I go back home I live with them, I’m one of them. I always have been, I am now and I always will be. I don’t see myself as a celebrity or anything like that.”
He was spotted by esteemed manager Michael Amoo-Bediako, AKA Mickey Moo, during a visit to Accra with his three sons in 2010. The middle one, Michael Jnr, was sparring in the gym run by Lawrence Carl Lokko during their stay and Amoo-Bediako instantly recognised potential in the quiet, thin kid with the toothy grin who had just moved around with his son.
Incidentally, that famous gym, the Bronx Boxing Club, is named after the same New York borough where Commey would finally find his home away from home following stints in Dubai and Essex.
“I like the Bronx,” he added. “I’m in the same place now that I have always been since I moved over here in 2017. “In fact, I like New York, I enjoy it here. To be honest, sometimes when I’m in the Bronx I feel like I’m back home in Ghana. I can get my jollof rice and all the other types of food.
“There are a lot of Ghanaians where I live, some are even from Jamestown just like me. There are even some people who I knew already from back home. That’s nice to me – I always feel like home.”
For a kid born in one of the most deprived areas of Ghana’s capital, the razzmatazz and distractions offered by the city that never sleeps might seem a bit too hard to turn down. But not for Commey.
He adds: “When I go home, that’s when I relax but when I’m in New York that’s work. There’s no play it’s just train, sleep, eat good food and then train again. When I come here, I’m not here to be a tourist, I’m here to improve myself. Every day is camp life.
“In the gym we’re like a family of course but outside of that I like to step back. Of course all the guys in the gym are nice and we’re good friends but they know me…they don’t bother me.
“I’ve been here two years now and that was only my first time up the Empire State Building. I wanted to go up there with my belt and now I have. But it’s like I told you, I don’t really go out much, I haven’t done any sightseeing.”
Such intense focus is necessary when you operate in arguably the best division in the sport today. Despite the recent departure of Mikey Garcia to 140lbs and beyond, the 135lb cast still contains arguably the world’s finest fighter, Vasyl Lomachenko, who currently holds the WBA and WBO titles and will challenge Luke Campbell for the vacant WBC strap later this year.
Waiting in the lightweight wings, meanwhile, is plenty of precocious talent with starlets like Teofimo Lopez, Devin Haney and Ryan Garcia all tipped to become colossal stars of the future. Commey, as a result, is often overlooked.
Even clinching the world title did little to alter the wider perception of Bukom’s 32-year-old star, nor did it change his outlook on the sport.
“Honestly speaking, I don’t feel any different now I’m the champion,” he adds.
“It’s just normal for me, on a day-to-day basis I still do things like I always have. You see a lot of boxers who win world titles can change but for me I just do my thing, keep doing what I do.
“I knew it was always in me anyway. The reason why I knew was because I had sparred Kevin Mitchell, I had sparred Ricky Burns, even back then, I wasn’t at the top level but I had great spars against them.
“It was around then that I realised that I could really do this. If guys like them had won world titles then why couldn’t I? Now I just have the belt to prove it. I knew after the Robert Easter fight that I was a world champion then.”
That night, in September 2016, Commey floored Easter in the eighth round of a Pennsylvania thriller but dropped a controversial split decision to the American, who inexplicably won 115-112 on judge Ron McNair’s card.
He suffered a second successive heartbreak just three months later when he travelled to Moscow to face Russian Denis Shafikov only to watch another split decision go against him but then he and Amoo decided to make a change.
‘Now I just have the belt to prove it. I knew after the Robert Easter fight that I was a world champion’
Commey boxed and won back home in Ghana in March 2017 before he linked up with promoter Lou DiBella and made the aforementioned switch Stateside. The move was an inspired one and a trio of inside-distance victories have vindicated the decision.
The last of those, a 3-39 demolition of Chaniev, earned him the belt he craved but now far tougher tests lie in wait. He hit Chaniev so hard in their fight that he sustained an injury to his right hand which put a line through plans to face Lomachenko in a unification blockbuster scheduled for March.
Instead, Commey let his injury heal and Lomachenko despatched Anthony Crolla in the fourth round of their Staples Center encounter and they remain on a collision course so long as both of them keep winning.
And, while Lomachenko will bid to claim his third lightweight title against Campbell, 32-year-old Commey has opted to face the wily old figure of Raymundo Beltran [see below], who surrendered his WBO title to Paulus Moses in February of last year.
Victory will not only further cement Commey’s credentials as a world lightweight champion but also set-up a potential four-belt unification with Lomachenko which would go down as one of the biggest fights involving an African in the history of the sport.
“I know one day, in the future it’s going to happen but at the moment I am just looking forward to my next one,” he says. “I know I have a big opportunity in this division. I don’t have a problem fighting anyone. Everyone regards Lomachenko as one of the best in the division or the pound-for-pound No.1 but when the time comes, people will see what Richard Commey has got.”
And he might then need a hand getting all those belts past big Kevin and up to the top of the Tower.
COMMEY VS BELTRAN
Can the new champ turn back the challenge of an old champ?
FRIDAY (June 28) brings together two world class lightweights, but while one is entering his prime, the other appears to be on the other side of his.
At 32 years old and in his 30th professional outing, IBF boss Commey won his first world title by stopping Isa Chaniev in February and Top Rank have awarded him with the opportunity to make his first defence at the top of their card at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, California.
But they have provided a solid opponent in Raymundo Beltran, the Mexican former world champion who is coming in off an inside-distance win against previously undefeated Japanese Hiroki Okada in February.
At 37, however, Beltran’s best days might be behind him and he surrendered his WBO world title, which he finally won at the fourth time of asking in February of last year, in his first defence against Jose Pedraza just six months later.
The long-time sparring partner of Manny Pacquiao is reunited with Freddie Roach for this camp and his all-action style will ensure he brings the heat to Commey live on ESPN.
But his aggression could also be his undoing against a man who knows successfully navigating past Beltran will unlock the door for some huge lightweight encounters. Commey will not have it all his own way but he should win this inside the distance.