Kenyan Gold Medal Favorite Ponders Cuban Opponent
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ As he dreamed of becoming a heavyweight boxer and winning an Olympic medal, Omar Ahmed studied the mesmerizingly fast, long-range blows of Muhammad Ali.
Africa’s best hope for a gold in boxing at Atlanta said he has admired the former heavyweight champion since he was a youth training at a rundown gym, where his first fight was for a turn at the lone punching bag.
``I have learned quite a lot of boxing tricks watching Ali’s fights from video films,″ said Ahmed, who holds heavyweight titles from the Commonwealth Games, King’s Cup, Africa Championships and All-Africa Games.
The 24-year-old postal clerk is not a hard-hitting boxer. His most reliable weapon is his speed. He moves round the ring like a flyweight and delivers snapping jabs mixed with well-timed combinations.
Ahmed’s biggest competition in Atlanta will be 1992 gold medalist Felix Savon, 28.
The Cuban has won the world championship heavyweight gold medal an unprecedented five times and is also the three-time Pan American Games champion.
In a boasting manner not unlike Ali’s, Ahmed said he is not afraid of Savon.
``I have faced more difficult opponents,″ he said at a training camp in suburban Nairobi. ``In case we meet, he should expect a proper beating.″
Peter Mwarangu, Kenya’s national boxing coach for 30 years, said Ahmed has the speed and stamina to beat Savon and anyone else in Atlanta.
``If he maintains his confidence, I don’t see why he cannot win a gold medal,″ Mwarangu said.
Elias Gabiraari, who has trained some of Kenya’s best boxers, including Ahmed, said Ahmed will excel at the Olympics.
``If he follows the system I taught him and develops more confidence he will bring back a gold medal,″ Gabiraari said. ``The Cuban heavyweight (Savon) is almost finished. I don’t think he will withstand Ahmed’s speed.″
Besides looking up to Ali, Ahmed said he also draws inspiration from the late Robert Wangila, the 1988 Olympic champion and the first African boxer to win a gold medal.
Wangila turned pro after winning the Olympic welterweight crown but died of head injuries sustained in a 1994 fight in Las Vegas with American David Gonzalez.
``Wangila did us proud,″ Ahmed said. ``We all remember him for his achievement. That’s why I want to win a gold medal in Atlanta and dedicate it to Wangila.″
Ahmed is fatalistic about the hazards of his profession.
``We Muslims treat death as natural,″ he said. ``When I’m in the ring, I just concentrate.″
Like most of Kenya’s top boxers, Ahmed had a humble beginning in in the sport.
As a teen-ager, he trained with Kenya’s top boxing coach at the Joseph Kangethe Hall but had to spar on the gym floor because there was no boxing ring.
``We had to take turns to work on the bag,″ Ahmed said.
In 1994, Ahmed gained international notice when he won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in British Columbia, beating Canadian Stephen Gallinger on points in their heavyweight final bout. Ahmed also won the 1994 heavyweight title in the Africa boxing championships in South Africa.
Last year, Ahmed won a gold medal in the annual King’s Cup championships in Bangkok, Thailand, and a gold at the All-Africa Games.
With seven boxing medals, Kenya has accumulated more Olympic medals in the sport than any other African nation.