|Sam I Am, Simple I Ain't
INTERVIEW By Luke Dodemaide (March 6, 2007) Doghouse Boxing
“It’s pretty simple really. Black and white, I guess” Sam says with a furrowed brow and a matter of fact manner. His extreme and idiosyncratic style still fresh in my mind, I can’t even imagine the look upon my face at this comment at this moment. But I’m sure it must have filled with the kind of bemusement that would make President Bush’s instant improvisation before the worlds press look as smooth as John Travolta’s feet in Saturday Night Fever.
I had asked, halfway through our conversation “How would you describe your abstract fighting stance?”. Sure Sam
Soliman is sitting in an ice bath at which he claims is “freezing his blood” and inturn “affecting the circulation to my brain”. Though still if I had come here with an easel, buckets and a paintbrush rather than a worn moleskin book of dotted lines and a dodgy Las Vegas palm tree pen I had taken the night before from a buddy’s place, I’m certain my portrait of Sam Soliman would have featured every colour in the rainbow bar the most plain. Think Picasso with punches. Sam’s that kind of guy. From his unique fighting style, to his fun, robust personality.
At one stage, the two amusingly intersect; Soliman unleashes with this mesmerising kind of combination that even the rawest fight fan could appreciate, then celebrates this array of punches like a young boy; letting out a “whoah”, brushing his forehead and then offering the same hand over the ropes towards me, for a high five. His eyes- those whose vision is sometimes curtained by his own dripping blood whilst blindly focusing on inflicting pain on the best fighters in the world- now meet mine asking nothing more than a common playful gesture, more puppy than pugilist.
I tuck my book in my armpit and oblige, then Soliman goes straight back to what he was doing. I can not help but laugh. Soliman has this kind of affect on people. It presents the most obvious contrast between Sam Soliman the fighter, and Sam Soliman the person. Though technically his feet did lay in the ring during that interaction, allowing people to feel comfortable between the ropes is an exception rather than the norm. Boxers can spend their whole lives on the canvas, but Soliman seems to possess this eerie ability to make what should be familiar become totally foreign.
Watching Soliman, train and spar is a curious experience. At times, you don’t quite now what you’re looking at. He rolls under punches, like whites in a washing machine, then abruptly rises with all the venom of a viper who you’ve just unintentionally stomped with your camping boot. All the time, his abdominal muscles bulging from his stomach to such an extent - for just a second- you fear they may just burst. His arms ripple with every punch, and though I have seen a lot of fighters, I have never laid eyes on a specimen like Sam Soliman.
Soliman’s style doesn’t simply work around an absurd output. Essentially, it revolves around revolving. A suitably Zen like sentence for a form of fighting that’s just as manically meditating itself. In the space of a phone booth, Soliman is nowhere to be seen. His leading left foot steps in and out of punches with an alarming kind of dance precision, as he circles his opponent like a vulture, only he does not do so forty feet above the air, but always in immediate range, ready to hit you from the most absurd angles. Besides the angles this generates- from the tightest acute openings to the overwhelmingly obtuse- frustration could be his greatest weapon.
This is primarily what gave Winky Wright so much trouble fresh off punctuating back to back victories over Shane Mosley by pitching the kind of shutout Roger Clemens would envy, against the pride of Puerto Rico, Felix Trinidad. On a night where all that Soliman threw appeared the sweet science’s exotic equivalent of Daisuke Matsuzaka’s gyro ball. Only Soliman ( somehow! ) didn’t make as much noise in Boston. One of many stops on Soliman’s passport painting path to this point, back Down Under in Sydney, March 7th, with the WBA Super Middleweight world championship on the line.
On his past, Soliman said “I beat the best Australia had to offer” again, from the ice bath. “Then you have the problem of getting fights.” Sam stops “So the only logical move was looking elsewhere”.
If you look through his record, the geography is jaw dropping, all in a long and committed quest for recognition and- in turn- a world title. Amsterdam, Boston, London, Fiji, Frankfurt, Tokyo. Soliman believes that sleepless nights when fighting in foreign countries has added to, not only his experience, but his composure. He preaches that it is what has helped him build a body of competition, superior to that of his next subject, Anthony “The Man” Mundine, who has fought outside of his home country only once.
And though each road to this point is remarkably diverse, the two boxers are coming back to a stage in where each has already been before. Mundine versus Soliman went up in lights in country Wollongong six years ago, albeit without a world title up for grabs and as much fan fair as a rising star’s slaying of another sacrificial lamb, such was the one-sided promotion of the bout. And even after such a performance, is was perceived to be Sam Soliman’s single day in the sun, though eventually, in Australia, it came later to be seen as his breakout performance. Soliman acknowledges this, and when I ask him whether he’s training any differently now for all that he and Mundine have achieved since, he shakes his head and says “respect every fighter, it’s a tough sport, from the world champs to the club brawlers”.
Soliman doesn’t think any more of it, but those words linger for a second, because essentially Soliman has gone from one to the other, at least from the experts eye. When he fought Mundine for the first time, his record was a modest twelve wins for six losses, a sixty seven percent win ratio. Since that fight, he has recorded twenty one wins with only one loss- coming to arguably the best pound for pound fighter on the planet- which is an alarmingly superior ninety five percent ratio. In all honesty, Soliman may just be the most improved fighter in all of boxing. Making it increasingly harder to forecast anything for this second fight from the first instalment.
Six years have passed since that encounter. And as I have said, the evolution of each fighter provides little to no indication of what may or may not happen in the rematch. Even as the scorecards were so close, leaving neither style seemingly dominate, even the result was as close to a stalemate as you can get, a controversial split decision to Mundine’s advantage.
Mundine essentially follows the same blueprint now as he did then, based around speed and supreme skills, though these days executes it to a far greater scheme aided by far more polished tools. His hands do not trail out like this anymore, as unsure on where he might place them as an adolescent boy is on his first girlfriend. On this night in Wollongong, they trade fisticuffs like infant fighters not educated enough to realise their potential nor unlock it. Soliman flaunts around the ring like a being who does not yet know who he is, as if stuck somewhere between dirtied seed and sprouting plant. But just proud to be a boxer.
He is far more than that now.
“I am improved” Soliman says on landing a right hand “Version two point oh! Right?”. Especially when comparing him now, he who took Winky Wright to the brink and back, to this boy in Wollongong. Though with a craft so meticulously manic, it was always going to take time to perfect. His hair, like his skills, are more clearly defined. In the context, he’s gone from Tony Manero to Vincent Vega in the space of a half dozen years.
To raise Mundine’s name- perhaps the most polarising athlete in the country’s recent sport history; a public resume featuring a scathing attack of America on 9/11 and the alleged burning of the Australian flag in a recent video clip- around Sam Soliman, surprisingly draws little emotion, especially considering the circumstances.
“Sure the guy’s in trouble” Soliman quips. “But I have nothing against the man”, the pun there clearly unintentional. He gives a final fleeting comment before getting back to his fight training, “I wouldn’t personally…” crouching to load a right uppercut, then continues “wish to present myself to the public the way he does. But let’s face it, it won’t hurt the promotion”. On both a marketing and literal punch, Soliman hits the mark.
As the camp begins to usher me out, and I shake Sam’s hand and get on my way, barely anymore certain on what I came to observe as when I arrived.
True to form, my Las Vegas pen begins to give way like a desperate punters pocket late into the Nevadan night. But in a
final attempt to summarise the riddle of Sam Soliman, I manage to eek out a few poetic final words;
Of course that’s not Dodemaide or even Dr. Dre, rather Dr. Seuss. But if asked to determine the significance in this instance, one could get stumbled on either his travel as easily as his fighting style, before perhaps settling for the duel relevance and meaning. As long as it took “Sam I Am” to make that curious creature eat the green eggs and ham- through tree, train, plane and with foxes- it took Soliman to convince other boxers, and the world, he was elite class, championship worthy.
A win against Mundine will undoubtedly validate Soliman’s epic journey. And when it does, a man who has spent his life hunting will have understandable confusion appearing on the other side of the cross hairs. Somehow, it is easy to envision uneasiness coupling the ecstasy. Maybe then, he will know how he makes everybody else feel. A taste of his own medicine coming in a taste of victory. Bemused? Don’t worry, I can imagine the look.
Sam has that kind of affect on people.
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