KASSIM OUMA carries the nickname “The Dream”, but his struggles early in life – dealing with situations unfathomable to most people – may have been better defined as a nightmare. Luckily, the IBF junior middleweight world champion persevered through the rough times and has emerged as one of boxing’s rising stars, an exciting warrior who has captured the imaginations of fight fans with his talent and his story – a rare combination these days.
“If I was in Uganda I’d probably still be a soldier now. But in America, if I wasn’t boxing I’d be in the movies. The big screen. Action, drama, I got it all.” Kassim was born on December 12, 1978 in Kampala, Uganda, and lived the life of a normal child in his homeland until the age of seven, when he was kidnapped out of school and inducted into the National Resistance Army. For the next ten years of his life, Ouma was forced to fight in the war-torn nation, experiencing horrors no child or adult should have to see.
“That’s my past, and I don’t want to remember,” said Ouma to a reporter in 2002. “Thinking about my mother and dreaming about military stuff, it gets me crazy. ”
To help him escape from the military, Kassim turned to boxing as a teenager. “I didn’t know anything about boxing, but the name they always called, was ‘Ayub Kalule, Ayub Kalule,’” said Ouma of the former junior middleweight champion, probably best remembered for his gallant loss to Sugar Ray Leonard.
“Now hopefully back home, the kids are saying, ‘Kassim Ouma, Kassim Ouma.’” In 1998, after a solid amateur career (60-3) in Uganda, “The Dream” finally had his chance, and the 19-year-old defected to the United States during a national team tour, and was granted political asylum. “The United States is like everything,” said Ouma. “It is like the home of professional boxing.” Ouma would have to start again in the US, but he was determined to succeed.
After traveling from gym to gym, Kassim eventually settled in Florida, where he made his pro debut on July 10, 1998 with a first round KO of Napoleon Middlebrooks. Five more victories, all by knockout (three in the first round) followed, and in his seventh bout, on January 15, 1999, Ouma was put in a 12 round Florida state title bout against Victor Ramos. Ramos only made it through five rounds with the hard-punching Ugandan though, and Kassim had his first championship belt.
It wouldn’t be his last. In his next bout, against Emiliano Valdez, Ouma went the distance for the first time, winning a six round decision, and then took out Angel Villegas in eight rounds. Kassim’s tenth fight would produce a fluke first round TKO loss to Agustin Silva on November 20, 1999, but “The Dream” didn’t crawl into a shell after his first defeat – he came back six months later and stopped highly regarded prospect Alex Bunema (17-1) in just four rounds.
With the boxing world turned on it’s ear by Ouma’s win over Bunema, Kassim just kept impressing fans and insiders by defeating 12-0 prospect Kuvanych Toygonbayev, getting a technical draw with James Coker, and outpointing contenders Tony Marshall and Verno Phillips (a bout which set a Compubox record for most punches thrown) in successive fights.
Wins over Pedro Ortega and Michael Lerma added to the mystique of this young prospect, and when he stopped Jason Papillion in eight rounds to win the USBA light middleweight crown in May of 2002, Ouma had made the leap from prospect to contender. But seven months after beating Papillion, Ouma suffered another major setback in his life when he was randomly shot in the abdomen in December of 2002, and forced to undergo surgery. Not surprisingly, given his resilient history, Ouma was back in the gym three months later, and fans were wondering when Ouma would get his shot at the world title.
Those pleas got even louder as Kassim further cleaned out the 154-pound weight class by beating contenders Angel Hernandez, Carlos Bojorquez, and Juan Carlos Candelo in 2003 and 2004. “if I was in Uganda I’d probably still be a soldier now…”
Finally, Ouma got his world title opportunity on October 2, 2004, and he made the most of it, outpointing old rival Verno Phillips over 12 rounds to win the IBF middleweight championship of the world. In his first defense, Kassim was outstanding in scoring a clear cut unanimous decision over hard-punching contender Kofi Jantuah on January 29, 2005.
With a life story that could someday be made into a feature film, Kassim Ouma has truly achieved his dreams in life. He may even want to play the starring role in the movie of his life. “If I wasn’t boxing,” said Ouma, “if I was in Uganda I’d probably still be a soldier now. But in America, if I wasn’t boxing I’d be in the movies. The big screen. Action, drama, I got it all.”
It’s the type of tale that captures sports at its best, and in the process has made Kassim an inspiration to fans around the world. “All my fans pray for me,” he said. “I get letters from all over the world now. From New Zealand, Australia, countries in Africa.”
And he’s not bitter about his past, only thankful for what he has today. You can see it in his ever-present smile. “Man, I leave most of those things to the man upstairs and I always thank him,” he said.
Kassim Ouma has been featured in magazines and newspapers around the world, and was the subject of a compelling segment on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel series. He is the father of three.