Somewhere in New York City—perhaps in Central Park, where he ran five miles without fail every morning, or, more likely, in the gym on East 12th Street, where he worked for three hours six afternoons a week for five months—was Michael Olajide's fight. But on Saturday, Olajide, his energy drained, and his punches without snap, was in a ring at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, facing the fists of former Olympic gold medalist Frank Tate. When the 15-round bout was over, the stronger, more relentless Tate had knocked Olajide down twice, stunned him often and won the IBF's vacant middleweight championship by a lopsided unanimous decision.
This was not how it was supposed to end for the No. 1-ranked Olajide, the 23-year-old media darling with the movie-star looks, the outlandish wardrobe, the modeling portfolio and the very proper private-school vocabulary. But as Tate, who had been a 2-to-1 underdog, said in rather nonpreppy terms afterward, "There was no way in hell that I was going to let a Michael Jackson look-alike come in and beat me."
If he'd said that earlier, it would have been discounted as prefight bombast. Tate was born in Detroit, but he fights out of Houston—which isn't exactly center ring—and his 20-0 record was fashioned while no one was looking. Though Tate, also 23, had fared just as well as Olajide against the three opponents they had in common (Curtis Parker, Randy Smith and Troy Darrell), he was considered a foil for the flashy, England-born Canadian who now calls New York home.
Instead, Tate was clearly the aggressor and controlled the ring from the start. Even in the early going, before Tate unloaded his heavy guns, Olajide seemed listless, without spark or purpose. He showed little of the lateral movement that was expected to keep Tate off-balance and at bay. His jab, heretofore a swift prelude to crippling combinations, was little more than a feeble push. The combinations, which had led to a 23-0 record with 16 knockouts, were reduced to single punches, mostly poorly aimed left hooks. Olajide fought as though his right hand were for balance, not for battle.
Then, in the fifth round, just as the small crowd of 2,460 was settling in for a dull session, the two fighters clinched, and Olajide pulled Tate back to the ropes, where Olajide seemed to relax, right arm over the top rope, left hand down. Stepping free, Tate sent an overhand right crashing against Olajide's jaw, almost dropping him.
Tate hesitated a moment and then charged in. He threw another right that Olajide, knees rubbery, ducked before clutching Tate with both arms. Olajide shook his head clear as Richard Steele, the referee, struggled to pry the two fighters apart. Olajide survived the rest of the round stoutly from there—taking a hard left from Tate before the bell—but it was an omen of things to come.
As Olajide walked back to his corner after that fifth round, he shook his head as if to indicate that he was not hurt. But his father, Michael Sr., who trains him, asked, "Why are you doing that?"
Through the 10th round Tate patiently built a solid lead. By that point he led by five points on one judge's card and by eight on each of the other two. Only in the first round, before Tate discovered that it was he, not Olajide, who deserved the hype, did two of the three judges score for the favorite.
At the start of the 11th, Olajide, who had never fought beyond the 10th round, demonstrated that he at least had stamina going for him and reached deep within himself. For the first and only time he took command of the fight—for two minutes. Just a tick inside the last minute of the round, Tate threw a jab, which Olajide caught on his right glove, and Tate followed with a right hand over a left held low. The right slammed solidly against Olajide's jaw, knocking him off his feet and collapsing him on his left side. Down for the third time in his professional career, Olajide twice slammed his right hand against the canvas in frustration.
Up at the count of five, Olajide acknowledged each number with a nod of his head and watched Steele's hand as he finished the mandatory eight count. Nine more seconds elapsed—crucial, head-clearing seconds for Olajide—before Steele motioned to Tate to continue the fight. During the ensuing 37 seconds until the end of the round, with Olajide reeling and nearly helpless, Tate threw 59 punches, many of them, as he said later, wild: "That's all part of being young and anxious. I was just throwing arm punches. I let him get away."
In the 12th, Tate was too cautious and let Olajide escape once more. This time Tate's right hand landed hard and high on Olajide's temple, sending him to his knees. As Olajide regained his footing at the count of nine, Steele asked, "Are you O.K.?"
"I'm all right," said Olajide, who wasn't. Tate came in, threw two wild punches and was tied up. More than two minutes remained in the round, but Olajide recovered quickly, and Tate seemed content merely to clinch and not press his advantage.
The fight went three more rounds, but the main drama had been played out, and the reading of the result was merely a formality. Judge Chuck Giampa had it 146-135; judge Bill Graham, 148-134; and judge Jerry Roth, 147-136.
Olajide, who hadn't fought since May 10 because proposed title bouts against Thomas Hearns and Iran Barkley had fallen through, was close to tears when he said later, "I was sleepwalking, and he caught me with a right hand. I don't want to blame it on ring rust, but it was my inability to let my punches go. My hands just wouldn't come out."
His father and trainer, Michael Sr., agreed. "I knew it from the first round," he said. "He was overtrained. This was not Michael Olajide. This was not the fighter that I have. This is a major disappointment for me." He paused, then said, "And for my kid."