Unlikely Journey Junior middleweight Kassim Ouma of Uganda has gone from child soldier to title contender

October 27, 2003

All prizefighters get knocked around, but none the way
24-year-old Kassim Ouma has. Ouma is a former child soldier in
Uganda who was wounded in combat in his home country and, since
moving to the U.S., has been hurt in two car crashes and badly
injured in a drive-by shooting. "I want to tell him he's got nine
lives, like a cat," says his trainer, Johnny Bumphus. "I just
don't want him to think he's got five more."

Ouma is based in West Palm Beach, Fla., and is the IBF's No.
1-ranked junior middleweight contender. The southpaw, who is
18-1-1 with one no-decision and is hoping for a tune-up this
month before challenging champ Ronald Wright for the crown, is
known to throw punches in bunches--1,331 during a 10-round bout
against Verno Phillips in 2001. "The scariest thing about
Kassim," says his friend Brian Tilley, "is that nothing scares

Ouma's journey began in a thatch-roofed hut in Busia, Uganda.
When he was five, according to Ouma, rebels with the National
Resistance Army stormed his grade school and kidnapped all the
boys. The children were loaded into a garbage truck and driven
into the bush, where they were forced to fight with the
guerrillas. Ouma didn't see his parents for two years.

At six he learned to build bombs. By seven he was toting a
submachine gun and lobbing hand grenades. "I've seen many women
and children shot, blown up," Ouma says. "If I didn't fight, I
would have been killed. This is why boxing comes naturally to
me." He says that one day when he was on the front lines, his
right knee was hit by shrapnel from a mortar shell. "We were in
the jungle with no doctors, no medical supplies," says Ouma.
"Luckily, I heal quick."

After the guerrillas took power in 1986, Ouma began boxing and
became a champ in the military. He made the Ugandan Olympic team
that was bound for Atlanta in 1996, but funding was tight, so he
was left home. "I wanted to turn pro," he says. While visiting
Washington, D.C., during a national team tour two years later, he
defected and was granted political asylum. He left behind his
wife, his two children and his father, who he says was later
beaten to death by the army.

He made his U.S. boxing debut in an amateur bout in Norfolk,
subbing for a fighter who couldn't make weight. He won that
match, and eventually veteran trainer Lou Duva signed him and
sent Ouma to work with Bumphus and manager Jimmy Rowan of Palm

Though Ouma is animated inside the ring, he's balanced and rarely
out of position. While he lacks a big punch, he's a skilled boxer
and usually executes his game plan well. "He's disciplined in the
ring," says Teddy Atlas, Mike Tyson's former trainer, who works
for ESPN as an analyst, "but not out of it."

Three years ago Ouma totaled his car in West Palm Beach and was
uninjured. Then last December he was shot twice, in the stomach
and in the calf, by an acquaintance in a West Palm Beach parking
lot. The wounds kept Ouma out of action for six months. Finally,
after a training session in Pennsylvania in the spring of 2003,
Ouma was driving his trainer's SUV when he says a deer jumped
into the road and forced him to swerve. The car flipped three
times, and Ouma suffered only a sore neck. "Watching him is a
full-time job," says his promoter, J Russell Peltz. "But he's
worth it--he can fight."

COLOR PHOTO: MIKE GREENHILL (OUMA) RING MASTER Ouma, who defected to the U.S. in 1998, is not a heavy puncher, but he is rarely caught out of position. COLOR PHOTO: JACK DEMPSEY/AP Quartey


Kassim Ouma hopes to join the list of boxing champions produced
by Africa over the last two decades. Here are five of the
best-known titlists and the first year in which they won a


Gerrie Coetzee South Africa WBA Heavyweight 1983
Azumah Nelson Ghana WBC Featherweight 1984
John Mugabi Uganda WBC Junior Middleweight 1989
Ike Quartey Ghana WBA Welterweight 1994
Vuyani Bungu South Africa IBF Junior Featherweight 1994

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)