'Termite' Gives Iraq the Olympic Bug
Most people would begin to question their "calling from God"
when rocket propelled grenades hit the building they're sleeping in, causing them to turn their bed over on themselves
in a feeble attempt for cover.
Yet when you believe so strongly in your calling from
God, grenades won't distract you from doing your job, in fact, it may lead to amazing things you never expected. This is exactly
what happened to Maurice "Termite" Watkins, a civilian pest control contractor who left his wife and kids behind and headed
to Iraq, to dodge heavy artillery fire, all in the name of protecting our troops from bugs.
He went from killing bugs
to reviving a nation's sporting hopes when word about his boxing background got around, and he was named coach of Iraq's Olympic
"My wife and kids begged me not to go," Watkins told MaxBoxing.com from his home in Houston. "It was a
scary experience but it was God's will for me to go, so there wasn't too much fear."
Watkins, a former car salesman
and pest control professional, is an ex-junior welterweight contender, compiling a record of 59-5-2 with 40 KOs. He once fought
Saoul Mamby for the WBC title on the undercard of the Muhammad Ali-Larry Holmes heavyweight title fight in October of 1980.
47-year-old Houston native has the charisma of a top-selling car dealer, the manners of a southern gentleman, and the grounded
nature of a humble working stiff, just looking to do a good job. It's no wonder that he made a lot of friends among the many
Coalition forces he met throughout his travels in the war-torn country, but it was an initial run-in with a British military
officer that got the ball rolling towards his improbable Olympic appointment.
While in Umm Qasr, a town near
the Kuwaiti border, Watkins struck up a conversation with the officer and asked him if he was from England. The officer replied
in a snobbish way that he was. Watkins, agitated by the attitude, told the officer about his boxing background and the two
began to talk about great British fighters of the past. A few months later Watkins was approached by Coalition Provisional
Authority regional coordinator Mike Gfoeller, who asked him what the chances were of getting an Iraqi boxing team together
for the Olympics.
"I told him slim-to-none," Watkins said. "Gfoeller said, 'Great, let's do it.'"
And so begins
the amazing journey of "Termite," who will walk under the Iraqi flag during the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Olympic Games
in Athens with the country's soccer team and seven other athletes competing in boxing, judo, swimming, track, taekwondo and
weightlifting. The International Olympic Committee suspended Iraq's membership from May of last year until February because
Saddam Hussein's son Uday, the head of the country's Olympic committee, often tortured athletes he felt under performed. There
is only one member of the Iraqi boxing team, 24-year-old Najah Ali, a flyweight who received a special wild-card invite to
To try and assemble a talented group of fighters was a challenge. Many of the country's top athletes stopped
competing for fear of getting the wrath of Uday. Watkins got together the top two fighters in each weight class and four flyweights,
including Ali, who has a computer science degree from Alrafdean University in Baghdad.
"Half the guys had no shoes,"
Watkins said. "Many of them didn't even have cups or mouthpieces, and the gloves we used were not very good to fight with."
one bright spot was Ali, who told Watkins he'd be going to Athens.
"Najah told me he would be the one to go to the
Olympics," Watkins said. "He immediately stood out to me because he was good looking, he can speak English and above all,
he is a good boxer."
Fifty seven days after that first workout, the Iraqi team headed to their first qualifying tournament
in the Philippines. While Ali was unsuccessful in two preliminary Olympic qualifying tournaments, he received one of five
wild card births given by the IOC. It doesn't matter that Ali is the only Iraqi to make it to the Games, he's representing
his country and to him, just being in Athens is a victory for himself and Iraq.
"I feel very good about being in the
Olympics," Ali said. "I am so excited to go over there."
In a showing of good will, the United States Olympic Committee
opened its training sites to Watkins and Ali, who trained at USOC facilities in Colorado Springs and in Marquette, Mich. Working
out at the U.S. Olympic Training Centers was a huge improvement over the barren gym in Hilla, where armed guards escorted
Watkins and Ali to and from the facility. Al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups have made it known that Watkins is a target.
at the U.S. Olympic Training Centers, Ali struck up a friendship with fellow 106-pounder Rau'Shee Warren, a 17-year-old
"Rau'Shee and Najah became really good friends," Watkins said. "They held the heavy bag for one another
and showed really good teamwork. USA Boxing has been a class act and the USOC has been wonderful to us."
work was completed at the Training Centers, Watkins welcomed Ali into his home and made him a part of the family. Watkins
is also helping Ali, along with the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and others to get
him enrolled in the University of Houston, where he can complete a master's degree in computer science.
are looking up for Ali, Watkins has become a sudden celebrity. He has a book about his experience in Iraq coming out in September,
he has had three movie offers, and several endorsement deals come his way. When he gets back from Athens, he plans on getting
back into boxing as a trainer, manager or possibly a promoter. He wants to open a gym in a poor area of Houston to help get
youngsters off the streets and into the gym doing something positive with their lives. He also has several public speaking
engagements lined up as well.
"I've found that there are two things that I love," Watkins said. "I love helping people
and I love boxing, so now I can help people through boxing."
For both Watkins and Ali, the hard work is over and the
fun is only just about to begin. The duo plans to leave for Athens on Thursday, and they will just soak in the entire Olympic
"Win, lose, or draw, Najah is already a winner," Watkins said. "We are going to have fun, and enjoy the
spotlight with no fear. It's not about boxing, it's about freedom."
As for Ali, walking out under the Iraqi flag at
the opening ceremonies, free from fear, free to be himself, and representing hope for a country that has had so little hope,
will be a burden he is more than willing to bear.
"It will be the greatest day of my life," Ali said. "The Iraqi flag
will be flying free."
For Questions or Comments
E-Mail Sean Stowell at firstname.lastname@example.org