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'Termite' Gives Iraq the Olympic Bug
'Termite' Gives Iraq the Olympic Bug
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'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 boxing team.

"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.

The 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 the Games.

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."

The 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.

While at the U.S. Olympic Training Centers, Ali struck up a friendship with fellow 106-pounder Rau'Shee Warren, a 17-year-old from Cincinnati.

"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."

When their 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.

While things 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 experience.

"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."

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