Outside the hustle and bustle of Doha, in a residential compound replete with the usual sounds of kids playing, occasional vehicle driving by, is the training home of Qatar’s first pro boxer — Sheikh Fahad bin Khalid al-Thani.
Kids often try and get a peek into the Franck Bohec Boxing and Training Gym through the tinted glass doors but when Sheikh Fahad is going through his drill, the doors are understandably locked. Inside though, Cuban salsa music sets the rhythm for the training session that’s helmed by legendary coach Ismael Salas.
“It’s all about rhythm and movement,” the Cuban says, before he breaks into a move that’s part dancing and part boxing. Sheikh Fahad, 31, smiles looking at his 61-year-old coach show some rhythm.Salas got his survival instincts from the rough streets of Guantanamo, before “one of the best coaches” turned him around and channelled his energies into boxing.
After all those years, Salas has worked with 21 world champions across weight categories, including the likes of multiple time two-weight champion David Haye, multiple time three-weight champion Jorge Linares, former unified featherweight champion Yuriorkis Gamboa, and has twice been named as the WBA trainer of the year, the second one as recent as last year.
“I don’t think I could have had a better coach than him,” Sheikh Fahad, who fights in welterweight division, tells Gulf Times. Around the time that Salas was in Linares’ corner against Kevin Mitchell at London’s O2 Arena in the May of 2015, the Qatari had decided to move away from being an amateur.
“Franck (Bohec, Sheikh Fahad’s trainer) and I used to often talk about Ismael Salas. He had taken a boxer (Linares) from almost being retired, to taking him back to basics and better than he ever was.” Sheikh Fahad got in touch with Salas through a contact of his at the WBC (World Boxing Council). “We had a long chat about what I wanted to achieve,” Sheikh Fahad says. But all that had to wait for some time, as briefly after that he got married and then joined military service.
Cut to this week, Salas is putting Sheikh Fahad through the drills. There is a bout today in Leon, Spain, against Gheorghe Ghiompirica, his third against the Romanian. They call each other La Amenaza, “the threat” in Spanish, a name that originally stuck with Salas during his boxing days, and is now used both by the coach and his ward for each other.
Reprimanding at times, because he is floating around the ring too much, the feet not planted and not positioned right on the mat, and whistling and smiling, when his ward lands a good one during sparring. Like many in this world, Sheikh Fahad is inspired by Muhammad Ali. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, they used to say about the heavyweight legend.
But he is quick to clarify he was not trying to do what the legend was known for, during the session when Salas corrected him.
“Habit” is all that it is, Sheikh Fahad assures. “Every fighter has habits. It’s just about timing and positioning. Sometimes I need to move my feet, and sometimes I don’t. In pro boxing, you have to learn how to punch properly, and that takes a lot of adjustments.”
But that’s not to say that The Greatest had no impact on Sheikh Fahad.
“I was born in 1987. So I never really saw Muhammad Ali fighting. But my mother admired him very much,” he says. “She kept telling me about how she was worried about Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. When Frazier beat Ali the first time (Fight of the Century in March 1971 at Madison Square Garden in New York City), everyone was at the edge of their seats and were worried about Ali. “They felt attached to Ali, because of his Muslim background, because of how he was proud of Islam, and his character. I think his character was actually bigger than his boxing, because he certainly affected me.”
And so began Sheikh Fahad’s deep dive into the sport. “I was amazed to say the least. He was unique; a heavyweight moving like that,” he exclaims. “He admired Sugar Ray Robinson, and so I started reading on him and he was a different level. At the time they used fight almost every other week, 15 rounds with 6 ounce gloves. It was really a different time. I became a student of the game.” Later in the conversation, he talks about watching videos and reading about the likes of English former boxer Naseem Hamed, former undisputed world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, and British former boxer Chris Eubank.
He moved to the UK to study International Business, with a specialisation in Marketing and Finance. “That’s when I met Franck Bohec. Training and going for boxing classes at the time, I just fell in love with it,” he lights up while talking about the time. “I felt like I can really do something.”
Once back in Doha, he started training with the Qatar national team as an amateur boxer. “I trained with them for four years and there is no other way to put it, I learnt a lot with them,” he says. At the Doha Open in 2014, he lost in the welterweight final to one of his then sparring partners and the 2006 Asian Games bronze medallist, Huzam Nabah.
“I had reached a point where there wasn’t enough boxing in Qatar to fulfil what I had inside,” he says.
So he and Bohec began looking around to see what can be done until they met Salas. Post his wedding and the military service, Sheikh Fahad ended up in Las Vegas with Salas for a training camp. “That was really an education. Vegas has a small boxing community away from the lights, away from all the shows; they know each other, they spar each other, and they talk bad about each other (both laugh),” Sheikh Fahad says before Salas joins in with a hearty laugh.“Lots of crazy people,” Salas chips in.
“Linares used to drive me to the gym every day, and invariably talking about how he made his (pro) debut,” Sheikh Fahad reminisces.
“(Current WBA Cruiserweight World Champion) Beibut Shumenov spoke about his experiences. He is from Kazakhstan and the only two-weight champion from his country, and there were not many pro boxers from that country when he started. So I felt a connect with him.
“He told me that in the pro game never underestimate the journeymen that you will fight in the beginning. They know all the tricks of the game. They may not look good, they might not look in shape, but in the ring it’s a different story. They fight every week and every prospect. So he told me that they will try to trick you, take your confidence away from you, so be ready. “Every day I was getting a pep talk. I feel it (Las Vegas) is one of the best places to train for boxing.”
Along the way, he met Roger Mayweather, uncle of Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather, and connect with former Puerto Rican boxer Carlos De Leon, through the latter’s son. “I admire (Floyd) Mayweather a lot. Not for his money-throwing, his personal life, but as a boxer, his work ethic. I was lucky actually, that in my pro debut, I had a cutman called Rafael Garcia, who had worked with Mayweather from the beginning of his career,” Sheikh Fahad says about the man who is credited with saving the money-making brittle hands of the American through a unique wrapping technique.
“I spoke with Rafael many times before and after my fight about Mayweather’s work ethic. He told me that he could be at a nightclub or somewhere, but straight after he was probably running because his training demanded so. He is unique, his approach and his work ethic are very special and all fighters should admire that. He is where he is because he has put the hours in.” Salas, meanwhile, has seen Sheikh Fahad only grow as a boxer.
“There is a big change in him. We have been following a system, have created a process. My target is to bring in dynamics, as part of bio mechanics into his boxing game,” says Salas, referring to the study of systems in motion, while the body is not in equilibrium.
“After all the fights that he has been part of, he is a lot more loose, lot more relaxed, more co-ordinated. Body needs to be used as a weapon and you can do that only through co-ordination.”
Sheikh Fahad has been unbeaten in eight fights so far, having made his debut in Croatia against Hungary’s Bela Sandor. He has since faced Adrian Parlogea of Romania thrice, and Parlogea’s compatriot Gheorghe Ghiompirica (twice). He was last in a ring four weeks ago, two days after he turned 31, against Parlogea.
“We have had to work with him in a different way as compared to say I would have worked with the others,” Salas says. “Most national or promoting organisations have their own pool of boxers they can spar with. That was the idea behind taking him to Spain; they opened their arms for us, gave him a boxing license. It is a very different experience, not just for him, but for me, Frank Joseph, the matchmaker, Franck Bohec, who is taking care of the fitness training. It is solid team work.
“I have 21 world champions but this is a new project, coming to the region, opening something new, we are bound to get criticised by many. But nobody has done this. You need to assess the good and the bad, but you have to believe in the target. And once you achieve that, you will be the hero, the inspiration, the guide (for the next generation).” Sheikh Khalid himself reflects on it.
“Fighting (Parlogea and Ghiompirica) multiple times actually helps me improve. In my first fight with (Parlogea), I caught him by surprise and it was all over in the first round. In the second fight, he knew I was coming with speed and explosiveness, and he survived longer,” he says. “In the third, he blocked my strongest side (left) completely. He took me to a place I had never been before. So I started using my right in a way I had never used before. And that gave me such great feedback for training camp after. I learn from many of the fighters I have met. I am right now at the hardest stage, but once I build myself, I can go anywhere.
“I have become a more natural boxer, understanding my own body and motion. I learn a lot about how to use my body to my benefit, what kind of mistakes I am making and I am very analytical with myself. Sometimes it gets a bit too much.” With an unbeaten record so far, it sometimes is easy forget about the losses.
“I think in this day and age, the emphasis on ‘zero’ came after (Floyd) Mayweather (50-0). But we learn from many past champions. Ali lost and so did Robinson, and (Roberto) Duran. I know the taste of losing, so I am not fearful of a loss. One thing I learned is not about how you lose but about how you bounce back after a loss. That really defines you,” he says. History and even making it, he says, motivates him. “And to bring something to Qatar through boxing, to Qatari youth, promote healthy lifestyle, discipline.”
He has in the past spoken about bringing pro boxing to the region in general and Qatar in particular. “In 20 years’ time, when a kid walks into a boxing gym in Qatar, he would look at my name as someone who paved the way. That puts a lot of pressure. It’s also exciting,” Sheikh Fahad says. Exciting were also the times for him when he began playing football while in school.
“All my friends in school played football. My best friend, Khalid, asked me to join them as a goalkeeper. Not many kids want to be a goalkeeper. They eventually said that Al Arabi needs a goalkeeper, and so I went, and the coach there liked me. I played for the junior team for two years in 2002-3. Gabriel Batistuta was at Al Arabi at the time, and I would see him on a daily basis, it was a good time,” he says. He even tried out for Al Sadd, his favourite team, “but I remember the goalkeeper at the time for them was so big and tall for our age that I stood no chance”. “I love Al Sadd,” he says. “I get very passionate about it because my mother supports it, and so, in my heart, they are attached with my mother.”
At the 2006 Asian Games in the Qatari capital, Sheikh Fahad had one of his first live encounters with boxing. “I was there as a spectator, watching different boxers. It was the beginning of my interest in taking up boxing,” he says.
Before that, the biggest highlight for boxing as a sport in the region was when Muhammad Ali visited Doha for an exhibition bout at the Doha Stadium in 1971.
How did the family react? “I remember my father having a conversation with someone very close to me. He said I should balance it out, that I was training too much. But most teachers told my parents, that this is actually giving me balance in my life,” he says.
“At the beginning of my amateur career it was a surprise. But when I turned professional, it wasn’t a surprise. In my amateur tournaments, I only fought two tournaments with the headguard. So it was really the same thing. Today, my parents encourage me to keep going and achieving more, and making Qatar proud, and bringing more pride to our nation.”