By Hans Olson
“The nice guy in me is out,” Canadian super featherweight Arash Usmanee (20-0-0, 10 KOs) says over the phone, mid-afternoon from a Montréal gym.
“I’m just going to call out anybody. Anybody on this planet that wants to fight me…come and fight me!”
Usmanee’s message is one heard loud and clear; clear despite the annoying blips of static that which international calls bring, clear despite his having to speak over the three minute round-timers buzzing aloud in the background—a familiar cadence heard in boxing sanctums.
The clarity of such a statement like the one quoted above is fairly common to hear from a boxer.
The tone of voice, however, is not. Warm and cheerful, confident and sincere, there’s a certain aloofness to Usmanee’s voice when he speaks about prizefighting.
It’s like he’s not here.
Boxing for him, is here in Montréal.
He had another life long ago.
But it’s not here.
“I thank God everyday. I never realized what I was in until I had this life. This is why boxing…”
Arash cuts himself off with immediacy, as he often does mid-sentence.
Like a motorist hitting the brakes seconds after missing a turn, he takes a sudden detour only to make another point without missing a beat. Or remembering the initial turn.
“People walk in the ring trembling and scared! Are you kidding me? This is supposed to be fun! This is the fun part. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain from this sport. I’ve seen it all. What is the worst that a person can see?”
Everything Arash Usmanee says, you immediately feel, even if you don’t immediately understand.
“I’ve seen it. My dad passed away in it. What the past was, it gave the strength to make my future. That’s what made me now who I am.”
You then begin to understand.
In Another Place
The oldest of 5 children, Arash Usmanee was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in March of 1982. His life would change forever six years later when his father, an Afghani army recruit, was killed by a Russian rocket during the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
After leaving Afghanistan for a two year stay in Pakistan, Usmanee’s family resettled for good in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada.
“I moved to Canada in ’94 and the rest is history…the future…is a mystery,” chuckles Arash, amused at his line.
He has a way of keeping things upbeat in an interview, even when the subject matter isn’t. This ability to slide in and out of varying emotions during a sentence, like the one above, is one of many unique quirks to his personality. Arash can consistently change of tone of conversation in just a word or two—from horrific to humorous, from darkness to light.
Usmanee has an uncanny ability to adjust during a fight—a noteworthy attribute to his overwhelming skill-set in the squared circle—and he’s able to do the same outside of it as well. For years he’s dealt with the same racism that many of North America’s Muslims face each day in our modern world.
“I grew up an Afghani kid with no word of English in the province of Alberta, which is like the Texas of Canada so you go figure how it was,” continued Usmanee. “Earlier in my life, I’d seen [racism] and faced it. Now it’s not so much in my face as it is behind my back. Now it doesn’t bother me as much, and if they’re man enough, they can say it to my face.”
Again, there’s that tone he speaks in. The words coming out are fierce, but his tone isn’t. In fact, it’s mostly dismissive…like he’s gotten used to it; it doesn’t anger him.
Still though, Arash is realistic about the world in which he lives.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to be there probably for my lifetime.”
Ready to Start
“Well, things have been slow…”
Arash sounds impatient. Impatient like a fighter who likes to fight.
He’s fought 4 times already in 2012, his last one being a third round TKO of Peru’s previously undefeated Alan Paredes in June.
He recently took some time off during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting.
“I’m just coming back, trying to get my strength back. It’s difficult to go full force while I’m fasting, but I planned it good so I had two trainings a day. I started fasting around four o’clock in the morning. I ate at about 3:30am and then I trained at six in the morning. And then we fasted until eight o’clock. So I trained either before or after, so I have two trainings in the day mixing up running and boxing and everything. I’ve been training and I’m getting in decent shape…but being in decent shape and then being in fight-form are two completely different things. As of right now I’m decent shape…but pretty soon I’ll be in fight-form shape.”
Once he’s in fighting form, he’d like to fight one of the bigger names in his division. Usmanee is currently rated as the #5 super featherweight in the world by the WBA. I ask him how far off he feels a fight with one of those bigger names is, guys like the WBA’s current champ Takushi Uchiyama, or the #2 rated Diego Magdaleno.
“For us it’s not far off, but you’ve got to ask them how far it is because we don’t care. I’ve beaten Diego Magdaleno in the amateurs. Uchiyama, I’ve been checking him out. He’s the champion…everybody’s checking him out.”
“I don’t care. I don’t give no damn. I never did. My whole team, we didn’t really.”
Arash stops himself, again amused.
“Well, my team might have cared a little bit,” he says, acknowledging the often unspoken business tact of those around a fighter who build their careers.
“But I’m pushing for whatever man. Just pushing for something big. This is boxing as it is. It’s fun. Bring it on.”
Boxing as it is, and how it’s always been, started years ago for Arash when he saw a friend donning a crimson splattered tank top to his school’s Phys-Ed class.
“A friend of mine came in with a cutoff shirt and blood stains all over. I was intrigued, like, ‘what’s going on?’ And he was like, ‘it’s from boxing.’ So I went [to the gym] and nobody else went. I was the only guy that went and within two months I took his spot on the Alberta team. To go to “Blue and Gold,” I had to have had five fights, and I only had four. I went and fought five, just so I could be able to go because four wasn’t enough.”
So who did he fight in that 5th fight to be able to qualify?
“I fought Adam Carrera,” he says proudly.
“I think he’s fought for a title or won. At time he was a junior Olympian and US champion. I asked him how many fights he had, he said ‘this is my 142nd fight.’ For me I didn’t care, I wanted to beat him up. I’m a winner, I want to win so, I didn’t care who it was.”
Although he lost that particular fight, it was then that he realized boxing was something of a calling for him, and a year later he became a Canadian youth champion, eventually turning professional.
Five fights into turning pro, Arash realized there was one more move that he needed to make.
“Just over two years into my boxing career, I was at a standstill. If anything, [my career] was going backwards. I put so much in this, that if I wasn’t going to go anywhere, I wasn’t going to start making money or get my career going. I was ready to make real money.”
In Canada, the place to make money for a fighter is in Montréal.
He moved there with the help of Daniel Trepenier and Douggy Berneche.
“Daniel Trepenier was the technical director of boxing in Canada when I was an amateur, so he knew me and he knew what kind of person I was—I never went to a fight out of shape, I fought everybody…and nobody pushed me back one step. I was always in shape and I put on a good fight so him and my manager, Douggy Berneche, who are friends revived my boxing career pretty much. I came here just to try the team out, and I ended up staying here for five, six months.
“I came here [with] a suitcase full of stuff for like two weeks to try out my team, see how we matched, and the next thing you know I had an apartment, I had a car, I had a fight…here I am. Two years later, 15 fights, number 5 in the world…it was a great move.”
In the boxing-rich province like Québec, Arash Usmanee has the potential for stardom. He just feels he needs some championship hardware.
“The fans here, they like winners and they like champions. I’ve been winning, but I need some prestige, some titles. Once that happens, everybody will jump on the wagon. “
Living in Québec has brought another adjustment for Usmanee, one that he embraces. With his first language being Afghanistan Farsi, and his second being English, he finds himself again in the minority in the primarily Francophone province.
“Me, I’m kind of a universal kid. I’m Afghani, Canadian, I live in Quebec,” he says, unconcerned with race, nationality, language, or religious differences…differences that remain strangely commonplace in the sport of boxing, more so than any other.
“But I want a following everywhere!”
As he closes in on a title opportunity, one place in particular is one he thinks about often. He hasn’t been back to Afghanistan since leaving years ago, but it’s something he’s planning on doing.
“I would love to get more attention from my own country, my homeland nation Afghanistan. Who knows if they even know [that] I exist to tell you the truth, because I’ve been a Canadian citizen all this time. I was actually pondering about how to get them involved in my career, especially now where I’m right before a world title. It’d be nice for them to see me get that title instead of just walking in with the title.”
In a journey that has gone from Afghanistan to Pakistan, from Alberta to Québec, Arash Usmanee continues to fight for what he’s lost, what he’s found, and everything in-between.
In his voice, not only do you again hear it–you feel it. He leaves nothing behind.
“This is it man. I’m giving it all.”
“I have no care.”