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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Clottey savors arduous journey to title fight

GRAPEVINE, Texas – Manny Pacquiao arrived in Dallas on a charter plane on Monday with an entourage of about 130 people in tow.

A crowd of about half that many on Tuesday encircled Joshua Clottey – his opponent on Saturday in their HBO Pay-Per-View bout for the World Boxing Organization welterweight championship at Cowboys Stadium – in the lobby of the hotel where Clottey is staying.

Clottey looked more like a candidate for political office than a boxer as he moved comfortably among the people, many of whom were asking someone else in the crowd who it was they were waiting to see.

A young man wearing a T-shirt with Pacquiao’s image asked to have his photo taken with Clottey, who beamed and quickly slapped his right arm around the man’s shoulders. Just as the man’s friend was taking the picture, though, Clottey made a fist and pretended to punch the photo of Pacquiao in the nose as the crowd chortled. A few minutes later, an elderly woman posed for a picture with Clottey and then walked away grinning, saying to no one in particular: “Isn’t he darling?”

Clottey easily could have retreated to the sanctuary of his massive suite to avoid the fans. He was having too much fun, however, to leave.

A guy from Ghana who was once betrayed in his own country – and who spent most of his career playing second fiddle to higher-profile boxers – was intent on soaking it all in.

He remembered a time when his countrymen didn’t hide their disdain for him, when it seemed unlikely that he’d follow in the footsteps of such boxing greats as Azumah Nelson and Ike Quartey and become an international star.

He was challenged by men who were once his friends, who told him to his face that he was never going to amount to anything and that they wanted a chance to beat him up.

“People wrote me off, and the papers, the people, nobody [in Ghana] was talking about Joshua Clottey,” he said later, gulping down a plate of fruit while relaxing in his suite. “They would come up to me and said, ‘You’re nothing, man. I want a chance to fight you in the ring.’ A close friend of mine who had been everywhere with us when I was fighting in England came up to me. He said, ‘You’re too old, man. It’s over.’ ”

Clottey was 25 years old and had a 26-1 record – his only loss a hotly contested decision to Carlos Baldomir, a one-time feather-duster salesman who would later go on to become the undisputed welterweight champion.

Clottey knew the only way to salvage his career was to base himself in the United States. So, with little more than his courage and his boxing gear, he set out to make a new life for himself. He desperately wanted to succeed in his career because he knew in his heart he was good enough to be the next in the string of great Ghanaian fighters. He just needed a chance, and to that point in his career he wasn’t getting it.

“The only choice I had at that point was to go to America,” Clottey said. “I talked to God. I said, ‘Hey God, America is the last place for Joshua Clottey. It’s the mecca of boxing. If you want to be a champion, if you want to become a big star, you have to go to America – nowhere else. I am begging you: Please God, let me become someone. Let them talk about me like the way they talk in America about Shane Mosley, Oscar De La Hoya, Miguel Cotto and Zab Judah. I need this God. Please.’

“I came to America and I prayed that God would do it for me. And to my surprise, it really happened.”

The road to a bout against the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world was neither fast nor easy – and it wasn’t like Clottey was greeted as a conquering hero when he touched down in the States.

When he arrived in Las Vegas, an acquaintance from Ghana dropped him at a small motel. A day later, he received a disconcerting telephone call from someone on the motel staff.

“They said, ‘You’re going to have to leave,’ ” Clottey recalled. “I said, ‘What do you mean? Somebody put me here.’ ”

But that someone didn’t pay for more than one night and the motel wasn’t about to treat him as a charity case. He had little money and wasn’t sure what to do. He knew of another Ghanaian living in Las Vegas. He made another call and soon found himself a guest in the man’s two-bedroom home.

It would have been perfect, except for one small thing.

“He was smoking weed all the time – chain-smoking it,” Clottey said. “He would have cocaine, there was drinking. It was a terrible atmosphere. I would rather go home and quit than be in the middle of that. It was a place to become an addict.”

So he called his older brother, Emmanuel, and asked what he should do. Emmanuel Clottey recommended a move to New York City’s Bronx borough. Desperate to salvage his career and find a place where he could fulfill his destiny, Joshua agreed.

The decision to move to New York was a watershed moment in his life. It was like the scene in “The Wizard of Oz,” when it shifted from black-and-white to color. Clottey arrived in the Bronx and discovered native food, an African market and boxing gyms aplenty.

“It was like I was home in Ghana, but I was living in America in New York,” he said. “I said, ‘Wow, I’m never going to leave this place. I have found it. I love the Bronx.’ ”

He went to the gym and quickly built a reputation as one of the toughest men in the place. Vinny Scolpino, a New York businessman and boxing manager, brought one of his fighters to the gym to spar with Clottey.

They began to talk. Clottey expressed dissatisfaction with the way his career had progressed. He needed competent representation; Scolpino needed some quality fighters.

“I just saw him as a tough, dedicated kid, and I really didn’t think about anything else,” Scolpinio said. “I didn’t think of all the problems and the baggage. I’ve told him this many times, but I could smell something different about him. He had that something about him, a drive, that made him different. You could see it when he was in the ring. A lot of people had the opportunity to help him but they didn’t. I knew he was a hard-nosed guy and I knew he was a guy who could use some help.”

Clottey’s career took off not long after. He got a bout against Antonio Margarito in Atlantic City, N.J., on Dec. 12, 2006. During his training camp, he’d had pain in his knuckles on his left hand, pain that only went away when he’d rest the hand completely for several days.

In the fifth round, he hit Margarito with a jab and a hook and instantly winced. Pain shot up his arm. In the next round, the same thing happened to his right hand. He walked back to his corner, planning to quit.

Scolpino and his girlfriend urged him to keep fighting.

“My girl,” Clottey said, chuckling. “My girl says I can’t quit, so I say, ‘OK. I won’t quit.’ ”

He fought defensively the rest of the fight, spending most of his time blocking Margarito’s punches. He went to a hospital after the fight to have his hands checked, where he learned he had stress fractures in both. While he was there, he saw Margarito, who was in obvious pain. Margarito’s face was badly swollen and he would wince in pain when he was touched.

“I felt bad for him, to be honest,” Clottey said. “But I thought to myself, ‘My God, Joshua, you did that to him after only four rounds?’ I didn’t punch much at all after that and that was the way he was. I said, ‘You know, I can do something here.’ “

Clottey routed Diego Corrales in his next fight in what would be the last bout of Corrales’ legendary career before he died in a motorcycle accident in Las Vegas. He then stopped Zab Judah in Las Vegas and won the International Boxing Federation welterweight title in 2008. Still, he knew he could do more.

Promoter Bob Arum offered him a bout with Cotto last June. Though Clottey lost a split decision, his performance was enough to convince Arum that Clottey was a tough opponent for any welterweight in the world.

“Everybody knows that Joshua Clottey is a tremendous defensive fighter and can put a real hurting on an opponent,” Arum said.

While Arum was attempting to put together a Pacquiao fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr., Scolpino stayed in close contact with Arum and Top Rank executive Carl Moretti. He kept telling them that if negotiations fell apart, Clottey was available to face Pacquiao.

Scolpino’s persistence paid off. When Arum finally got frustrated by Mayweather’s contractual demands, he called Scolpino and quickly made the fight.

Clottey could hardly believe his good fortune. He would finally get the opportunity to follow Nelson, a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and Quartey, and become the next Ghanaian to become a star in the States.

“It would have been easy to quit,” Clottey said. “Nobody was on the side of Joshua Clottey. Nobody. I had faith and I knew if I kept working and kept trying, sooner or later it would happen. And here I am.”

He looked around the spacious suite he was occupying. He remembered all the fans he’d greeted earlier in the lobby. He had, Joshua Clottey said, arrived.

“Can you believe this?” Clottey said. “Of course I’m enjoying this. It’s like a dream. I am a very happy man right now.”


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