Friday, January 29, 2021

Ra'eese Aleem: Q&A

There's a stubborn streak that runs through Ra'eese Aleem. It's what makes a frustrated fighter from a small town in Michigan leave behind his family and boxing support system to head to Las Vegas, a city where he knew no one and didn't even have a single connection. 

Enduring multiple layoffs of more than 18 months in his career, Aleem refused to let inactivity be an excuse; he continued to train without anything on the horizon, just a belief that things were going to break his way. And when they didn't, he followed his own path, making his own luck. Throughout his career he had been rejected by big promoters and shut out of opportunities given to many fighters of lesser stature, but he always believed that he would become a world champion. 

Despite a city full of boxing trainers, Aleem insisted on training himself for almost a year and a half when first arriving in Vegas. Now a junior featherweight contender, Aleem (18-0, 12 KOs) has retained his stubborn side. Even with a settled team around him now, Aleem still calls many of his own shots when it comes to training and fight preparation.

Ra'eese Aleem (left) lands a left hook on Vic Pasillas
Photo courtesy of Amanda Westcott

Often working out up to three times a day, Aleem's competitiveness is foundational to his story. He earned a black belt in karate by the time he was 14. He next transitioned to boxing and quickly took to the sport. By 17 he was already competing in National Golden Gloves tournaments. 

Last Saturday Aleem had the breakout performance of his career. Facing a fellow unbeaten fighter in Vic Pasillas in a Showtime co-feature, Aleem scored four knockdowns and won by an 11th round TKO. Aleem displayed a combination of ferocity, punching power and versatility that made for exciting television. Surely, main event slots and a title opportunity will now be coming his way in the near future. After spending years in the boxing wilderness, he has finally arrived. 

This week I spoke with Aleem and got to know more about his backstory, the genesis of his fighting style and perhaps a little bit of what makes him tick. Aleem knows that he's on the precipice of achieving great things in the sport. At 30, an age where many 122-lb. fighters have already begun to decline, Aleem believes that he's hitting his peak. 

He wants it all. He can feel it. And he knows that he has gotten this far not by necessarily listening to others, but by marching to the beat of his own drum. Call it stubbornness. Call it self-belief. Call it perseverance. But call it as it is: Ra'eese Aleem has made his own way to the big time. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Ra'eese, congratulations on your victory and an excellent performance.

Thank you very much.

I wanted to begin with how you started out in boxing.  I know that before boxing you were involved in karate. How did you find your way to boxing initially?

I got my black belt in karate. After that, it came down to what are we going to do next. My dad wound up taking me to the boxing gym one day. I must have been 14. I was naturally kind of good because I already knew how to fight. And I stuck with it. 

In what ways has karate helped you with boxing? 

Probably my footwork, being good on my feet. Being able to go in-and-out. Step-and-pivot. Or switch to the southpaw position naturally without getting caught, or without making it look like I’m actually switching. That, and also being humble, both inside and outside the ring – not taking anybody for granted. 

You seem to have significant power in your left hand. Are you a converted southpaw who fights in the orthodox stance? 

I’m naturally left-handed, but I’ve always been an orthodox fighter. I’m more fluid in the orthodox stance, but I’m definitely stronger as a southpaw.

One aspect of your style that I think differentiates you from many fighters is your ability to switch from orthodox to southpaw in the middle of a combination. You did this very well against Pasillas. Have you always had this ability or is it something you've developed over time?

It’s always come natural to me, but it is something I continue to work on. It could be in the gym, during sparring. Maybe I see the angle and I create it. I just do it. 

How would you describe your amateur background? 

I went to the Golden Gloves five or six times. I made it to the national semifinals two years in a row. I lost by split decisions. I fought some good guys as an amateur: Kevin Rivers, Shemuel Pagan. I fought Ernie Garza, Ronny Rios, Erick De Leon. I fought a tough guy out of Philly, Damon Allen. Some good guys. 

What was the process like for you turning pro? 

My original boxing coach, Terry Markowski, who is still a part of Team Aleem, said to me one day, you have x number of fights, it’s time to go pro. And I said OK. It was like that.

Turning pro, being a successful professional fighter, winning a world title, that has always been my goal. It was never going to the Olympics and going for the gold medal. That wasn’t the goal of mine. Mine was to turn pro and win a world title. When Terry said it was time, it was time.

When you started as a pro, you fought off the radar in many small towns and cities in the Midwest that aren't known for being boxing hotbeds. What was the Midwest boxing circuit like? 

Sometimes you have to fight in a hole-in-the-wall. And there’s not a lot of fans. But just because you start there, doesn’t mean you have to finish there. You just have to pay your dues. It sucks, actually. My fourth fight I was on a card that was on HBO. It was the first fight of the night. It wasn't on TV or anything, but still.

And then going from that to fighting in Green Bay or Dodge’s kind of like, “damn.” But it’s part of the game if you want to eventually get to that bigger platform. You have to earn it. And eventually I did. 

One of four knockdowns for Aleem against Pasillas
Photo Courtesy of Amanda Westcott

You had a couple of long layoffs in your career. What were those times in your life like? What did you do to keep yourself engaged in boxing when you couldn't get fights?

It was hard because I was still in the gym training. I was also working at a grocery store called Meijer's and they allowed me to get the time off I needed for sparring. But eventually I just couldn’t get fights. I was 4-0. I fought on an Adrien Broner undercard in Cincinnati. I beat an undefeated fighter [DeVonte Allen] and after that, nobody would fight me. I signed with Cameron Dunkin thinking that I would be all set, that I’d just have to train to get ready for a fight. But I went from having a few fights and then, boom! Everything went stagnant. 

Because of that, I said to myself if I was going to continue to box, I had to do something different. I was tired of listening to trainers, coaches, managers and promoters. I decided to do what Ra’eese Aleem wanted to do. I was still working. I was saving up money. I made a plan. And eventually I made it happen.

Hoping to kickstart your career, you left Muskegon for Las Vegas. Did you know anyone in Vegas? Did you have any boxing contacts there? 

I didn’t have any contacts. I didn’t know anybody. No family. No friends. No support system. I just went for me. 

Once I got here, now I’m like, what do I do? I have to find a gym. I google the closest boxing gyms near me. I find Barry's Boxing Gym. So, I go there. Now I have to find a coach. It was a little bit of a process. 

Augie Sanchez was there. We started to work together, but he worked with the USA team, and I wasn’t really feeling that because I needed someone who could be focused on me. 

So I just decided to train myself. I was grinding and training myself for a while, almost a year and a half. And then I had an opportunity to fight an undefeated fighter. I dominated that fight [his first bout with Marcus Bates] and that started the domino effect where I am today.

How did you link up with your current trainer, Bobby McCoy? 

He’s actually from Barry's Boxing Gym, the first boxing gym I went to. That's where we met. For some reason, the coaches there didn’t want me and him to hit the mitts or anything like that at first. I’m not sure why. But eventually we hit the mitts and we became cool. You know, he’s not 20 years older than me. We’re around the same age. We’re kind of just boys. We hung out a little bit. But I was still doing my thing.  

After I won my fight [the first Bates fight], I wound up being trained by Bones Adams. Bones trained me for a little bit, but we decided to go our separate ways. Then I was thinking about some things and I decided to hit up Bobby. If I ever needed someone to work my corner if Bones couldn’t make it, or if something was going on, Bobby would be there. If I needed someone to hit the mitts, I would hit the mitts with Bobby. That’s how we really started to work with each other. Then we had a conversation. We talked business. And then we were like, let’s make it happen. 

How did you wind up being promoted by Marshall Kauffman and King's Promotions? 

We were trying to fight undefeated fighters, guys with winning records, and even good guys that had losing records. We were just trying to get a fight. And nobody would want to fight me. We were in talks with Top Rank. We were in talks with Golden Boy. Victory Boxing in Florida. Roy Jones Boxing. But it seemed like everyone was kind of dragging their feet. 

Marshall, he does a lot of shows. He’s very active. Terry Markowski talked with him. We had an opportunity to fight an undefeated fighter, Marcus Bates, and that was Marshall’s fighter. 

This is the kind of fighter that I am. I’m coming off an almost two-year layoff, move to a new city and train myself for a year and a half. I have an opportunity to fight an active, undefeated fighter with seven or eight knockouts in his nine wins, and I jump at the opportunity.

And that's how we got hooked up with Marshall. And I’m very grateful for Marshall for giving me the opportunity to make that fight and to sign me and to believe in me. 

In your opinion, why weren't some of the big promoters interested in signing you? 

I think it’s because I’m from a small town. I’m from a town that nobody’s heard of in Michigan. Yeah, maybe he’s 10-0 but he’s never fought anybody. Maybe he’s fought all bums. 

But had I been born in Vegas or born in New York or Florida or Cali, it would be completely different. Nobody could convince me otherwise. It’s just because I’m from Muskegon, Michigan. They had never produced a world champion.

Aleem victorious over Pasillas
Photo courtesy of Amanda Westcott

Growing up, who were some fighters that influenced you? 

I liked Mike Tyson. I liked how ferocious he was inside the ring and outside the ring. Whether he was talking shit or knocking somebody out, I always liked that about him. 

How much tape do you study on an opponent? How much did you study Pasillas before your fight last Saturday? 

If there’s tape, I try to watch. I want to get an idea of what he has. For Pasillas, I watched his last fight. That’s the only fight that I saw. First, I watched the highlights and then I saw the full fight, but I only watched it once all the way through. The difference between the last guy Pasillas fought [Ranfis Encarnacion] and me is that I'm a completely different animal. The guy he fought last was a tree. No foot movement. No head movement. Nothing. Yeah, he was undefeated, but he wasn't anything like me. Vic Pasillas is an outstanding fighter and made that guy look like a bum. I wanted to make sure I brought my A-game against Pasillas. And I did.

You work out sometimes three times a day. At 30 years old, an age that isn't young for your weight class, how do you draw the line between staying fresh versus burning yourself out?

It’s really just listening to your body. Training for Pasillas, there was a day where we were supposed to spar 10 rounds. But I listened to my body. I know how hard I work. And instead of ten rounds, I said we’re going to go five, and then we’re also going to do this and that. You have to be able to adapt and adjust. I know what it takes to perform at an elite level. I know the type of shape I have to get my body in. I have to be able to listen to my body. 

I’ve listened to coaches before. “You should do this. You should do that.” And I’ve done it. And I’ve had injuries, or something doesn’t go the way it should. So, I don’t listen to anybody else anymore. I do what Ra’eese Aleem wants to do. If I want to do three-a-days, I’m going to do three-a-days. And I’m going to listen to my body and I’m going to act accordingly.

I know that you're an avid practitioner of yoga. How has yoga helped you in your boxing career? 

I think it’s helped tremendously. You know all the things that fighters may be scared to do for whatever reason or they refuse to do; those are the things that I want to do. Working those little muscles, you know, muscles you don’t usually work. Controlling your breathing. It’s all good stuff. It’s nothing but beneficial. I feel like it helps me. And I display that in my performances.

You had a commanding performance against Pasillas and made a big statement in the junior featherweight division. What's next for you in the boxing ring? 

It should be a world title fight. Anything other than a world title fight I’m going to be livid. I’m going to mad, disappointed, whatever the word is, I will be that. I’m ready for the opportunity. I won a world title eliminator last fight. After this fight, I’m now in the mandatory position. You know, these fighters can’t duck and dodge me forever. I’m ready to fight any current world champion. I want to fight for the world title in let’s say May/June. Win it, and then defend it before the end of the year. That's what I want to achieve.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

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