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
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
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
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
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 City...it’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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.