By Mike Altamura
Life is grand. I’m bouncing, great vibrations aplenty. Tapping these keyboard letters while soaking up the rays on my 14th floor hotel room balcony overlooking the gorgeous man-made Dubai Marina. In five hours I’ll be jet-setting to New York City again, where a plethora of enterprising meetings await. 56 flights, 15 countries already this year. I’m super-motivated, focused, energised, and never been happier. It’s unbelievable. 401 days ago I went on a walk, alone, to determine how I was going to exit this universe.
Ironically, 2017 had kick-started with unprecedented anticipation. At the tail-end of an extremely fruitful 2016, I was connected via a trusted colleague to a Chinese businessman. David Pan. He purported to be representing the Beijing BeiAo Group, a major outfit that played a hand in organising numerous international events, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I was familiar with Chinese business practices given my matchmaking and event coordinating roles in the country the previous 13+ years, and thus I was highly skeptical. Everybody it appears has a Chinese boxing “investor”, yet scarcely does anything become reality.
David presented well, explaining the provincial Governments he had in support wanted boxing, and were prepared to invest in the long-term. They had hand-picked me upon recommendation to front their promotional entity. For many years I’d held out joining leading promotional companies in the industry because I felt my ideologies didn’t quite stack with their corporate ladder landscapes and ethical standards. It appeared all that patience was set to be rewarded. Let the evolution begin!
Our translator (A Chinese boxing commissioner) rifled my questions at David, and he coolly answered each with aplomb. Further supporting his credibility, there was provincial representatives on hand unified in their enthusiasm, and also the World Boxing Organization (WBO) Asia Pacific office. I departed China a man on a mission.
I was given firm instruction to start building the international fighter roster. Scouting talent has always been considered among my stronger traits. David’s grand ambitions of bringing Las Vegas-style events to China were to the tune of a minimum $10 USD million spread over five events. We formed a 10-year exclusive partnership agreement in China. The contract, suggested David, would ensure the funding was secured. It was imperative we expedite the process as a press conference slated to be broadcast live on CCTV5 China launching the company was to follow in quick order. We needed the roster in place.
It was under this direction, and on David’s assurances of initial operational cost funding (300K USD) before month-end, that I immediately began putting together a murderer’s row of talent, including two highly-sought Olympians. We aligned eight athletes total, featuring just one of my prior long-term clients. A diminutive, precocious young Ghanaian gladiator named Isaac Dogboe.
Foolishly, I advanced funds to various athletes and absorbed the first month’s salary of the Olympians we signed. With various costings, primarily travel, business licensing etc, I was 30K USD invested already. There was a calmness within though as the funding was only a stone-throw away. A couple weeks passed and the climate suddenly turned frosty. The launch was delayed, funding was delayed. Temporarily, according to David. “After Chinese New Year we will finalise all,” he guaranteed in poor English. He was awaiting the return from the holiday period of various investors. Panic began setting in.
Finally, David admitted there was infighting and problems within the organisation, but his story constantly shifted. Another 5K loan later, I was in Beijing, in his office, confronting him and his board members about the failed launch. It was mid-March already. It was there I discovered, after hiring an independent translator, that our first (and ongoing) translator had pretty much sugar-coated everything both ways, hence the smoothness of the opening conversations with David. This translator fired my shots like a sniper, and David was clearly rattled at stages. We drafted a fresh agreement signifying I would, at minimum, be reimbursed everything already spent within 15 days. The event schedule would be slightly delayed, that was all. I departed uneasy, but refusing to yield.
I arrived home that weekend with a thousand dollars in hand. The problem? 10K in athlete payments was due Monday. I had a lingering hunch that Thai fighter Srisaket Sor Rungvisai was a seriously live chance against Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, arguably the pound-for-pound #1 boxer in the world, 46-0. The odds? 10-1. Perfect! Rungvisai dropped Chocolatito in round one, possibly was outworked thereafter, but was awarded a 12-round majority decision. Problem solved.
It was only a temporary fix though. David claimed the money was already sent, stalled a few days, was confronted, and thereafter sent a false tracking number. Then vanished. Not literally, but he ignored my incessant calls. I was under relentless pressure. 90K in debt. The fighters were dissatisfied, and a few of my friends that had loaned me funds temporarily were beginning to have meltdowns. One in particular called almost every mutual friend we possessed, insisting they intervene on his behalf to recover the money. Understandable as he had anticipated his funds returned two weeks earlier.
The staunch, brutal examination from each caller was intense. And mentally fatiguing. In actuality it was counter-productive to the cause. I’ve never felt so worthless, judged, ashamed in my life. Just crushed into a million pieces.
It was time to finally stem the bleeding. I released all the contracted athletes. One opted to remain loyal. Isaac Dogboe. His father Paul even kindly offered to beatdown David Pan for the funding alongside me. Class people. However, I couldn’t reverse the pathway to gradual death by a thousand cuts. My reputation, I was adamant, would be absolute dust. And most importantly, I had created so much distress to those that believed in me.
Which brings me to May 12, 2017. The hollowness inside was different this day. I had returned from Auckland a few days earlier with zero motivation. No interest in business. TV. Reading. Arcade Games. Women. But I would remain responsive to those I owed funds. Answering every call. I wanted to demonstrate I possessed the fortitude to never hide, no matter how dire the situation. But this day, they called, I refused to answer. I contemplated life from every perceivable angle. I felt in my heart that I didn’t deserve any happiness. Total failure. Business. Friends. Relationships. Useless across the board. Finally in the evening I rolled outta bed and packed my earphones.
With heavy black circles surrounding my eyes courtesy of sleep deprivation, anxiety, and the tears flowing for hours on end, I created my ultimate playlist. Approximately two hours worth. Every song that had impacted my life in one light or another. It was a different mission this time. I departed the house determined to succeed. Two hours, give or take, to discover the “how” so this living nightmare would permanently conclude.
I walked the quieter parts of Greensborough, playing over countless memories in my head. Random, scattered memories. Accompanying my eldest sister Rose to her modelling appointments knowing she would always selflessly reward me with wrestling figures. Kicking the match-winning goal in a seventh-grade Aussie Rules Football match, my first crush (Still a secret!), first kiss (What’s up, Donna, wherever you are?), magazines I made and circulated to classmates during primary school.
I arrived at my desired thinking destination. Diamond Hills Reserve. I sat atop a hill that essentially oversees the town and stared out in the distance. Every illuminated light represented failure. I pondered how I possibly could delude myself into thinking my dreams were ever worth pursuing. How did I think I brought any unique qualities into this world? This thought pattern triggered scores of hurtful memories, particularly the bullying and name-calling I was subjected to during my upbringing. I began thinking about my nieces and my nephew, and prayed that they would never know that anguish.
Next, I thought deeply about my mother. Remembering a time she was crying, and seeing with clarity her potential reaction to my departure. I started thinking I’d need to be creative. Spare her the heartbreak of thinking this was intentional.
Then something strange happened. My music cut as somebody was calling. “Peter Stokes” flashed in the caller ID. The long-time trainer/mentor of world-ranked Nathaniel May, whom I co-managed with Peter. Call it a sixth sense. I did my absolute best not to answer, but eventually relented. I desperately tried to compose myself. Shakiest “Hello” ever. Instantly I knew something was wrong. Stokesy was shakier than me. A month earlier, I’d been a passenger in his car when his doctors were calling him nonstop to attend urgent appointments. The result unfortunately was aggressive B-Cell Lymphoma. It had spread to his bones. Fighting tears, he outlined he likely had less than six-nine months remaining.
The bravest man I’d ever know would not be destined to last beyond 45 years of age. I told him I was heartbroken to hear the news. The measure of Stokesy’s character is defined by this conversation. He knew in detail my struggles, and followed up by inquiring about my financial situation. “It’s a fucking disaster but I’ll be okay, mate,” I asserted. “I hope so,” he said. “Them fucking pricks.” He made me chuckle. His tone was so unbelievably blunt. “Stokesy, I love you, and I am so so sorry,” I said before hanging up.
A couple deep breaths later, I laid back and glanced at the stars. I pulled the earphones out, wrapped them around my phone, and stuffed it into my pocket. Listened to the surroundings. The beautiful stillness of the night. I thought about Stokesy. The fogginess in my mind was starting to subside. I thumped my chest at least twenty times, stood up, and let out the most powerful scream imaginable.
The only absolute in life was if I refused to get back up. I found the strength to rise. For Stokesy, for my family, friends, everybody that ever demonstrated the slightest faith in me. But above all, I rose for myself. I started espousing motivational phrases to the skies. “You. Will. Not. Be. Denied,” “Believeeeee”, “Your time, son. Your time!”. There had to be a silver lining.
The following day, I awoke empowered, and started devising recovery solutions. My friend John had been withholding on a contact because he didn’t wish to roll in such circles anymore, but given the dire situation, he relented. His man was situated in Beijing and after reviewing the facts, he had the confidence to effectively corner the Pan-handler for the reimbursement sum agreed. Stunningly, the funds were attained within 24 hours. Pan also assured the boxing schedule would proceed, but not even his most ardent admirer would believe anything he stated at this juncture.
Freedom! My debts were beyond the reimbursement funds, but the amount recovered allowed me to stabilise. I felt the greatest sense of pride in paying my friends back. My reputation in my ‘hood was restored. My fears of a shattered reputation in the trade were exaggerated too. Industry heavyweights fully understood what transpired and offered to throw me opportunities where possible to aid the return. This would undoubtedly be the greatest comeback since Lazarus.
It hasn’t been all peaches and cream since. Loads of near misses. For instance, I brokered a massive deal with an African Government to showcase multiple world titles only to see it short-circuited due to unrelated political election turmoil leading to a freeze in all funding allocation. Of course, Pan never resurfaced. Although I will gladly sell my 10-year agreement to the highest bidder for a dollar or nearest offer! With a redeemed focus, a high guard, and uncompromising belief, I’ve trotted forward with a smile on my face. Joyous because I am calmly enjoying the process, knowing the capacity to hit the targets when they present.
Late December brought me to Accra, Ghana for our planned Interim 122lb World Title fight on January 6, 2018 featuring — who else — Isaac Dogboe. The opportunity for him to face Mexican warrior Cesar Juarez emerged so suddenly and seemed to be dawning upon us even faster. Most international fight pundits considered Dogboe an underdog, but our team believed he was the more versatile boxer. With Dogboe in camp, unavailable for public appearances, I represented him on December 30 at Ghana’s People’s Celebrity Awards.
The red carpet at the awards was fascinating. I was among the few foreigners, and was hearing mutterings… “Messi, is that Messi?” To the awaiting media’s disappointment, I’m a relatively modest soccer player, unlike my doppelganger. It was an amazingly fun gathering, and one girl that was performing named Angela approached with her fellow backing vocalists to say “Hi”. They were lovely, and somewhere in the chat invited me to their church the following evening to celebrate the pass-over into 2018.
I was intrigued. Ghanaians almost exclusively venture to church on New Year’s Eve. This church in Tema seemed a little left of centre. Altar of Fire Ministries. Headed by a Prophet Krobia billed online as “Son of Mega One”. With my night available, I headed there (Needed to see if Son of Sega Mega Drive turned up!), and was surprised to discover at 7pm the outdoor setup was still underway. Angela started introducing me to all the church members, a very bubbly, eclectic assortment. She then walked me to Prophet Krobia. I was stunned to discover Krobia followed the pugilistic art, and was greatly anticipating a Dogboe win. ln fact he adamantly predicted a mid-round KO victory. He requested I remain for the full service, then sauntered home to start preparations.
The service began with a relatively standard opening from Krobia’s assistant, then continued with almost an hour of nonstop gospel tunes. The tiny Angela was the main vocalist and possessed an incredible vocal range and a booming voice. She may be one of the most naturally gifted singers I’ve ever heard live. The chair definitely turned. The vibe was upbeat and celebratory, but nothing I hadn’t seen before. Until it was! The assistant began declaring that “The archangel Gabriel is coming!” and asking the attendees endlessly “Are you ready to receive?”, which they responded with an emphatic “Yes!” He also insisted everyone purchase Krobia’s special anointed “Good News Oil” and an anointed cloth. Perhaps caving to peer pressure, I parted with 50 cedis ($11 USD) for the pair, thinking at minimum, I had a memento never to forget this bizarre experience.
Music brought back some normality, and then the faith healing began. “Are you ready to receive?!” asked the assistant to a lady perspiring like a fountain. She was. “Catch!” he shouted. And just like that she collapsed to the floor. It was approaching midnight and there was still no sign of Prophet Krobia. In true rock-star fashion, he arrived just moments before in a BMW to a roaring ovation, and soaked in the atmosphere like a prime Dwayne Johnson. His line of questioning mimicked the assistant’s. “Are you ready to receive?” Then adding, “The Angel Gabriel is coming! Are you ready?” In the meantime the assistant was screaming in the background: “Yes! Jeeeesus!”, “The Power!” or “Son of Mega One!”.
The repetitive nature continued till 3AM. I was leg-weary to the max but Krobia had me entranced, particularly because he was a world-class showman. He kept teasing his final blessing. He ordered a servant to commence a Facebook Live video, and then morphed into his prophecies for 2018. He declared major hostility around the world, infighting between Russia and Ukraine, corruption to be exposed in Ghana sport (You hear that Nyantekyi?), and a bunch of other generic occurrences.
Like a great performer, he scoured the audience, gauging energy levels and reactions. Then fixated on me. “You people are not ready to receive! You see, even the white man here is paying his attention.” Stares aplenty. He looked in my direction closer. “Even the white man has an anointed cloth. Please, white man, come here.” I shuffled to him ever-so-meekly. “What is your name?” “Mike, sir,” I replied. He insisted I take a knee. Without notice, he poured almost a full bottle of Good News oil on my head and declared his final prophecy. “Your boxer Isaac Dogboe will become the full world champion, and you will become one of the most well-known boxing promoters in the world. And when you do, you will come back to my church and give a testimony. Do you promise me that?” I nodded my head. Thankfully he absorbed the dripping anointed oil with my cloth. I returned to my seat, shell-shocked.
At 3:35am the believers were dismissed. The certainty of Krobia’s words stuck with me..
Five days later, Isaac Dogboe stopped Juarez in the fifth round to become the WBO Interim World champion. And a day thereafter, buzzing from Dogboe’s glorious ascension in front of a ridiculously lively packed 5,000+ audience in Bukom, I flew to Dubai for a life-changing meeting with world boxing’s foremost management company, MTK Global. The vibrations and company flow were unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. Ideologies completely in line with my core values. I was home. Before departing, an agreement was in place. Thereafter they announced me as the International Consultant for the company.
On April 28, in the hometown of Rocky Balboa, in true Philadelphia-boxing tradition 3-1 underdog Dogboe rose from an opening round knockdown to break down, drop three times, and eventually stop unbeaten Jessie Magdaleno for the WBO World Title. As his opponent was waved off, Isaac dropped to his knees and gave thanks to his Creator. Prophecy fulfilled. For those previously wondering why I declared that night the most satisfying of my life, now you know why. It encompassed so much more than purely a singular victory.
Which brings me back to today. As I assemble the necessary documentation and structure for my forthcoming re-entry to the promotional game, with all the artillery firmly in place, the Altamura of Fire (pardon the pun) burns brighter than ever.
This piece is dedicated to the memory of Peter Stokes and Zoe Duggan.