Undefeated Albuquerque featherweight Jason Sanchez (12-0, 6 KOs) made weight for his WBO Youth title fight tonight after weighing in a half pound under the featherweight limit yesterday at the Hotel El Panama in Panama City.
Jason Sanchez made weight at 125 1/2. His opponent, Juan Carlos Rivera, also made weight coming in at 125 3/4. The fight will be for the vacant WBO Youth Featherweight title.
“I feel good, I feel strong.” Sanchez said after making weight. “Ready to bring the belt home. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity since I was a little kid. It finally came through and I’m going to take advantage of it.”
Retired six time minimumweight champion Katsunari Takayama (31-8, 12 KOs) was just approved an amateur boxing license by the Japan Amateur Boxing Federation, clearing his way to fight for Japan in the 2020 Olympics.
The move was hardly routine for the only Japanese fighter to win world titles in all four major sanctioning organizations. The 35-year old Takayama retired in 2017 in an effort to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics only to have his boxing license denied. This despite the fact that the International boxing Association (AIBA) allowed professional boxers to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics. The subsequent battle for his amateur license proved to be one of Takayama’s most difficult, but against formidable odds Takayama was able to weather the storm and prevail after allegations of misconduct led to the resignation of former JABF president Akira Yamane. Yamane’s opposition to granting the professional boxer a license was ultimately the biggest hurdle of Takayama’s dream of becoming the first boxing champion to win a gold medal at the Olympics.
“There has been many Olympic medalists throughout the world from many countries who have gone on to become world champions as professional boxers,” Takayama told Fightnews in an interview back in August of 2017. “But there have been no world champions in professional boxing who have gone on to win the gold medal in the Olympics.”
Although Takayama will probably be the most accomplished fighter in the 2020 Olympics and one of Japan’s most promising medal contenders, he still needs to qualify for the Olympics in an amateur tournament. Although Takayama is expected to resume his amateur career as early as April of 2019, there is a recognition by many in boxing that his path to a gold medal will still be a formidable one. In 2016 three professional boxers competed in the Rio Olympics, and all failed to win a medal despite concerns early on that their experience would give them an unfair advantage.
“I’ve fought all these amateur boxers before. I’m not surprised I lost to an amateur because I used to be one. ” former WBA and WBO middleweight champion Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam told SB Nation after he was shockingly upset in the opening round of the 2016 Olympics to little known Brazilian named Michel Borges. “Professionals don’t have an advantage because the characteristics of the fight are different.”
So I spent the Columbus Day weekend visiting my aunt and mom in Philadelphia. Well, Norristown technically, but close enough. And although I didn’t get nearly enough time to revisit the City of Brotherly Love, a city I had not visited in well over twenty years (Lions lost to the Eagles in the wildcard when I was last in Philly, with Scott Mitchell as our QB and Barry Sanders as our running back. It was a simpler time before cell phones and the internet…when I still had hope that I would someday witness the Lions win a playoff game). Although I enjoyed my time in Philadelphia back in the mid-90s, I have to admit, those pre-internet days resulted in a lot of missed stops. I had no clue that Benjamin Franklin’s grave was in Philadelphia at the time, or that the debate between where the greatest Philly Cheesesteak on the planet was a unassuming intersection at Passyunk and Wharton. It was there where 2018’s internet promised me was the culinary Subway Series between two powerhouses. It was at that intersection where I would find, right next to each other, the top two places to get a Philly Cheesesteak on earth: Pat’s King of Steaks and Gino’s.
With an afternoon flight on Columbus Day I decided to give in and try one of these legendary sandwich shops. I wasn’t sure which one, but I was leaning towards Pat’s. After all, they were the place where the legendary Philly Cheesesteak was “invented” (although let’s be honest, I can’t help but think that at some point in the great history of cuisine someone put grilled onions, steak, and cheese together in a hoagie roll before 1933). Rival Gino’s next door was nonetheless inviting. I tend to find that any restaurant that has police patches hanging up on the walls tends to have good food. I never met a police officer who wasn’t a steak connoisseur, and that seemed a good sign.
But then again…Pat’s invented the sandwich. How could I say no to that selling point?
In the end I went with Pat’s over Gino’s…and I hate to say this, but it’s like the Citizen Kane of Philly Cheesesteaks. You sort of understand how it opened a lot of doors and how it redefined the field…but it has long since been surpassed by younger, fresher competitors. The sandwich was OK, I ordered it with cheese wiz as was recommended. But it hardly seems like the sandwich that could redefine a city. In the end, it just tasted like steak sandwich with cheese.
Maybe it can’t live up to the hype anymore. I had hundreds of Philly cheesesteaks over the years and some folks tweaked with the formula to make something really special…but also really not a “Philly” Cheesesteak. But my last time in Philadelphia produced a cheesesteak that seemed to put almost all others to shame (oddly enough a place in Taos New Mexico had the best one I ever had, which probably has some folks in Philadelphia reading this fit to be tied).
But as for Pat’s…well, I suppose you should still try it. But the peppers were bland and the steak sandwich ultimately was a little salty. No it wasn’t terrible, in fact it was good. But it wasn’t legendary. And with that being said maybe if you’re about to try your first Philly Cheesesteak you should start with Gino’s. I can’t say if they are better, but I just don’t think Pat’s is going to blow you away. At the end of the day, Pat’s is just a sled from a long gone era. It’s Philadelphia’s Rosebud. Important, yes. But it just doesn’t stand the test of time.
The moment I stepped off the plane I could feel it…Africa. I was finally here. The one elusive destination had finally become a reality when I was asked to come out and cover the Isaac Dogboe vs. Juan Chacon fight in July of 2017. I had been to Egypt and Morocco, but as I often heard in both countries: “Africa…but not really.”
But Ghana was different. There was no question whatsoever that this was Africa.
After passing through customs I met up with Charles Dogboe, uncle of the main even fighter and right hand man to promoter and trainer Paul Dogboe. It was late and I was hungry…and we had a busy day tomorrow at the weigh-ins. I hoped in his car and we made our way to my hotel: the Oceanic Resort in Accra. Although the Oceanic was a bit out of the way it made up for it in charm and the simple fact that it had a kickin’ pool and an amazing view of the ocean. It also had great service. Although late at night they opened up the restaurant for me and cooked me up a traditional Ghanaian meal of jollof rice and goat stew.
Now let me say this: there are a lot of cultures across the globe that take pride in their ability to dial up the spicy to 11 when preparing a dish. As a Korean-American I often took pride in my ability to out-spice most of my Anglo friends in Michigan and I couldn’t help but notice Mexicans sort of took a similar approach with their food as well. I quickly concluded that everyone outside of the British, Irish, Germans, and a few others had some local phrase that roughly translated into “Thai hot.”
Well, I don’t use the phrase “Thai hot” anymore. No. There is hot…and then there is Ghana hot.
In one of Isaac Dogboe’s earlier fights in Ghana his opponent, an undefeated Ugandan named Edward Kekembo, blamed his loss to Isaac in Accra on the “peppers” of Ghana, citing the spicy food. It earned a round of chuckles with a few of my boxing associates and myself, as we ranked it up there with “I was poisoned by my hairspray” as one of the more interesting excuses for a loss in the boxing ring.
But at that moment I have to admit, the theory held a little bit of water. This rice had a serious kick to it.
But damn if it wasn’t the best spicy rice I ever had…and I have to say, we Koreans know spicy rice. I felt like a French wine snob who just tasted his first Malbec from Argentina…my world view had forever changed as I tasted jollif for the first time.
The following morning I discovered that several of the referees and the main event fighter, Javier Chacon, were staying in the same hotel. Charles picked us up where we made our way to the luxurious Kempinski Hotel, where the weigh in was set to take place. There were quite a few people with both the promotion and with the World Boxing Organization (WBO) who were staying there and I would become a frequent visitor of the Kempinski Hotel in Accra over the next few days…and all I can say is wow. I was able to use their gym, which was one of the better ones I’ve seen in a hotel, and their pool was absolutely amazing. I won’t lie, everything there sort of blew me away…I felt like that old white guy from the barber shop in Coming To America admiring King Jaffe Joffer’s shawl.
The weigh-in had an energy that was refreshing for those of us in boxing. It felt like the nation (and the nation’s media) wanted to be part of the Issac Dogboe story early on and I couldn’t help but feel a little bad. Those of us in the States only jumped on bandwagons long after the train had left the station. Covering fights in Michigan in the early 2000s I knew that most of my fellow boxing writers tended to watch with curious interest in the rise of Floyd Mayweather. He was a champion but we were waiting to see just how big he would become. When he fought Phillip Ndou in Grand Rapids back in 2003 we were interested….but we weren’t passionate. In Ghana they had an young future world champion and with it they brought an energy that we didn’t. It wasn’t an improper bias they had, no, it was something else. A determination to absorb everything that would make this story of Isaac Dogboe complete, regardless of how it ends. The Ghanaian sports writers were invested in the story in a way that really impressed me.
But alas, this isn’t a boxing story, it is a story of Accra.
I finished covering the weigh-in and in the process got what may be the best boxing photo I ever took, of a stoic Javier Chacon in enemy territory as a nation looked on.
By the end of the weigh in I discovered I would be in for a rare treat. The fighters, media, and boxing officials would be heading to the home of former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings, one of the most respected former leaders in all of Africa and a well known boxing fan. Rawlings was a former flight lieutenant of the Ghanaian Air Force who seized power in a coup in 1979 and proceeded to purge (i.e. execute) two former presidents (i.e. generals who also seized power by way of a coup) by way of firing squad. Rawlings also purged other leaders of the Supreme Military Council (the junta that ruled Ghana from 1975-1979). It was, as Wikipedia described, one of the bloodiest incidents in Ghana’s history. But from that bloody beginning was something the world was not expecting. Rawlings, many assumed, would simply be another Mobutu like dictator. A military man who would rule with brutality, force, and possibly a cult of personality. But Rawlings would ultimately surprise many when he built the foundation of a true democracy in Ghana. Many remained skeptical when he formed a “National Commission on Democracy” and some opposition leaders complained loudly when he ran, and won, in the 1992 Ghanaian presidential election.
Rawlings would win re-election in 1996 but it wasn’t what transpired from 1992-2000 there that cemented his status as a beloved former president. It was what happened in 2001. Rawlings could have easily “suggested” that the constitution (that he pushed for) be amended to allow him to run for a third term. He refused. And when his vice-president lost the 2000 election to opposition leader John Kufuor Rawlings could have somehow stepped in and refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Kufuor’s victory. Rawlings didn’t do that either.
No, instead Rawlings stepped down, and that simple act planted a seed of democracy that is still growing in Ghana.
And I was about to meet the man who emerged as not just the father of democracy in Ghana, but as one of the father’s of democracy in Africa.
Rawlings came out and met with the fighters, referee Tony Weeks, and several WBO officials before I was introduced to him. I won’t lie, I was a bit star struck. I’ve met a lot of fighters from Canelo Alvarez to Manny Pacquiao…but Jerry Rawlings was the first man who had me star struck.
After we left I realized I had the entire day off and I decided to use it to explore Accra. I started to wander down the streets of Accra, where I emerged as something of a minor celebrity. I wasn’t in the tourist section…I can’t even say where I was. All I know is it teemed with life. As I walked down the beach I was greeted by, well, by everyone. From the kids waiting for the school bus to the fishermen wondering where I was going and what I was doing. And of course by the hucksters and hustlers who tried to sell me whatever it was I was shopping for.
I soon made my way to what I was told was one of the more bustling marketplaces in Ghana, and although I didn’t stand out as much as I did on the way down, I wasn’t exactly blending in. Gringos tend to be seen as a profitable mark in most marketplaces the world over and I got the sense Ghana was no exception. But with that being said, after buying a homemade Africa dress for a reasonable $7 I assumed that if I was being ripped off I was still doing OK.
But as much as I enjoyed window shopping, there was something I really was interested and that was the street food in Accra. I knew fufu was high on my list and I did get the opportunity to see it made by hand, well, see it getting made by hand. I was told it was a long and difficult process that required endurance and dedication. But that the reward was very much worth it.
but I wasn’t really ready to sit down and experience it just yet. No, watching fufu getting made was like watching a carpenter make a table. You had to be ready to appreciate the process…and the labor of love that went into it.
Instead I decided to get some grilled meat on a stick from a street vendor. After all, I seldom am disappointed from grilled meat on a stick wherever I am, and I assumed Accra would be no exception. There were several choices and most look familiar…so naturally I picked the one that didn’t. But as I bit into my skewer I quickly came to a disturbing conclusion: it tasted like someone emptied an ashtray in a bowl of cottage cheese…and whatever I was eating was the intestines of some small mammal.
Yeah, needless to say I don’t want to think about it too much. As I made my way into what I quickly concluded was something of a “food ally” of Accra I soon discovered a woman and man running a small homemade stand in a particularly tight alleyway. I was a little gun-shy over trying something new again but this looked different…it appeared to be a spicy fish stew…and there was no way the Korean in me was about to pass up on some spicy fish stew.
“What is this called?” I asked the man.
“Shito.” he replied with a smile, one that gave me the sense that he was messing with me. After all, the first syllable of that word didn’t instill me with confidence, especially considering I could still taste the rat intestine in my mouth.
“Seriously?” I said suspiciously. “You call this shito?”
“Yes, he said with unmistakable pride and enthusiasm. “Please, try some. It is very good!”
I decided to take him up on his offer. Yeah, I was nervous, but I wasn’t about to let one grilled rat ruin my favorite part of travelling: the experience of trying something completely out of my comfort zone.
And I am glad I did…because shito is the bomb. I bought a bottle for the road and then sat down and chatted for about half an hour with the shito salesman and his wife.
As I headed back I couldn’t help but notice that Ghana was above all a boxing country. Now don’t get me wrong, Ghana is a football country first and foremost…but from the former president to the shito salesman I got the sense that every Ghanaian was more than just a casual fan of the Sweet Science.
I made a few more stops on my way to my hotel…tonight would be the fight and I wouldn’t have time to spend in Accra tomorrow, where I had hitched a ride with Tony Weeks to visit the Cape Coast Castle. So this would be it…my time in Accra. As I made my way back to the coast I noticed a small beach front village near the lighthouse and wanted very much to explore it. But I also recognized I was out of time.
Before catching my flight to Ethiopia I was able to squeeze in one more stop thanks to Charles Dogboe: the Independence Arch. One of Ghana’s most famous monuments I had seen it almost every day in Accra…but I hadn’t had a chance to see it up close. Charles stopped long enough to allow me to explore…and yeah I suppose I can check that one off the list of things I saw in Ghana. But deep down I know I’ll have to go back. I only scratched the surface of Accra…but it still left a mark. There is still so much more to see in Accra, and Ghana, and someday soon I plan to check a few more of those places off my list.
Scouting is an inexact science in sports and boxing is no exception. But with that being said, there are those can’t miss prospects…and usually they don’t miss.
Sure a lot of people are predicting a world title in the near future for 2012 Olympic bantamweight silver medalist Shakur Stevenson or welterweight gold medalist Robson Conceicao and I happen to think those are two really safe picks. Both men have shown absolute brilliance in the ring as professionals and I feel there is a better than 50% chance that both will have world title belts around their waist by the end of 2019 or 2020.
Recently MTK Global signed 2012 Olympic flyweight gold medalist Shakhobidin Zoirov to a managerial contract. Well, if I had any questions about Zoirov’s future as a pro I don’t now. Although a lot of fighters from Central Asia make a splash in the Olympics, many often elect to remain amateurs. This is one of the reason that so many Kazakh fighters don’t get the attention they deserve. And for the Uzbek gold medalist Zoirov, I think the main reason he isn’t considered #1 draft pick in boxing is because he’s Uzbek. Fighters from Central Asia just don’t get the attention they deserve unless they have the right team behind them. It isn’t fair, but hey, that’s boxing.
But when all is said and done, just because Zoirov is flying under the radar doesn’t mean he isn’t a future world champion, and now that he has the right managerial team behind him I am assuming he will start turning heads right away. Picking him to win a world title is still like picking a can’t miss prospect…just one that came out of some obscure European league as opposed to some high profile power forward from Duke
Now with that being said, the real challenge is trying to find a diamond in the rough when that diamond comes out of a club circuit and started off as a journeyman. It happens, but it’s rare. Perhaps the two most famous examples of fighters whose career started off in the club circuit and somehow, against all odds, became world champions were Freddie Pendleton and Mike Weaver. Weaver is probably best remembered for his war with Larry Holmes in a WBC world title fight back in 1979. He gave as good as he got but was ultimately felled by the undefeated champion in round 12. It wasn’t just that he rattled Holmes and kept the fight reasonably close on two of the judges scorecards going into round 12 that shocked fans. He was considered a very weak opponent by casual fans…the kind of fighter who an established champion gets to sharpen his blades on in between tough fights. Weaver stated his career 1-3 and two years into his professional career he looked like the farthest thing from a world class contender, having lost by knockout to Duane Bobick and sitting on a less than glamorous record of 6-6, 4 KOs. But a handful of boxing insiders predicted big things from Weaver and before long he was fighting for an NABF title…and soon after that he was brawling with Larry Holmes. In 1980 the Cinderella story finally hit it’s pinnacle when Weaver scored a knockout over Gerrie Coetzee, winning the WBA World Heavyweight title.
Pendleton had a similar story, although a lot of boxing fans got on the bandwagon before his world title victory over Tracy Spann in January of 1993. Pendleton started his career with a horrible record of 14-13-1, 6 KOs and he probably was hearing whispers of “hang ’em up, kid” from a lot of folks in the sport. But those who were really paying attention started noticing that Pendleton was actually getting better with each fight. In March of 1986 Pendleton was brought in as a sacrificial lamb for former super featherweight champion Roger Mayweather. After all, it was Pendleton’s first trip to Vegas and with a 14-13-1 record against the 24-year old former champion there was no reason to assume he would be able to pull off an upset. But some boxing insiders, such as ESPN commentator Al Bernstein, recognized that Pendleton’s record was somewhat “deceptive.” The end result? Pendleton scored a stunning sixth round knockout in one of the biggest upsets of the 1980s.
It was a nice moment but it didn’t turn around Pendleton’s career overnight. Still, it put him on the radar and although there were still setbacks, he continued to keep winning big fights. By 1993 he was seen as a slight favorite over Tracy Spann in their fight for the vacant IBF lightweight title and he looked all the part of a world champion in winning a twelve round decision over Spann.
So yeah, picking out a future world champion from the Freddie Pendleton/Mike Weaver circuit is a lot harder than picking one out of the Olympics.
So is there anyone I think could be another Freddie Pendleton/Mike Weaver in the making? A hard luck young kid who never raised an eyebrow as an amateur but who is starting to put it all together as a pro?
Shacks started his career in 2015 with a pair of losses in Ohio and Detroit respectively before winning his first professional fight in his hometown of Lansing, Michigan in 2017. His win came against a debuting fighter named Chad Coons and the fight had all the makings of pickup win for a club fighter en route to his next paycheck against a world class prospect. By the end of 2017 his record stood at 2-2-1 and nobody was taking about him.
And in 2018 he seemed to be following the club fighter script. He fought in hostile territory three times in 2018 against three undefeated fighters with a combined record of 20-0-1.
The thing is…he hasn’t lost any of those fights.
The club fighter from Lansing Michigan has been brought to California three straight times to lose, and he’s given it to the undefeated fighter all three times. In March he held undefeated Greek born prospect Stylianos Papadopoulos to a six round draw. Shacks followed that up with another draw against 4-0 Salvador Perez before deciding to take his next fight out of the judges hands on Saturday, September 29, 2018. Shacks crushed a touted prospect named Ricardo Valdovinos in the opening round. Valdovinos, a San Diego native, came into the fight with a 7-0 record and was needless to say a heavy favorite against Shacks. Sure it wasn’t exactly a knockout over a 24-year old Roger Mayweather…but it’s still a big win for a kid who wasn’t expected to be more than a regional club fighter. Shacks seems to have a good trainer but it is clearly time for him to get a manager and promoter behind him that can help him get to that next level. Back in the early 1990s Lionel Butler was earning a reputation as a tough journeyman with an emphasis on journeyman. With a 6-10-1 record and only three amateur fights he wasn’t really turning any heads in the heavyweight division but Butler turned his career around in large part due to the fact that he stumbled into Joe Goossen’s gym in California. Goossen helped turn Butler into one of the most unlikely heavyweight contenders in the 1990s and matched him perfectly en route to a top ten ranking (there was a lot of boxing drama involved in his reign as a contender which I won’t get into here, but the point remains, he went from club circuit to contender because of finding the right team). Maybe Shacks should pay Goossen a visit while in California…or someone else who can properly move his career.
Because he is on the cusp of something really special..contention.
Well, it’s official. My dad and I will be travelling to Peru after the WBO convention in October. It’ll be an exciting trip, and although I had already visited Peru I was keen on going back. Peru was really something special and I couldn’t argue with my father’s logic when he said “I’ve never been to South America before and I don’t know if I’ll go again, and if this is my only trip I really would like to see Machu Picchu.”
I couldn’t disagree, and to be honest, I wanted to go back myself. Machu Picchu was the kind of place that you have to see once in your life…unless you get the chance to go twice.
Although my hostel was just a ten minute walk to the Plaza de Armas I knew after I returned from Peru that I should have spent more time exploring the plaza. Much of what I saw was in passing, and it was clear there was much more to offer.
But one thing I did take advantage of was spending a few hours wandering through the San Pedro Market, which was advertised as “by Peruvians for Peruvians” on Wikitravel. I found it to be a very appropriate description. This felt like true Peru (even though some tourist shops sprinkled the marketplace). And like many local marketplaces it had no shortage of examples of local cuisine.
Of course, as I mentioned, there was also no shortage of local vendors targeting tourists…only with prices that were much more attractive than those in Lima or at the Plaza de Armas. I ended up buying a poncho, which proved the perfect addition to my wardrobe for Machu Picchu the following day.
Unfortunately I passed on the matching hat, which was a shame since it reminded me of one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes. But such is life…I’m sure I’ll get a second bite of the apple when I go back to Cusco in October.
Before we left I ended up stopping at a local vendor to purchase a snack that seemed appropriate: maize. I had seen Peru’s colorful ears of corn back in Lima and I was determined to give it a try. With fat kernels and darker colors it looked like something worth checking off on my bucket list, and although it was ultimately just corn, I still couldn’t complain (although the New Mexican in me wanted to try it as elode, but again, maybe next time).
In the end, Cusco deserves more than a day, and one would be wise to take advantage of their time there to explore one of Peru’s most historic cities en route to Machu Picchu.
Every traveler dreads the infamous overnight layover. You can’t be a world traveler without having at least one restless night sleeping on a bench waiting for a connecting flight. I use to try and get around those with my free United Club passes but United Clubs tend to be closed at night and to be honest, I have never been blown away by them during the day time. If you want to hang out in a waiting area with cheese and crackers then yeah, they are OK. But at $50 a pop I never really understood the appeal. But if there is one airport that I don’t mind long layovers in it is Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.
Right off the bat, it has one really big thing going for it. Showers in Terminal 1.
Seriously, why don’t more airports have these. I mean, truck stops do. If you are getting off a ten hour flight from Houston and you have a nine hour wait till your connecting flight, a shower would really hit the spot. But it seems like showers are a rare commodity…except in Tokyo where a mere $10 can get you a hot shower in between flights.
Sure, it was no truck stop shower: it was small as most showers in Japan are. But the water was hot and the pressure was great.
And if you wanted, you could even get a day room and get a few hours of sleep, which I passed on. Admittadly this was not as impressive as the showers to me, there is a Marriott inside the Houston airport and I have seen a similar setup inside of the Dallas airport.
But still, the showers…that was just amazing.
Next to the showers in Terminal 1 was a display of traditional Japanese clothing, which in the big picture wasn’t anything that special…but still, after a hot shower everything looks better.
The other thing that blew me away about Tokyo’s airport was the food. To be honest, Japanese food is amazing, but it actually felt like they had some of the best Japanese food in the country in Narita Airport. One of my favorite Japanese dishes is deep fried pork cutlet: Katsu. And in February of 2017 I had what I thought would be the best katsu I ever had inside of Tokyo’s main train station. I wanted to go back there but elected to get a dish of katsu from the airport instead. I was not disappointed with my decision. A stop off at Tonkatsu Shinjuku Saboten in the Narita dining terrace was something every visitor to Japan should experience. Although they have branches in various locations, I couldn’t help but wonder if Narita had the best of the bunch. According to their webpage they’ve been doing it for over 50 years…and I could certainly understand why. It was simply amazing.
It wasn’t my only authentic Japanese meal that day as my previous layover in Haneda Airport allowed me to try authentic Japanese dip noodles as well. I was down to try something new, although I didn’t find it to be anything extraordinary.
But hey, one airport at a time. Shopping in Japan isn’t cheap, and shopping at any airport anywhere isn’t cheap either, so it goes without saying that I didn’t spend a lot in Narita. I did pick up some Kit Kat bars, for whatever reason Japan seems to love Kit Kats and have a lot of unique and local flavors. Yeah, Kit Kat is Japan’s Lays Potato chips.
Although I wanted to get a XL Ninja t-shirt, a giant Godzilla flag and a Yomiuri Giants baseball jersey, that was out of my price range and I elected to pass. Still, it was a fun way to spend a few hours window shopping in Narita.
Instead I elected to dump the last of my pocket change on the toy vending machines and get a tiny storm trooper figure, which seemed the best way to dump off a few bucks worth of yen.
At the end of the day, I actually really enjoyed my time spend wandering around the Narita Airport. Sure it doesn’t make many people’s list of “Things you have to see in Japan” but it is still one of the better airports to kill a few hours. And if there is one lesson for other airports the world over that can be gleaned from Narita it is this:
Sometimes if pays to be a card carrying member of the press.
I had been sent to Ghana to cover Issac Dogboe’s fight against Argentina’s Javier Chacon on July 22, 2017…a fight that the local Ghanaian won handily. And after emailing in my report from the fight I was ready to explore the country.
Of course I only had one day to see Ghana. Having elected to fly out the following day to Ethiopia I was unsure of what I would do in Accra, and I grudgingly accepted that I wasn’t going to see much of West Africa. But a chance discussion in the press box during the boxing event had given me the opportunity to see one of Ghana’s most powerful, and important, sites: Cape Coast Castle.
An American businessman named Joseph Trowers who had somehow attached himself to the promotional team in Ghana had invited legendary Boxing referee Tony Weeks to a tour of Cape Coast Castle. I had not been invited, but much like Sam Rockwell’s character in Galaxy Quest, I found a way to beam aboard.
Trowers had arranged a private car and driver for Weeks and I and the following morning I met with the two men at the Kempinski Hotel in Accra, where Weeks and Trowers were staying. Once I arrived I was pleased to discover that I wouldn’t be the only media tagging along. A local radio host named Emmanuel Austin Baah would ride with us while a film crew would meet us there to film Weeks journey for the local press.
That was, until they ran out of gas.
After making it to the outskirts of Accra we were surprised to see the van carrying the film crew turning away. Unfortunately, I would discover that being a journalist in Ghana was not the easiest way to make a living. Baah, after calling the other reporters, discovered that they simply didn’t have enough gas to make it to Cape Coast, and it appeared they were too proud to ask us to cover the gas for the trip. I would discover from Emanuel that such a development was not unheard of in Ghana. He described the difficulty of making ends meet on his end, with much of his income going to transportation to and from work. Even the police operated with tremendous difficulty due to prohibitive transportation costs.
“If you call the police and they come over you need to give them money for gas,” Baah told me. “otherwise they can’t afford it.”
The thought of having to pay the police gas money for them to come over to a crime scene was absolutely shocking to me, and I suddenly understood how easy corruption could run rampant in such an environment.
As we made our way out of town we were stopped by our first military roadblock, where I assumed we would be asked to contribute a small “tip”. But if the soldiers were inclined to ask for some baksheesh then they were quickly dissuaded by the personable Weeks. Weeks pulled out his cellphone to show a photo of him refereeing a Floyd Mayweather fight.
Ghana is a country of die hard boxing fans, and those soldiers were no exception.
The soldiers instead requested selfies with us, which certainly was a surreal experience.
We made out way back on the road and after a few hours we arrived at Cape Coast Castle. We were mobbed the second we stepped out of the car, but this didn’t have that Denzel on the red carpet vibe to it. No, these were the vendors.
I’ve been around the world, and I’m use to aggressive sales tactics, but Cape Coast Castle was up there with Fez, Morocco for the most relentless. I made the mistake of letting a guy named Kofi show me his art (I am a sucker for art) and I quickly determined that he was in the process of hitting me with that “I’ll give you a gift scam” where I’d subsequently be expected to pay for the gift.
I tried to tell him I didn’t want a gift from him but I knew it was not going to work. Kofi knew my first name and I knew when I walked out of that castle he would have something with my name on it.
I was a bit hungry and fortunately there was a local vendor selling authentic Ghanaian fante kenkey. Now admittedly I had no idea what fante kenkey was, but as of yet I had not been disappointed by Ghanaian food and this had sort of a tamale vibe to it so I was sold.
Unfortunately I would be told later that fante kenkey isn’t really all that good plain. You are suppose to put some sauce on it or eat it with soup. I basically bought some hatch green chiles and sat there on the side of the road eating them raw.
Before entering the castle we walked to the back, where we saw an amazing view of the ocean and where some local children were eager to visit with us.
As we made our way to the front I couldn’t help but notice that the John Atta Mills Presidnetial Library was next door. I won’t lie, I really wanted to check it out. I’m a sucker for Presidential Libraries and although I knew nothing about Mills, I was very curious to see what a Presidential Library in Africa was like.
But it was time to enter the Cape Coast Castle and begin the tour. Regardless of one’s heritage or ethnic background, this was a powerful experience. Arguably millions of African-Americans could trace their heritage to this very castle, and to discover what they endured during their final days in Africa was shocking and appalling.
We soon made our way down into the “main slave dungeon” where one of the most powerful displays was exhibited. 1,300 concrete heads created by famed Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo depicting the lives of those who were transported across the Atlantic to a life of slavery in the New World. It was shocking, powerful, and effective and continues to haunt this visitor even a year after visiting the castle.
We then made our way out to the grave of former Gold Coast Governor George MacLean. MacLean was governor from 1830-1844, although I won’t lie, after the visit to the Slave Dungeon I was not really able to process much from the part of the tour talking about MacLean’s life.
Nonetheless the courtyard was a stark contrast to the dungeons below, and I couldn’t help but think about how peaceful it was up here compared to the terror that the slaves endured below.
From the courtyard we made our way down to the most infamous site at Cape Coast Castle: The Door of No Return. This doorway was the final passageway out of Africa, where they would be loaded on ships to the New World. I could only imagine the fear and terror of those passing through the doorway hundreds of years ago…and one could not help but wonder if these poor men and women would think back about that moment for years after they arrived in the New World as slaves. Did they know this would be their last walk in Africa? Would they think back on that moment in the New World and wonder if there was some way they could have avoided that doorway…that final walk?
Because on the other side of the doorway was Africa in all it’s splendor. A small but vibrant Ghanaian fishing village and the ocean…a sharp contrast to the terror this castle once housed.
As we made our way back into the castle we made a quick stop at the walls where the cannons protected the British against potential attacks from the Atlantic, and then we made our way to the museum located in what was once the Governor’s Chambers. The stark contrast between the Governor’s Bedroom and the Slave Dungeon just below was shocking, and to see more of the concrete heads, only this time in the light, was another powerful moment. As we made out way to the museum where there was a display talking about the Slave Trade in the United States I realized how important this museum was, and how important it was to remain in the consciousness of all Americans.
As we made our way out a young man who worked up front called me back. He wanted me to sign the special “VVIP” guest book. I quickly surmised that he had not reached the same conclusion as the soldier at the roadblock and he thought I was someone important. I readily agreed and suddenly realized he handed me the same signature book that former President Barack Obama had signed when he visited in 2009. I had never been trusted with a president’s signature before and I felt honored that they would consider me worthy enough to sign the same book. I quickly obliged and then had them snap a picture of me holding it up before I ran forward and called Tony Weeks to get his picture with it as well.
By the time we left we were again mobbed by the vendors and their homemade trinkets that they designed just for us. Kofi had written a short message on a conch with my name on it and of course expected payment while Tony Weeks was given a larger conch with a message addressed to “Tony Whisky”, which we all admittedly had a good laugh over. The journey was over, and we now had to make our way back to Accra…but deep down I knew this would not be an experience I would soon forget. I really believe that nobody who walks on those hallowed grounds ever does.
Kumamoto Japan’s favorite son, former WBO mini-flyweight champion and current WBC #9 ranked minimumweight Tatsuya Fukuhara (20-6-6, 7 KOs), returns to action this Sunday (July 29th) as he takes on countryman Naoya Haruguchi (15-8, 6 KOs) in an eight round fight in his hometown of Kumamoto, Japan. Although ranked in the top ten by the WBC, the former WBO champion is not rated in any other sanctioning organization, something that a dominant win over Haruguchi could rectify. However, few are counting out the cagy 29-year old from Kagoshima. Haruguchi has won seven of his last eight fights, with his only loss coming by way of majority decision to former world title challenger Riku Kano back in November of 2017. Fukuhara, who is keen on positioning himself back into the WBO rankings for a potential clash with newly crowned champion Vic Saludar, also recognizes that a loss could effectively end his run as a contender and would almost certainly close the book on a potential clash with the young Filipino champion.
In the co-main event Dr. Tomoya Ikeda (5-2-1, 4 KOs) will take on one of his toughest opponents to date as he steps in with the undefeated 21-year old Kazuki Nakazono (3-0-2, 3 KOs). The 21-year old prospect is seen as the favorite over the medical doctor, who at 36-years old is admittedly running out of time for a serious run in boxing. But Dr. Ikeda’s compelling personal story, which included volunteer work with an NGO in Afghanistan, has made him one of the most popular fighters in Southern Japan. Even in Japan it is rare to find a prizefighter who co-authored a highly cited medical report such as Dr. Ikeda’s December 2016 report on “Age estimation by ossification of thyroid cartilage of Japanese males using Bayesian analysis of postmortem CT images.”
Rounding off the card is popular super bantamweight Yuki Hirashima (8-2-1, 2 KOs) squaring off against South Korean veteran Jong-Won Jung (5-6-1, 3 KOs). Jung will be stepping in the ring for the first time since April of 2013.
The fight card will take place at the City Sogo Gym in Kumamoto, Japan. Doors open at 11:30 with the fight fight kicking off at noon. Tickets start at 5,000 yen.
My good friend Douglas Williams had invited me to Myanmar, where he had relocated for work several months earlier. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse and after leaving Japan where I covered a WBO mini-flyweight world title fight I decided to take him up on the offer. He told me of several locations that I “needed” to visit, but I had one destination that was a must visit: Naypyidaw.
Naypyidaw, or NPD as it is sometimes referred to, really is one of the most unusual cities on the planet, a virtual ghost town that has taken on a life of it’s own in a most unexpected way. Although not on the list of “best places to visit in Myanmar” it still fascinated me. Since construction began back in 2002, the city of NPD has remained a mystery to everyone…even the citizens of Myanmar. Shrouded in mystery when the ruling military junta announced that it would be moving the nations capital to some empty land in the middle of the jungle, Naypyidaw has become a moderately popular topic of conversation with folks who find giant post-apocalyptic cities in the middle of the jungle to be absolutely fascinating.
Yeah, with people like me.
So although Mandalay seemed like a cool stop (any place that has a casino in Las Vegas can’t be all bad, can it?) I nonetheless let Doug know that the top of my Myanmar list would be the NPD.
He readily agreed and made arrangements for his driver to pick us up. Mr. Aung was an afiable and likeable driver who spoke very little English but made up for it with his agreeable nature.
But when Mr. Aung picked us up from Doug’s apartment in Yangon that Saturday morning I could see his smile break for just a second.
Mr. Aung, I quickly surmised, had no interest in seeing his nation’s ghost town capital in the middle of the jungle.
Nonetheless, he quickly recouped and politely advised us that we needed to stop at the mall where we could exchange some money. I knew we were on a tight schedule but I do have a tendency to let myself get distracted when travelling and, well, this was no exception.
It was a quick stop (by Burmese standards) and a quick change of $100 USD led to me holding a comical, almost Venezuelan, wad of cash. Myanmar, although not suffering from hyperinflation, seemed to be unwilling to print anything larger than a 5000 kyat note, which equals about $3.50. (for the record, there are 10,000 kyat notes, I just never saw any in Myanmar, and the 5000 kyat notes were few and far between).
We made our way after changing some money and of course I proceeded to delay things again when I saw the British World War II Cemetery outside of Yangon. I realized that our departure out of Yangon was now comically behind schedule…but with that being said, I wouldn’t have traded the visit to the World War II cemetery for anything.
We soon made our way to the Yangon-Mandalay Expressway, a toll road that stood in sharp contrast to every road in Yangon. Perhaps discouraged from the toll of 4,500 kyat (or about $3.15) the highway was virtually deserted and we got our first taste of what things would be like in Naypyidaw…a city whose abandoned feel was probably it’s most recognizable attribute.
The drive up was…interesting in it’s own way. It had all the feel of an American road trip with betel nut instead of corn nuts. Several hours in we came to our first rest stop…which was as Burmese as you could get. We decided to stop at a restaurant and grab a bite to eat. Up to that point I had been somewhat underwhelmed by the food in Myanmar, and unfortunately the Burmese Alsup’s didn’t change my opinion. We grabbed a table and stood in line at something that sort of resembled a cafeteria or a Furr’s Buffet. The food looked decent, but I tended to find the food in Myanmar to be somewhat bland and what we had there didn’t change my opinion.
But what it did have was a fruit stand outside…one selling durian.
I have to admit, durian had me a little intimidated. After watching Anthony Bourdain eating his first durian fruit I was intrigued…but the more I researched the more I started second guessing if I wanted to take it on. Raw beef from a street butcher in Ethiopia was child’s play, raw horse meat in Japan was triple-A at best. Durian was something else. It overpowered you…and then it stuck around for a week or two to remind you of what it was like to try and step up to the plate in the big leagues. It was banned in many hotels and on airplanes…and I was warned that the smell of durian would stay with you for days. It was like that classic Seinfeld episode.
Still, I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I passed on this golden opportunity to try durian for the first time.
I headed to the fruit vendor, and briefly chatted with the local monk who was also in the market for durian. This man was clearly a durian connoisseur and he seemed to give this vendor’s durian his official seal of approval, which sort of set my mind at ease.
So I quickly picked what looked to be the durianest looking durian fruit and asked the vendor if I could eat it right there. She smiled (everyone in Myanmar smiles politely, even if they were not at all on board with the plan) and proceeded to cut open the durian I just purchased.
A small crowd soon assembled to see the gringo tackle his first durian fruit, and I couldn’t help but again feel like some sort of celebrity. But I didn’t have time to ponder my new found status as the local attraction. I now had my durian all cut up and I even had a plastic bag on my hand to minimize the all hovering funk that legend had it would follow me back to Yangon and stay with me for a few days after I returned stateside.
It was now time to give durian the ol’ college try.
To my surprise…it didn’t knock me off my feet. There was a slightly unpleasant aspect to the smell, but it was not as overpowering as I had been lead to believe. And the taste was hardly unpleasant at all. It was perfectly fine, not the best fruit I ever had but it certainly didn’t taste like I was eating a wet ashtray off a pair of dirty socks.
We soon made our way back on the highway and within two hours were were on the outskirts of the Nay Pyi Daw. I could tell that it’s reputation as a ghost city was hardly exaggerated. I couldn’t blame the government for planning ahead. Yangon was in a perpetual state of chaos due to the traffic and the simple fact that the roads were all too narrow. If Naypyidaw were to emerge as the thriving metropolis that it’s planners hoped, these twenty lane roads would be a sign of incredible foresight. But for right now, they just gave the city a barren and abandoned feel.
The city was widely spread out, with nothing but jungle and nature separating large stadiums and hotels from government buildings and museums. Mr. Aung decided to ask a local off the side of the road, who oddly enough seemed to go by the name of Chuy (although I was not sure if the New Mexican in me just kept mishearing his Burmese name). Chuy hopped in and promised to show us the major sites in the NPD, which seemed fine at first. But as he led up further and further from what I imagined was Naypyidaw’s city center I started to get a little nervous. We were literally going down a two lane road in Naypwidaw. I had only been in the city for about an hour but from what I could tell, two lane roads were not to be trusted. Any road that lead anywhere was going to be a minimum of eight lanes. Fortunately Chuy spoke absolutely no English, which was good since I was very passionately suggesting to Doug that we pull over and drag Chuy out of the car and take off since it seemed very obvious to me that he was taking us to meet up with the Flaming Dragon gang.
Fortunately for both Chuy and I, cooler heads prevailed and we soon reached our first stop: Myanmar’s Buddha Gaya on the Udayayanthi Hillock in Pohbba Thiri Township . The Buddha Gaya is a recreation of one of Buddhism’s most holy sites, and the Burmese spared no expense in creating a beautiful replica. The Thatta Thattaha Maha Bawdi Pagoda, built in 2013, was an impressive site at 162 feet (just shy of the height of the original pagoda in India) and also sits at the edge of a small replica of at the Buddha Gaya site say at the edge of a small lake, another replica of the Mucalinda Lake where the Buddha spent six weeks meditating.
Although it began to rain heavily it was still an enjoyable stop, but Doug and his daughter Madison were getting restless. Chuy then took us to the second stop on the “random guy we picked up off the side of the road in an abandoned ghost city tour” and by this point Doug was very vocal about what he thought about another round of replica pagodas and stupas.
“These are all fake,” he said firmly. I couldn’t disagree. We were Southeast Asia’s own version of Las Vegas…there were no shortages of impressive replicas. But it was time to stop looking at the Statue of Liberty at New York, New York and see the water light show at the Bellagio. It was time to go down the twenty lane highway.
As it turns out, I have no idea where we actually were. My search of every travel site on Nay Pyi Daw came up with nothing on the collection of stupas and smaller pagodas just ten minutes away from the Buddha Gaya. So I guess if anyone can help me identify where I was I’d appreciate it.
As we made our way back into town I couldn’t help but appreciate the size of Naypyidaw, The Myanmarese military junta that built Naypyidaw was convinced (convinced I tell you!) that the city would eventually fill up with citizens. And maybe it will. They really lived by the motto “go big or go home” with the planning of this city. But for now…well,it was a beautiful drive. And dare I saw the scenery was unlike anything you’d see in any other nations capital.
We soon made our way to Naypyidaw’s most famous site. The infamous twenty lane highway. And let me say, driving down a freeway shouldn’t be such a memorable experience. But it way. The post apocalyptic vibe was unmistakable as we drove down the empty highway, with only the occasional bus or motorbike passing us in the other direction.
Now for all our protests against “fake” sites, both Doug and I were intrigued by Nay Pyi Daw’s most famous site next to the road with nobody driving on it. The 325 foot tall Uppatasanti Pagoda. The Uppatasanti Pagoda was Naypyidaw’s attempt to rival the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, and although it stood 30 centimeters shorter than it’s more historic counterpart in Yangon, it was still a sight to behold. Doug and Madison elected to sit this one out, leaving me and Mr. Aung to explore the impressive pagoda that housed a Buddha tooth relic from China. As we made our way up I couldn’t help but appreciate the peacefulness of Uppatasanti Pagoda, a notable contrast to the sometimes crowded and hectic feel of the Shwedagon Pagoda. We were able to wander around unmolested from anyone wearing a “Death Trooper” t-shirt (it’s a long story, I’ll fill you in on my Yangon update) and we couldn’t help but appreciate the incredible view.
As I headed over to the large bell in the plaza, and as had become commonplace in Myanmar, I was approached by some locals who wanted their photo taken with me.
By the time I made my way back to the bottom of the man made hill where the pagoda was I was surprised to see several elephants on display. I always feel bad for captive elephants, ever since Dumbo had to visit his mom in circus jail. Elephants are smart animals and they are cursed with that perpetual happy face that sort of masks their suffering, making it easy to dismiss their pain.
As I left the Uppatasanti Pagoda I noticed a fair number of vendors along the road. I wondered if maybe, just maybe, the insane plan was actually working. Maybe, just maybe, people were coming.
As we made our way back to the van I realized that we were behind schedule. I wanted to make one more stop, to see the Parliament, but Mr. Aung advised that we couldn’t get close to it and we elected to skip it.
In hindsight it was a mistake. That, not the road, was the Bellagio water show. That was the highlight. And we missed it.
The thing is, I don’t really think I’ll ever go back to Naypyidaw…even though I very much would like to go back to Myanmar.
But who knows. Maybe I will want to experience “The Road” one more time.