A conversation with Michael Olajide, Jr. on Ali, Horus and fitness

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I was very lucky to meet Muhammad Ali on several occasions, talk to him on the phone, write about him at length. I was also very lucky to be great friends with his best friend and photographer Howard Bingham, and it was through Howard that I met Angelo Dundee and Michael Olajide, Jr., at a VIP screening of Will Smith’s 2001 biopic “Ali” at New York’s Ziegfeld theater. Indeed, I was so friendly with Ali’s assistant at the time that I called her the next day to tell her how great it was, and she put me on hold for a moment, then a soft and familiar voice picked up and said, slowly, “So did you like the movie?” He hadn’t seen it yet, but I assured him it was great.

I was lucky to become great friends, with Michael, too. A former No. 1 ranked middleweight, Michael Olajide, Jr. was born in Liverpool and moved with his family to Vancouver in 1970. Trained by his father Michael Olajide, Sr. and the renowned boxing coaches Hector Rocca (Buddy McGirt, Arturo Gatti) and Dundee (Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard), he turned pro at 18, and became known as “Silk” for his exceptionally smooth footwork, hand speed and head movement. He fought Thomas “Hitman” Hearns for the World Super Middleweight Title in 1990, having held the WBC Intercontinental Middleweight Champion belt in 1987. His professional record was 28 wins and four losses, with 20 wins by knockout.

After retiring in 1991, Michael served as a fight consultant/choreographer for major movies and theatrical productions, including, besides “Ali,” Brian DePalma’s Black Dahlia and Spike Lee’s Subway Stories, Blade to the Heat (starring Kamar Delosreyes at the Shakespeare Public Theater) and Golden Boy (starring Alfonso Ribiero at City Center in New York). He’s also served as private consultant to celebrities including Josh Hartnett, Mark Wahlberg, John Leguizamo and Iman, and has worked with many, many others–Hugh Jackman, 50 Cent, Liv Tyler, Eva Mendes, Mickey Rourke, Jane Krakowski and Dustin Hoffman, to name a few. Most significantly, though, he developed an innovative boxing fitness program at top New York fitness facilities and eventually launched his own gym Aerospace, with former ballet dancer and spa innovator Leila Fazel.

“My father taught me how important conditioning is to being a true champion,” Michael says. “I think that advice has always stayed with me.”

The Aerospace website greeting, meanwhile, sticks with me: “Welcome to the most savage and serene fitness experience on the planet.” The site explains how the “machine-free sports-emulation high performance fitness center” is geared toward uniting body, mind and spirit via the best workout techniques from professional sports, including Michael’s smooth boxing moves combined with conditioning basics like jumping rope, push-ups and lower body lunges in his Aero workout programs Aerobbox, Aerojump, Aerosculpt and Aeroimpact.

“Using the techniques of professional athletes is the best way to perfect every physical and mental attribute–endurance, dexterity, power, speed and focus,” Michael says. “It’s the most efficient, effective and rewarding workout on the planet. We always say, ‘Everyone flies in space.’”

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One other thing about Michael Olajide: Forget how menacing he looks in this picture from the Aerospace website, lean, mean and muscular, with that weird, metallic eye patch covering his right eye. He’s about the sweetest guy in the world.

I went over to Aerospace in Chelsea a couple weeks ago to sit down with Michael and talk about Ali.

What does Muhammad Ali mean to you?

I grew up in the 1970s–and without my father. It was just my mom and sister and myself, and being in Vancouver, there weren’t many positive black images. One was without a doubt Muhammad Ali. But I also loved the way O.J. Simpson would run! Those were my two go-to guys, though as time went on and I got experience with boxing, Ali was obviously it.

You must have been pretty young.

I would argue in elementary school that Ali was going to kill Joe Frazier, when all the other kids were saying Joe Frazier was going to kill Ali, George Foreman was going to kill Ali. Not having a positive black male influence around, I looked to Ali, who provided me with confidence. My younger sister did not have a positive image, in a completely white, Asian society, and as a [black] child growing up you need somebody to hold on to and hook on to. She didn’t have that, unfortunately, but I found Ali and wanted to be like him growing up.

Did he influence you as a boxer?

I started late, when I was 15-years-old. Most people who start in boxing get in when they’re six, seven, eight, and get introduced with kids’ gloves–and by the time they’re 11, 12 and 13 you get used to punches coming at you. When I started watching Ali intensely–and other fighters as well, and seeing what they did—I learned certain maneuvers and practiced them in the gym and they worked so incredibly well. It was like studying a playbook: This person threw a left hand, and this is how you counter it. This one threw a right hand, this is how you counter. There were so many different ways of watching Ali—how he moved, how he recuperated when he got in trouble. It was like a bible of boxing—an encyclopedia of how to take a fighter apart.

But people always said how Ali wasn’t really a classic boxer.

He was unorthodox. As a heavyweight, with his speed and reflexes, he fought like a lighter-weight fighter in the heavyweight division, and could always get away with a lot of those things like having his hands down. But being a lightweight fighter, I knew those were not things I could do and get away with because you’re fighting guys who are just as fast as you, if not faster.

What else can you say about Ali as a fighter?

He was a very unique beast, as well. His vision was incredible, and he could predict what a guy would throw and play off that. And he had an incredible amateur career: Notice how virtually every single great fighter all had extensive amateur careers. You have to serve your apprenticeship first–the only one who didn’t and got to that level and dominated four or five divisions so incredibly was Roberto Duran.

How else did Ali affect you?

It remains in my life how he used to write poems before he fought, and how I’d see him on TV and he’d be picking at his hair afterwards–and I did the same things: I even had those tassels on my shoes! But it was all about believing in yourself: Someone as creative and independent as he was—it teaches you. At first you do what he does and then you find your own way. You just have to be shown the way.

What about his behavior in the ring?

I didn’t talk to dudes inside the ring—none of his braggadocio. That’s not me. But at the same time I understood why he did it: Instead of intimidating the other guy, he was empowering himself. Sonny Liston was big and intimidating and was a knockout puncher and brought fear in people, and the more you face your fear, the less intimidating that fear becomes–and that’s the thing with Ali. You address it and address it and address it over and over again until you see that fear as so much less than what it is. That’s what Ali did.

And Sonny?

He made Sonny so much less. In the heat of situations in ring, you still have to execute—and he took what Sonny liked to put on people and completely reversed it. It was like, “Why are you not afraid of me?” and in boxing, once you get a person hesitating, it’s over! It’s all about who hits who first and most often. So that’s what I thought Ali was able to do—perfect a style to fight someone like Liston, but there was more to it in that he developed a psychological edge that helped him over and over again throughout his career, though for some people maybe it worked against him! Like Oscar Bonavena, and Frazier, of course—it incensed Joe, and every time he gave a super human performance with Ali that he couldn’t have done otherwise, for they were both extremely skilled heavyweights and gold medal-winning amateurs with the highest skills.

How did you meet Ali?

I made a line of “aero fight icons” t-shirts with symbols describing types of fighters. The symbols were part of the “Aero Boxer In-depth Analysis System”: I used to write for Boxing Illustrated,and when a fight was coming up I’d identify the fighters and categorize them using the zodiac symbols according to the way a fighter fights. I graded their attributes on a scale of one-to-10—agility, dexterity, power, resilience, etc., so that people who weren’t boxers could see why one boxer would win over the other based on the stats and assessing these qualities. People think it’s just two guys in the ring and they scrap and the strongest guy wins, but it’s not necessarily like that—someone could bench more than Ali but still lose.

And the icons?

So I had all these “super aeros” icons, with one weighted above the other: Duran, Hagler, Marciano, the Ali icon. I met with him and his wife Lonnie many years ago in a hotel and he loved the idea of it. But my focus couldn’t stay with it and I didn’t end up marketing it–but I hope to have the opportunity to do so in the future.

How did you end up working on “Ali”?

I trained with Angelo Dundee from 1988 to ’90—and he was great. A lot of trainers don’t understand that when you’re taking a fighter over, it’ not a matter or teaching and remaking him but complementing what he’s already doing—and Angelo knew that. He didn’t say, “Ali, you better keep your hands up and go to the body and double up on the jab!” but complemented on what already existed with him and enhanced what he did so well. You have to know the personal style and make it better—bring out the better of you, and not be a conventional trainer and teach you how to stand, for example, but take what’s there and develop it and enhance your game.

How did Angelo impact you?

I think I was unique in not getting the best out of Angelo! Mentally, my love for the sport just wasn’t there any more. You have to love it, and unfortunately I didn’t have the same fire and drive. I found this out when I fought Troy Darrell on NBC-TV in 1987, who was one of Angelo’s fighters. We were both 23 and 0, and Angelo was saying, “We’re gonna whup this kid!” He was shorter than me and no way he could out-jab me–which was my thing–and he shocked the hell out of me! I beat him, but whenever I jabbed he’d slide at the same time and throw his jab and cut my reach down and connect before me! He was just so smart, and I couldn’t understand it during the fight and my cornerman wasn’t telling me how to adjust!

I gutted that fight out and dropped him a couple times and he came out stronger in the middle rounds, but I carried the fight the last few rounds. But that fight was solely on Angelo’s intelligence because I dropped him twice in the first round, and he told him to stop pulling out of the clinches, and he adjusted and adapted.

You fought the legendary Tommy Hearns in 1990 for the super middleweight title.

I lost a unanimous decision. I knew title fights were 12 rounds and not 15 anymore—which makes it an entirely different fight–and should have taken the fight to him earlier and waited until the seventh round before going toward him. Angelo said, “I don’t want you to stop and engage until I say okay,” then I listened and in the seventh, Hector Rocca said too many rounds were going by, “okay, this is the round, start taking it to him.” But I’m not a Hagler-type fighter and have to find the right time to let go. I can’t wade through punches—I’m not built for that. It’s insane how hard Hearns hit! It felt like concrete.

So I started too late, and Tommy’s an incredible boxer as well as puncher and gets on his toes and decides to box! Sugar Ray Leonard caught him, but that’s about it.

How do you assess your pro career?

One thing remains my undoing as a pro fighter: my lack of an amateur career. When you step in the ring, your instincts are an extremely important part of it. You need to trust your instincts. Sugar Ray, Roberto Duran, Ali–any great fighter you name, they all get advice, and what they need, they take, and what they don’t they cut out. They’re their own rudder–they know the direction they have to go to win. But fighters like me listen to their corner and don’t overrule it. It’s what you learn as an amateur—what you have to do. The kind of stuff that’s only the fighter’s responsibility. You have to be able to take what you need and use it, and push the rest to the side–and that has stayed with me in life. What you need in life you take and don’t put aside because nobody knows your experience like you.

So it was your work with Angelo that led to “Ali”?

I’d done some stuff: I choreographed boxing set to music for Blade to the Heat, a great play based on the fight between Emile Griffith and Benny “the Kid” Paret [Paret, who had allegedly taunted Griffith over his sexuality, died from injuries from the fight], with Paul Calderon in the lead role [based on Paret] and Kamar De Los Reyes [based on Griffith] and George C. Wolfe directing. Angelo heard about me doing that and recommended me to Michael Mann when he was directing Ali. He told him, “I know this kid I think can really help if I’m not here, who can be your eyes and keep everything true to what Ali did and knows what real boxing is all about,” and that’s how I got it. And it was incredible! I got to meet Ali and his daughter Laila and go to Mozambique, and it was just a great, incredible experience. Will Smith was great, and I cast [former champion] James Toney as Joe Frazier–and he was perfect. A lot of other real fighters were used, too, including Charles Shufford, who was a top heavyweight contender at the time, as George Foreman. Michael Mann’s set-ups were very beautiful and special, and to this day Will’s rendition of Ali was special—it showed a different side of Ali, a more serious side.

Who else did you get to meet?

I went to Africa and met Nelson Mandela and had dinner with him! It was such a good time! We talked about how much he loved boxing and Ali–and how he was one of his strengths when he was unjustly incarcerated.

You’ve had Aerospace a long time, now.

Fourteen years in the meatpacking district originally, and three years here in Chelsea. In October we’re opening a gym in L.A. Boxing for fitness wasn’t happening in gyms until I started teaching it in 1991, and now it’s everywhere! It’s fun, social, and very much about believing in yourself and finding yourself and taking your experience. My boxing career was my apprenticeship for my teaching people something fun that can go on forever.

What distinguishes Aerospace?

Our methodology is absolutely considerably different! Our level of expectancy of people is not matched anywhere else: When we train people, I expect them to get in the ring with any boxer or professional boxing trainer and know how to throw a punch, not get hit, do anything a professional boxer can do. That’s the goal, and in giving those skills, they also get all the benefits without all the headaches like detached retinas and other injuries!

I’ve seen other classes and people trying to emulate what we do, but the real love and passion isn’t there, and neither is the knowledge: Take people who haven’t boxed before, teach them head movements, feints, fading back, footwork and things that are all so intricate that there’s no way you can learn everything you need to learn in boxing! Not one fighter knows everything! You can study it forever, and we try to capture that and put it in everyone who comes here.

Speaking of injuries, what’s the story behind your eyepatch?

It’s an Egyptian symbol, the eye of Horus—the falcon-god. It’s so interesting to me on so many levels: From the beginning I was an Oakland Raiders fan, and the Raiders logo has an eyepatch and I used to wear one like it. But I wanted a different design and was always interested in Egyptian art and saw the god Horus: He and his brother Set came into conflict and Set hurt him and took out an eye, but Horus came back and conquered his brother. The story symbolized for me taking a negative and making a positive—using the injury I suffered in my career as a strength instead of a weakness. You never stop! In life you have to adapt, and if you can’t adapt, you die and get wiped out. There was a series of things in my life that I was always having to adapt to, and I became good at adapting!

What about the injury?

Initially it was an eye injury from sparring in the gym. I wasn’t in the mood to box and was having spiritless fights and had moved from Vancouver and wasn’t hungry or paying attention–and he was a hungry kid.

I was going through the motions and he whipped this uppercut out of nowhere and dislodged my eye and I had double vision from then on. I was 20 and 0 and 21-years-old or so, and I couldn’t tell the press or anybody in the media. I had to keep quiet so I wouldn’t have to go back to Vancouver, and the boxing commission wouldn’t let me fight. I was able to get by with double vision, but the eye got weaker and weaker and every fight it got worse. That’s why the Hearns fight was easier, because we both had dominant left hands, and even though he had a really fast right, I could pick it up.

But once I hit the Top 10 and had the injury, it was hard. Everyone’s so great up there at the pinnacle, and there wasn’t a greater time than that, with Sugar Ray Leonard, Hearns, Hagler, Wilfred Benitez, Iran Barkley—I could go on and on. You go through the Top 20 middleweights then and anybody could be champion today—that’s how deep with talent the division was, and it’s never been matched in any era in any division, except maybe welterweight with Leonard, Hearns and Jose Cuevas. So the slightest disadvantage is huge when you get in a fight with those guys and are going for a world title. There’s immense pressure on you, and then you get into the Top Five and you can’t afford a single mistake.

I was 28-4 with 20 knockouts. They say 27-5, but I say 28-4 because I knocked the guy out [Dennis Milton, in 1989] and the ref stopped it, but these guys where we fought upstate [Albany] were connected and it was a non-TV fight for $100,000—-which was unheard of–and the guy ran around and shouldn’t have held his hands up. I dropped him and he was out and the ref waived the fight off and sure enough, they waited and there was a controversial decision, and they decided that because they stopped the fight because the ref thought he heard the bell! It was so crazy it was out of a movie! Randy Gordon, the commissioner, got a visit from the kid’s managers, and [boxing writer] Michael Katz wrote about it, so did Wally Matthews. Randy told Matthews, “I had to give the fight to Dennis.” Matthews said, “Why do that when it was obviously a knockout for Olajide?” Randy said, “His management said if I didn’t give the fight to him, they’d throw me out the fucking window!” Nobody wants to get thrown out of a window!

Any other thoughts about Ali?

I first met Ali in the early ‘80s, in Vegas. Maybe it was a Tyson fight. Me, Dad, my little brother. There was a big crowd commotion following Ali, and beside him was Bundini [Drew Brown Bundini, Ali’s assistant trainer, cornerman and colorful sidekick]. Bundini looks at me and says, “Hey! You’re that kid Olajide, right? I’ve been watching you!” and he goes, “You wanna meet the champ?” You’re kidding me! So Bundini brought me up to Ali’s room, and that’s how I met him.

They say there will never be another boxer like him? I don’t think there will ever be another human being like him! He was so beyond boxing in what he stood for and what he was able to do. And he appealed to so many people for so many reasons. It was his character, not his color—and the ability to not be affected by the superficial, like so many people. That’s unfortunate in our society.

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