Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Boxing is a sport which encourages fascination, perhaps surpassing all others in its seduction to narrative. And if all forms of narrative, as psychoanalysis suggests, can be grouped within seven basic plot structures – (1) overcoming the monster, (2) rags to riches, (3) the quest, (4) voyage and return, (5) rebirth, (6) comedy and (7) tragedy – then boxing, in its intimation of primitive, bestial savagery; in its raw exhibition of our often suppressed and deconditioned capacity to physically harm others, its association with yesterday’s noble and honourable worlds of gladiatorial combat, its flawed protagonists, its devotion to jingoistic pride and its regional/national loyalties, as well as its capability to bestow wealth, legacy, power and status on all those connected to it, tangentially or otherwise, can find – and has indeed often found – exposition or interpretation across each of these templates.
However, as vignettes, the majority of fighters, fights or interview captures tend to be singular in their fidelity to one of these archetypes. It is not often, outside of the realms of Hollywood or promotional fantasy, that a boxer arrives already materialised in metaplot, or journeying upon several of these different plot structures in synchronicity; yet in 8-0 super flyweight Quaise Khademi, boxing may be witnessing the burgeoning of its next narrative superstar, a fighter who if people are unfamiliar, they should soon become familiar; who, if he has been operating in the quiet beneath mainstream press awareness, will not remain undisclosed for much longer; a fighter who recently spoke with ESBR senior staff writer Elliott Grigg, and who fights to defend his WBO European super flyweight on Friday night, with the reward, in victory, of also becoming the IBF European flyweight champion.
Let us journey chronologically, exploring the salient occasions in this already event-filled life.
For those uninured to Quaise’s story, the opening act sees him returning home from nursery in his native Afghanistan to the confrontation of armed Taliban members equipped with AK47s. As part of the Hazara community, his was an association with the Shia denomination of Islam, long in enduring historical conflict with the Sunni element, and so a life with the potential to be lived before the constant spectral backdrop of paroxysmal persecution and threat. To put things in context, 5,000 Hazara were executed in 2008 as the Taliban went door-to-door shooting military aged males directly in front of their own families.
But Quaise was not in Afghanistan in 2008. For a decade earlier, following the death of his older brother, who died having been shot, he (aged just four) and his family fled by minibus to neighbouring Pakistan. From there, their migration would accommodate Russia, Slovakia, Hungary, Germany, France, and then, finally, the UK. For Quaise, arrival in the UK came after four years, when he, his sister-in-law, nephew and aunt successfully concealed themselves beneath tarpaulin in the rear of a fruit lorry bound from Calais to Dover. ‘We waited for a couple of hours for the lorry to drive off, then we started knocking and the driver stopped and phoned the police. […] My brother [who along with Khademi’s uncle had established himself in Hackney] picked us up and brought us to London.’ It would take his parents another eight years to favourably make the same channel crossing.
Whilst you may not deem this line of questioning befitting to an ostensible boxing interview, I momentarily focus the line of questioning onto you, dear reader, and ask how could it ever be that such a peripatetic experience does not becomes elemental in the formation and holistic shaping of the man, of the eventual fighter? With this in mind, I therefore ask Quaise to elaborate somewhat on his experiences in passing through each country, and of his first impressions of England:
‘I was very young, so my experience was somewhat limited. I did not have freedom to explore each country. I only remember being allowed to explore Russia and Germany. […] In Russia, people were quite hostile towards us; they were quite racist. They didn’t make us feel very welcome and made it quite obvious that they actually did not want us there [the family stayed for 3 months, squeezing into a single room and eating tinned food straight from the can].
‘In Germany, they were more accommodating. They gave us food, shelter and accommodation. I went to nursery there and they were quite welcoming. Very different from before [they stayed for six months but moved onto France as Khademi’s father was unable to find work].
‘The UK was the most welcoming. They moved us around a bit initially, but I was able to meet up with my brother and uncle. We were able to get food and shelter. After a short while, it really felt like we had a home, finally.’
Arriving a year following the September 11th Al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, and the commencement (in October 2001) of the allied (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, Germany, Australia and New Zealand) response – first the invasion and then subsequent occupation of Afghanistan – I ask Quaise whether these international geopolitical events had any bearing on his reception and integration into UK life:
‘Following the September 11 attacks, I was still young, I was still in primary school. I did sense a bit of a distance from my fellow pupils and even some of the teachers, but after a short while things were ok. Things got actually much worse around the time of the London bombings . I was a bit older then and I noticed it much more. It made being an Afghan in the UK very hard. People couldn’t understand. They’d say, “Your country is at war with us.” Like I was as well. It was very hard.’
Quaise was educated, and learned to speak English, at a Catholic school in Islington. He attended church, whilst also being a practicing Muslim. Such a religious grounding, however, was unable to keep him from erring towards the trouble that adolescence often involves. Only boxing could do that.
‘I needed something, something that was going to keep me out of trouble. I was hanging around with the wrong people and picking up bad habits. Some of my friends from around that time, they were sentenced to 15 years in prison. Had I of stayed hanging around with them, I would have probably ended up in a lot of trouble. […] Instead, I was drawn to the discipline of boxing. I saw it as fun, but at 15, when I took it up, I needed the discipline. I never thought that I would get to where I am now.’
Given the hardship that he has already faced, the triplicate of succeeding questions seem correlative: (1) given the hardship that he has already faced – a journey which included constant illegal border crossings, where the threat of beatings or the unknown awaited being caught; which included a barefoot trek through a jungle, after he lost his trainers in the mud; piling into cars and boats with such overwhelming number that such machinery would often sag under the excessive weight of the cargo; as well as the companion undesirables of sleeplessness, hunger and homelessness – why would he then choose to partake in a pursuit as exacting and potentially dangerous as boxing? (2) How, if at all, has that journey shaped him as a fighter? And, again, (3) given the stress that his parents would have already endured, how did they react to his current career choice?
‘I want to make something of myself. I owe it to my parents and my family to do that. My parents sacrificed so much. My mum left all her friends and family to come here to give us, the younger generation, a better life. It would have been comfortable and easy for her to stay. She could have stayed around her loved ones, but she left for us. I owe it to her to make something of myself and boxing is a vehicle through which I can do that. Through which I can celebrate her.
‘The work ethic and the drive that my mum and dad showed in getting us here is in me. That same determination and will to succeed is in me. They used it in getting us here and getting us a better life. I use it in becoming a better fighter and in working as hard as I physically can in pursuit of my goals.
‘My parents are very proud of me. They may have worried initially but now that they have seen me progress, and they have seen how well I am doing, they are really proud.’
The sentiments articulated here in reference to Quaise’s mother are particularly poignant. Earlier this year, following a battle with lung cancer, she sadly departed. The sorrow in reaction to and the processing of this loss is audible in Quaise’s discussion of her, but then so, too, is an accompanying warmth and pride, and a focused desire to fulfil, honour and realise his mother’s legacy in everything that he does.
‘She is with me whatever I do; when I walk to the ring, she is with me. I want to do everything I can to share her story, to pay tribute to her and all that she sacrificed for us. It is all I want to do, to commemorate and to celebrate her. To continue to live her dream through me.
‘My mum was incredibly proud of me [when he became WBO European super flyweight champion in December, beating Pedro Matos via unanimous decision at Bethnal Green’s York Hall]. […] I now want to become Afghanistan’s first recognised world champion. There have been other fighters that have come from there and had title shots and opportunities, but they have never quite got over the line. I want to get over the line.’
The next steppingstone in the accomplishment of this ambition is 7-2 Birmingham fighter, Ijaz Ahmed. So what can we expect from Friday’s contest?
‘You can expect a good fight. Ijaz will bring size and he will be looking to win, definitely. I fully expect them to think of me as a light touch, having watched my last few performances. What they [Ijaz and his team] don’t know is that I’ve been fighting with a bad hand since around my third or fifth fight [this will be his ninth]. In the last fight, I hurt it badly; I could barely throw it, could barely use it, only to tap and distract. When I went to the surgeons – I had a private operation – they said to me, “If you did not come and see us now, as you have done, you would never have boxed again.” So now that I’m able to use the hand and hit harder, I’m looking to put on a good show and to win well.’
A win would certainly elevate Quaise’s ranking and profile. Though he is already being talked about in some quarters as a possible opponent for British super flyweight champion and highly ranked world title contender Sunny Edwards (15-0). But instead of trash talking or choosing to offer a bolshy soundbite in regard to my enquiry as to what would happen should the two ever meet, Quaise was complimentary and respectful towards Edwards. Though whilst refusing to overlook Ahmed, he did betray that he was hopeful that his and Sunny’s two trajectories would one day lucratively intersect.
‘I’ve sparred with both Charlie and Sunny, and Sunny is a very, very good fighter. He is on his own path to fight for a world title now and he is pretty much there. I’m not getting caught up looking past Ijaz Ahmed, but as Sunny and I are with the same promoter [Queensberry Promotions], there is no reason as to why maybe that fight cannot happen sometime in the future. Sometime when fans are allowed in and maybe we both have a world title. It can be a super fight at super flyweight.’
In the seven narrative structures outlined in the introduction, number 4 is titled voyage and return. I conclude the interview in homage to this genre, and with thoughts of Quaise’s mother and the family they all left behind, some of whom remain in hiding, as well as awareness of the recent sporting events being staged in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the seeming opening up of those regions and the accusations of sport washing which accompanies it, all at the forefront of my regards, by asking Quaise whether he would ever return to Afghanistan, either to box, or otherwise.
‘That is the plan. It would be great to stage an event there, and it would be easier to sell to larger audiences than it would be in the UK, especially for us guys at lower weights. Our weights are a harder sell in the UK as the UK has champions at all weights, and the heavyweights absolutely dominate things at the moment. […] I would have absolutely no issue fighting in any Muslim country. I think of myself as Muslim only. I do not look to identify with Sunni or Shia; I am just a Muslim.’
If all goes to plan, on Friday night, Quaise could also soon be identifying himself as the unified WBO and IBF European super flyweight champion. In a life which has already overcome such hardship, you would not be against him to succeed.
Date: November 13th 2020
Venue: BT Sport Studio, Stratford
Where to watch: BT Sport