After winning a gold medal at the national championship, when a teenage boy told his family members that he was going to Azerbaijan to represent Pakistan at an international contest, they simply did not believe him. Only his paternal grandfather, himself being a former international footballer, accepted it.
Today, the world knows him as Muhammad Waseem, a flyweight boxing prodigy Pakistan can surely feel proud of. After launching his amateur career at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi with a bronze medal in the light flyweight category, the Quetta-born Waseem went on to win a number of medals in several regional and international contests including a silver medal (flyweight) at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and bronze (flyweight) at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea the same year. In 2010, he had bagged gold at the inaugural World Combat Games in Beijing where this nimble pugilist downed Dagoberto Aguero of the Dominican Republic in the final. The same year, he secured a silver medal in the 51kg flyweight at the South Asian Games in Dhaka.
“After I won gold medal at the national boxing event [in 2005], only my grandfather recognised it as a significant achievement, and realised the importance of my participation in the forthcoming President Cup [in Azerbaijan],” Waseem told Dawn from Islamabad in an exclusive interview held online on Saturday.
“[In those days] I sometimes avoided training. Once without informing my coach Mohammad Tariq, I left the national camp set up in Kazakhstan for an international assignment and returned home which angered the coach. He came to my place and told my grandfather about this upon which my grandfather gave me a pep talk on the importance of national duty. This motivated me to return to the camp with our coach.
“At home, my grandfather, who had an eye of a true sportsman, and my mother were the key supporters who motivated me in boxing. While on the professional side, I would credit my trainer [Tariq] who always helped and guided me to remain motivated,” said the 35-year-old, nicknamed ‘Falcon’.
“Recently, I got married and was blessed with a son; this also became a unique motivational factor for me.”
According to Waseem, Prof Anwar Chowdhry, the chairman of the Pakistan Boxing Federation (PBF) and president of the International Boxing Association (IBA) at that time, spotted his talent and gave him significant support.
“When I got out of the ring after winning gold medal, Prof Anwar Sahab on the spot asked my coach about me and told him to send me to Karachi from where I will be sent to Azerbaijan for an international event. Despite my tender age which was only suitable for cadet category boxing, not senior, the PBF chief endorsed my participation in the Azerbaijan [event] where I did well,” the boxer said.
“Prof Anwar then included me in the national team which went to Kazakhstan for a six-month camp where we trained for long sessions.”
Waseem, who belongs to the Alizai Pashtun tribe, and speaks Pushto, Persian as well as Balochi, took up the sport after casually going to train at a boxing club.
“Football and boxing remain the most popular sports in Balochistan; while cricket has also gained ground recently,” he informed. “When I was around eight years old, I used to the historic Youth Boxing Club, one of the oldest clubs in the city that over the years has raised several world-class boxers for Pakistan. I went there to train casually at the gymnasium where seeing the seniors inspired me to embrace boxing.”
THE PROFESSIONAL ROUTE
It was in 2015 that Waseem turned professional but he said the transformation was not without hurdles.
“There is a major difference between the two levels. Professional boxing, comprising 12-round fights, is much more arduous than amateur level having three-round bouts,” he said.
“When I won bronze at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, a Korean [promotion] company contacted me and offered me support if I become a professional boxer.
“At that time, I was the captain of Pakistan’s national team and I realised was going nowhere as our boxers were not participating in any major international events. At times we urged the PBF to provide us with the required facilities and arrange training camps abroad which could boost our performance. Unfortunately, our demands were not met and there was no hope.
“As a result, I quit amateur level boxing because I did not want to miss the opportunity on offer,” Waseem, who holds a 12-2 record as a professional boxer, said.
Unfortunately, Waseem alleged, the PBF in this scenario played a negative role and charged him a certain percentage of his income which he earned through fights and camps.
On whether he as a boxer received any concrete support from the Balochistan government, the federal government and the PBF, a disgruntled Waseem said: “No”.
“I do not want to criticise my own federation. But it is very unfortunate that it does not even send a simple congratulatory message when I win a fight, what to talk of getting [any] support!” he said. “I regret to say that I as a sportsman did not receive due encouragement and appreciation [at the official level].”
Waseem, who created history in 2016 when he defeated Jether Oliva of the Philippines to become the first Pakistani to clinch the WBC silver flyweight title, is looking forward to establishing an academy — his way of giving back to the country.
“I certainly look forward to contributing to establishing an academy in Pakistan, provided the government supports; without its due help nothing can be done. On my part, I want to make Pakistan another Mexico of boxing, by training and preparing promising youngsters for the international level,” he said.
But he’s not done yet as a fighter.
“I would definitely fight for the next five years,” he said. “This year, Insha Allah I would win both IBF and WBC titles this year.”
According to Waseem, his team’s talks are in progress currently with Mexico’s Julio Cesar Martinez, the incumbent WBC flyweight world champion. “This fight may be held in late March or mid-April.
“I have restricted myself [temporarily] to flyweight as I am among the world’s top five in this category. According to my plan, after winning the flyweight world title I will jump to super flyweight. I want to end my professional career in super bantamweight by defeating Japanese boxer Naoya Inoue, who is presently one of the best world boxers.”
Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2023