Omari Kimweri: Fighting Fugitive

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FightLive Magazine, June/July 2016

“Life is easier when I’m boxing,” says Omari Kimweri, once Tanzanian, now Australian flyweight boxer currently in-line for the WBC silver title. This is a remarkable statement, especially when you consider it in the light of what he’s had to do to stay in the game.

Omari comes from a boxing family in Tanzania. Both his brothers boxed.

“I started training at twelve,” he says, “But I didn’t get in the ring until I was seventeen.”

A successful amateur career was to follow, and it bought with it many social advantages, as does success in all sports in Tanzania.

“I had a good job, I was a prison officer. If you’re a good [athlete], it makes it very easy to get a job. Then, once you’re there, [the government] want you to give it away.”

Ironically, that paradox became Omari’s motivation.

“If you turn pro, you can’t work in a government job. ‘How am I going to box?’ [I thought]. They make it very hard for you. You get a good foundation, then just stay there.”

The pinnacle of Omari’s amateur career was the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, in 2006. Australia made a profound impression on him immediately.

“People were nice. I met very good people. They liked my sport; they were excited about what I’m doing.”

He saw an opportunity to extend his career into the professional realm, and while his decision was somewhat unconventional, he seized it with both hands.

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“One day, I left the [athlete’s] village, went to the Exhibition Center and watched a few fights, and then caught the tram to Footscray. I met a friend there and said I wanted to stay. He took me to his place in Jacana, near Broadmeadows. After that, there was lots of drama. It was all over the papers and the t.v.”

The media coverage had made it official; Omari was a fugitive.

“Other boys were going to do farm work. They took me to Myrtleford, to work on a tobacco farm. First I was picking, then labouring around the farm. I did that for nine months. Then, the government said, ‘No tobacco the next year’. Things were getting worse; no job, no nothing.”

Again, Omari’s friends came to his rescue.

“One of my mates, Simon Daley – his dad used to be a boxer – took me to live with him for six months. His dad had a gym. I went and lived and trained with them.”

“I met him when he found his way to Myrtleford,” says Simon. “He was hiding on a tobacco farm about ten kays out. I was introduced to Omari and Karin – the other boxer he had taken off with, [who was] the captain of the Tanzanian boxing team.”

Passion for sports crosses cultural and linguistic barriers. Simon had been a boxer himself and his father owned a small gym in Wangaratta.

“I’d pick them up and take them to training. My dad owns the gym, so we could go anytime we wanted. After that, we started to become friends.”

Omari swiftly defined his pedigree as an athlete once he made it to the familiar territory of the gym.

“I was impressed,” says Simon. “He got up, put on a trackie and beanie in the dark and he’d run. Fast! Then he’d do some three-quarter sprints and then be out the front skipping, doing shadow and padwork. Then, when I’d go to work, they’d go to sleep. Train flat-out and then they’d lay back down and go to sleep.”

It’s not too far a stretch to describe Simon Daley as a boxing angel.

“After he got a protected visa, he must have an argument with the people on the tobacco farm. He called me from the Albury train station and asked me to go get him. I picked him up, bought him back to Wangaratta, and he asked if he could stay there.

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“I was living in a two bedroom flat; they [Omari and Karin] slept on the floor of one of the rooms. They had no money; nothing. They had nowhere else to go.”

For some reason, Simon chose to take Omari and Karin on as his charges.

“I got them one week’s work for cash, otherwise, I was feeding and looking after them. They amazed me. They couldn’t swim, either. Never ridden a bike, didn’t know how to use a knife and fork… they were drinking cordial straight; going through two liters of cordial every two days. They were sipping it like wine because it was so strong.”

Omari’s willingness to learn, however, helped him to integrate into Australian society.

“He was smart. I’d take him to a BBQ, and he’d watch everyone to learn. He picked things up very quick.

“The amazing thing… is that he came here, fought [in the Commonwealth Games] and then ran away. What was he thinking? How would he survive? No money, no friends. It’s an amazing effort.”

All this time, Omari’s refugee status was hotly contested. He lived with the constant possibility of detention in an asylum center. Regardless, he continued to work, train and maintain focus on his professional goal.

“I had my first professional fight in Adelaide in 2008. I lived there for a few years.”

Omari’s difficulties were compounded by his status as a flyweight, which made it difficult to secure credible opponents. Opportunity and necessity converged to bring him back to Melbourne.

“The big city,” he says. “At first, I trained at ‘The Fighter’s Factory’ in Blackburn.” The owner, Murray Thompson, managed Omari and took him to live in his home for a year. As is often the way, life changed when Omari met a woman.

“My partner lived in Sunshine, which made it hard to get to Blackburn. That’s how I ended up here in Tarneit.”

“I applied for a visa and they continually refused me. Federal court, high court, immigration minster, all refused me. Refused for refugee visa. [In the end] I had to get married.

“Immigration asked lots of questions; they watched me. I had a very hard time. My family told me to give up. I kept going. Now, I’m working at Hickory. They’re a building-site supplier (of construction materials). I’m a forklift operator.”

Dave Hegarty, head trainer at the Tarneit Boxing Gym, met Omari in 2008.

 

“His manager, Brian Amatruda, sent him over here. At the time, I had Heath Ellis and Daniel Ianazziao. We had lot of good quality kids here.”

“Omari was a little bit lighter. We had to fix a few things defensively with him – he still boxed like an amateur. He was more about point-scoring; we had to get him hitting harder, sitting on his shots a bit more.”

After addressing his power, Dave focused on the more subtle aspects of Omari’s professional game.

“We put a few more tools to his arsenal. More body shots. [Get him] working more off his jab and develop his defense.”

Once Omari had been rounded into a professional unit, other problems arose.

“The problem with him is that at his weight, there’s very little competition about. When he won the Australian flyweight title, there only two guys in his division. We have to find international opponents for him.”

Dave refers to the essential irony of the sport of boxing at the lighter weights.

“It’s funny, because [flyweights] are the most exciting fighters in world. It’s hell-for-leather from start to finish. The best pound-for-pound fighter in the world at present is Roman Gonzalez – a flyweight.”

While he might not be as statuesque as a heavier fighter, Omari carries all the attributes.

“He’s hard,” says Dave, “He’ll fight to the death. He’s dedicated in the gym; when he’s working, you stay away. He takes his training very seriously. He certainly turned up [to the gym] with the right work ethic.”

“I’ve been here almost eight years,” says Omari. “All my titles I won here, from this gym. When I got here, I’d only had three fights.”

Omari has won an Australian flyweight title, a WBA African title and a WBO Oriental title.

“My next fight is for the WBC silver world title. It gives me the opportunity to fight the world champ; I’m just waiting for him. It’s my ticket to be number one in the WBC. [Randy Petalcorin] fights very short fights; he KOs people very quick. [He] has a lot of wins by KO.”

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According to one of his main sparring partners, amateur boxer Daniel Hucalak, work ethic is the thing Omari has bought to the culture of the gym, generally speaking.

“If he doesn’t have a fight on and I’m training, he’ll grab me, put me on the bag, and drill into me. He makes me do more. He keeps me working.”

“When he doesn’t have a fight on, he’s very generous,” says Dave. “He spends plenty of time with the kids. We’re predominantly professional boxing trainers here. Omari showed us a lot of amateur tricks and techniques they used overseas.”

Omari’s career is reaching its peak. Unfortunately, that pinnacle may have already been visible for a while.

“It’s going to be one tough fight. Randy Petalcorin has just vacated the WBA interim world title. He’s a slick left-hander. Very smart, very polished, from the Philippines. Omari’s got the task ahead of him, but so does Randy,” says Hegarty.

“We’re going to utilise our strengths. Omari is very strong, and he hits hard. We’ve got our game-plan in place… which we’re not going to say too much about; you never know who’s reading,” says Dave with a twinkle in his eye.” Hopefully we can mess up theirs and get where we want to go.”

Mark Quon, a super-bantamweight boxer with a hundred amateur and professional boxing fights to his name, has been Omari’s regular sparring partner for most of the time he has been at Hegarty’s Boxing Gym.

“I’ve been sparring with him since he came for the Games and stayed over. He’s good to spar; he switches from southpaw to orthodox constantly, which is something he’s really good at. He’s got great footwork, fast hands and he punches hard for his weight.”

Years of sparring have forged a strong respect between the two.

“We both have respect for each other,” says Mark. “It never gets dirty. There’s never any bad feeling after. He’s a good sport.”

Having known Omari so closely for the duration of his career, Mark is a position of authority to describe his current condition.

“I think if he boxes smart, he can get the job done. He’s got to use his brains and not move the wrong way. [Petalcorin] is a southpaw, so Omari has to always keep his front foot outside of [Petalcorin’s] so as not to walk onto the power hand. Move more to the left, not right.”

Omari’s last fight against Michael Camelion saw him make this crucial error.

“For the first three or four rounds while he was warming up, [Omari was] moving the wrong way; moving into his power hand. He corrected after the third or fourth, and the other guy didn’t win a round.”

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Quon’s faith in his sparring partner is absolute.

“He’s a great fighter. He conducts himself well in the gym. I respect him, and I respect what he’s achieved in the sport. I respect the chance he took in staying. He’s got a big chance for a great belt; if he wins that, the world’s his oyster.”

Dave Hegarty agrees, but voices his faith in a different way.

“Realistically, with this one, it could all end in tears,” says Dave. “This could be his last fight. He’s getting on; he’s thirty-four, he’s got a good job and a family. The way he fights – always hard – there comes a time when he’ll have to stop for the preservation of his health.

“If he doesn’t get the decision on the fifteenth, we’ll probably tell him to hang ‘em up. That’s in the back of my mind, though. Right now, the focus is on the fight and taking him to the next step.”

That next step is a legitimate world title with some very legitimate pay-days.

“A win would secure him opportunities to fight for any of the four big sanctioning bodies: the WBA, WBO, WBC or the IBF. You’re looking at a hundred and fifty thousand [dollars] a fight if he wins this. He’ll be doing a lot of fighting overseas in places like Asia and Mexico, those countries where there are a lot more guys at his weight.”

Surely such opportunities would mean he would have to move overseas to pursue them.

“We wouldn’t stand in his way, but I couldn’t see him doing it. He’s not going to want to leave his family.”

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