After a childhood blighted by begging for food after his parents abandoned him in favour of crack cocaine, Zahir Raheem took those survival instincts into the ring
ZAHIR “Z-MAN” RAHEEM was wearing a pink sports jacket and a smile as he moved swiftly across the stage to accept his Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame plaque. Many in attendance had not seen him since he retired in 2014. Gone was the spindly boxer of years past, replaced by a fit man of 45 who has moved on geographically but has not forgotten his roots.
There was always something ethereal about Raheem, a skinny boxer with a pencil-thin moustache. Now you see him, now you don’t, which was reflected in his slippery defensive style. As a child he resembled Dickens’ Artful Dodger, working the streets in search of sustenance, but it hadn’t always been that way.
“I lived next to a park and my dad would take me down there,” said Raheem. “We would walk the dog. I enjoyed life and always had a good time. Down the street at Ninth and Tioga was a horse stable. I’d go down there, take care of them and ride them.
“It was great, but one day my dad didn’t come home for almost three days. My mother didn’t understand it. One day he came home and then they both disappeared. They came back and they were on crack cocaine. After that we lost everything.”
For a spell the 10-year-old Zahir became the sole provider for his five brothers and sisters, as well as himself. He vividly recalled the moment he realised how critical things had become.
“I looked in the refrigerator and the only thing in there was baking soda. Got so hungry I went to see if I could make some money to buy food. I went to a grocery store and asked a lady if I could carry her groceries for her. She gave me some food and some money, and then said she would call the cops and get me some help. I ran. Zoom!
“I went to another store and bought some groceries and went home to my brothers and sisters. I thought wow! I’ve got to do that again. I did it for a long time, until I was about 12 or 13, and then we moved to a shelter.”
Just down the street from the shelter was the Athletic Rec Center that housed North Philly’s ABC Boxing Gym, where coach and mentor Fred Jenkins presided over a flock of young men trying to find their way.
“When my life turned upside down, Fred was the person I ran to. He was in the gym every day. I would train all day. Even if I just sat there and watched, I wanted to be at the gym. I didn’t want to be home. Growing up at the Rec Center I saw Fred save so many lives. He had so much respect in the neighborhood it was unbelievable.”
Raheem’s long and busy amateur career climaxed in 1996 when he fought his way to a berth on the United States’ Olympic boxing team. He was accompanied by Philly’s David Reid another Rec Center fighter. Reid took light-middleweight (super-welterweight) gold with a come from behind knockout, but bantamweight Raheem was stopped in the first round of his second bout.
“It was the weight, man,” said Zahir. “I was killing myself trying to make weight. It was 90 degrees in Atlanta and I had a sweatshirt on. I wasn’t eating nothing. It was horrible.”
The Rec Center put up a large poster along one wall, welcoming home the gym’s Olympic heroes. There’s a photograph of Raheem and Reid standing in front of it, hands raised in the familiar number-one sign. The expressions on their faces, however, couldn’t have been more dissimilar. David was smiling the way anybody would who was closing in on a multi million-dollar deal. Zahir looked like guy whose dog had just died.
His disappointment was understandable and he admitted he envied all the media attention Reid was receiving. Even so, there didn’t seem to be any animosity between the long time stablemates. It was not personal, it was business, and in the boxing industry a one-punch knockout to win an Olympic gold medal is worth considerably more than getting stopped in the second bout of the Atlanta Games.
The contrast was obvious from the start. Reid signed with America Presents and turned pro on HBO. Raheem’s debut was off TV, a fourth-round stoppage of Cliff Watford at Ballys in Atlantic City, November 16, 1996.
By then Raheem had a three-year contract with Top Rank. Bob Arum’s matchmakers kept Zahir busy fighting on undercards in various casinos: Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, Trump Taj Mahal and Ballys in Atlantic City, with side trips to Biloxi, Grand Rapids and Reno. The opposition, however, never seemed to rise above fair-to-middling.
For much of his career Raheem was trapped in a sweaty purgatory of meaningless fights, an unproven commodity waiting for a chance to prove him self at the top level. He escaped briefly and although he acquitted himself well in two of his major fights, his performance in the third was almost unwatchable.
There’s no doubt a significant part of Raheem’s problem was his defensive style. He wasn’t a runner [i]per se[i], but knew how to control distance, make his rivals miss, duck, spin away and clinch. His jab was switchblade quick and didn’t even have to land to throw off his opponent’s timing. Those that did connect chipped away at the other guy’s confidence, setting up straight rights and counter hooks that came in spurts.
Maybe if those offensive surges had come more frequently Raheem would have been a bigger attraction, but the survival skills demonstrated when he was the sole support of his siblings are surely linked to his boxing style. For Zahir it was always about survival. He learned how to stay alive as a deserted child and took those same instincts into the ring with him. It’s who he is.
Finally, after almost eight years on the road, Raheem got his first break, a match with unbeaten Rocky Juarez on HBO, July 17, 2004. The Main Events promotion, held at the Reliant Center in Juarez’s hometown of Houston, was an IBF featherweight eliminator. Fighting the house fighter in his hometown was bad enough, but when the Texas boxing commission is involved the inexplicable is to be expected.
“That was the sort of fight I wanted,” Raheem said. “I told my promoter, Tony Holden, I would take the fight but make them change the judges. He said, ‘Well, I don’t think we can do that.’ I also told him I couldn’t make featherweight. I was 126 pounds when I was 15!”
Zahir had not fought as featherweight since March 2002, and was settling in nicely at lightweight when the Juarez fight presented itself. He had two choices, make 126 pounds or go home. Somehow he made it, but his troubles were far from over.
“What I went through in that fight was despicable,” said Raheem.
After a precarious start, Raheem started to come on. He boxed smartly, landed cleanly and was clearly in the fight when referee Robert Gonzalez penalised the Philadelphian for holding behind the head in the fourth round. Gonzalez, who never issued a warning, did the same in the sixth and 10th rounds.
“That referee made it seem like Raheem was fighting two people,” said HBO’s Larry Merchant.
When Juarez was given a unanimous decision, Hall of Fame referee Mills Lane was so angry he wrote a letter to Richard Cole, head of the Texas boxing commission, which read:
[I have reviewed the tape of the fight between Juarez and Raheem. From the first round through the end of the fight, Robert Gonzales interfered with Raheem’s legitimate fight tactics and strategy. Mr. Gonzalez’s conduct as a referee was despicable. He was blatant in his ongoing attempt to interfere with the flow of the fight. From my view, points should not have been deducted from Raheem. Juarez, on many occasions, held on to Raheem’s glove, and as a result, his head would come into direct contact with the face of Raheem. Raheem’s response to control the head of Juarez was a natural and legitimate technique. Ali often used this technique. Juarez punched on the break several times and was never warned.
In short this was the worst performance by any referee that I have witnessed. Raheem should not be penalized for suffering a loss because of a referee’s conduct. In closing, I would urge the commissioners office to rule this fight a “no contest.”]
The outrage was warranted, but as usual nothing changed. Officially Juarez will always be the winner.
Following a win over Jose Quintana in February 2005, Raheem signed to fight Erik Morales on September 10 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. This was it, a make or break fight.
“I lived in a house in Las Vegas away from the casinos,” Raheem said. “I didn’t do nothing but fast, train and pray. I trained for almost three months. I made sacrifices I’d never made before in my life. When I read that I was just a journeyman, I made up my mind to win. They weren’t going to brainwash me. There was nothing anybody could do about it. I was going to win that fight.”
Morales was coming off a close, exhilarating fight with Manny Pacquiao on March 19, winning a unanimous decision by triple scores of 115-113. Top Rank had already decided it would promote a rematch to maximise interest put Pacquiao and Morales on the same card against opponents they figured to beat.
Pacquiao held up his end when referee Lew Moret stopped the fight after Manny knocked down Hector Velazquez twice in the sixth round. Raheem was nowhere near as accommodating. He boxed beautifully, befuddling Morales and punishing him with jabs and flashy counters. Morales never gave up but looked decidedly unsteady as the fight drew to a close.
Raheem won a unanimous 12-round decision by scores of 118-110, 116-112 and 115-113. It was the finest performance of his career and selected as The Ring magazine’s Upset of the Year.
What should have been a joyous occasion quickly turned into a downer. One minute Raheem was being carried around the ring wearing a crown, his right hand raised in victory, the next he was looking at the sour puss of the man who controlled his career.
“Initially I was very excited,” said Zahir, “but I could tell by the look on Bob Arum’s face that he was upset. I was thinking, [i]Damn! I won but they’re mad at me.[i] I didn’t understand it.”
Naturally, it was about money. Despite Zahir’s victory, Pacquiao and Raheem would not be as big of an attraction as a Morales-Pacquiao rematch. Top Rank decided to ignore Morales’ loss to Raheem and made the second Pacquiao rematch.
Raheem only shot at a title came against Acelino Freitas for the vacant WBO lightweight belt, April 29, 2006, at Foxwoods. It was an unsightly mess of a boxing match. Raheem grabbed, clinched and threw Freitas to the canvas three times. Both boxers seemed reluctant to launch a sustained attack, and after 12 ugly rounds two of the three judges voted for Freitas.
A pair of wins and a no-contest later Zahir was in South Africa, where Ali Funeka knocked him out in the fourth round on July 8, 2008. It was the lowest point of Raheem’s career.
“I got knocked out before I got into the ring,” said Raheem. “I was supposed to be there three weeks before the fight, but it was only eight days. I had jet lag. I was sleeping all the time. I just couldn’t adjust in time.”
The losses to Freitas and Funeka convinced Raheem he needed to step away from boxing, which he did for more than two years. In need of money he struck a deal with promoter Brian Halquist and launched a comeback April 22, 2010.
Raheem won six in a row, the last a 10-round unanimous decision over Bayan Jargal to win the vacant NABO super lightweight title on January 13, 2014. By the time he beat Jargal, going out with a win and minor belt was good enough for Zahir, who exited permanently with a record of 35-3, 21 wins inside the distance.
Zahir and his family currently live Snellville, Georgia, a 35-minute drive east of Atlanta. He makes the trip two times most days, working at the gym he co-owns with his partner.
“Seven or eight years ago it was abandoned property that was boarded up,” Raheem said. “We cleaned it out [and turned it into a gym]. There is a mix of clients. We have lots of white and blue-collar clients and quite a few amateurs. One of the amateurs is Chad “Candyman” Pitts. He’s 17 now and I’ve been training him since he was around eight years old.”
Zahir knows there had been circumstances beyond his control that hindered his career, but eight years after his final fight he understands he was also culpable.
“A lot of issues in my career were my fault for not understanding the business,” said Raheem. “Also my lack of discipline. I would party between fights. If I’d been consistent and not party at all, I would have been a much better fighter and have less weight problems.”
Raheem was born in Philadelphia and learned to box in one of city’s legendary gyms. Sure he “took it on the road” except for was one bout, but he’ll always be a Philadelphia fighter. His return to the city for the PABHOF banquet was met with applause and more than one “who’s that?”
That was the “Z-Man,” the boy who used to hang around the gym and never wanted to go home.