Soliman has the Wright stuff to beat the best
Harpers Gym isn’t where you expect to find a boxing ring.
Situated in the up-market beachside suburb of Brighton in Melbourne, Australia, it is your prototypical body building gym designed for affluent locals to preen and pose and occasionally work up a sweat. Dozens of personal trainers mingle amongst the state-of-the-art weight machines gently encouraging their clients to do “one more rep”.
Tucked away at the rear of the gym is a medium sized boxing ring flanked by rows of exercise bikes. The canvas is emblazoned with the Festival Hall logo that was made famous when the North Melbourne venue hosted regular boxing cards in the 70’s and 80’s that were frequently televised on Ron Casey’s seminal Australian boxing program TV Ringside. The rich history of the old ‘House of Stoush’ canvas seems lost on the locals.
I arrived at the gym at 7am on a Thursday to find Sam Soliman shadowboxing in centre ring. Looking lean and fit, he pivots, dips, pivots again, all the while keeping his hands flowing in fluid motion. While many prizefighters scowl their way through their workouts, Soliman wears the smile of a man who loves his work. He winks at me when he sees me watching.
Trainer Dave Hedgcock in leaning on the ring apron, keeping a sharp eye on Soliman and barking instructions. “Double the jab, pivot and throw the right hand. That’s it, that’s it. You’ve got thirty seconds. Go hard until the bell.” Soliman responds to every command with speed and precision.
After his warm up Soliman dons his gloves and headgear to begin his sparring with southpaws Anton Solopov and Jamie Pittman. As the action starts personal trainers who aren’t busy begin drifting over, watching in awe and admiration as Soliman juke, jives, dips and slips his way through six fast paced rounds.
It’s a little over three weeks until the biggest fight of Soliman’s life when he faces arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world in Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright, 49-3 (25). Long overlooked by the boxing establishment and fight fans alike due to his technically brilliant but largely uninspiring style, Wright established himself as one of the premier fighters in the game by twice defeating Oscar De La Hoya conqueror ‘Sugar’ Shane Mosley in 2004 to become the undisputed light middleweight champion of the world before moving up to middleweight earlier this year to dominate living legend in Felix ‘Tito’ Trinidad.
Soliman has no illusions about what he will be up against when he enters the ring at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut on Saturday night, but says that he is more concerned about instituting his own gameplan than what Wright will be doing.
“I’m going to be in there doing my stuff,” said Soliman, 31-7 (12). “I know that Winky is going to have that hometown advantage, but I’m not going to let that overawe me because I’ve had many fights like that before in many countries around the world, so this won’t be any different. Been there, done that, so there won’t be any shellshock.”
Fitness has long been the key to Soliman’s success and Hedgcock confirms that a relentless workrate is essential if Soliman wants to come away with the win on Saturday night.
“Winky has never been forced into making mistakes or fighting any other way than how he wants to fight,” explained Hedgcock.
“It’s not so much that we’re looking at Winky’s style, it’s that we’re looking at doing our own thing and creating angles and creating chinks in his armour. Regardless of what they say, they really haven’t sparred or fought anyone like Sam Soliman. We feel they’ll get a little bit frustrated and I think that Winky will find it’s a completely different fight to what he expects.”
With his tight defence and piercing jab it was always going to be difficult to find sparring partners who could accurately emulate Wright’s unique style – particularly as the St Petersburg native is a southpaw. But Hedgcock is confident that he has found the right blend in styles with Kostya Tszyu protégé Solopov, an aggressive welterweight with good technical skills, and Jamie Pittman, a rangy super middleweight who represented Australia at the Athens Olympics last year.
“Great sparring partners, the best you can get without a doubt,” said Hedgcock. “They both have contrasting styles: one is a stand up guy and the other one is a guy who wants to move around and use his range and jab, so Sam is getting the best of both worlds and he’s been able to mix it up by combining his sparring.
“Basically it’s just been Jamie and Anton, that’s it. It’s very hard to get quality southpaws and when we saw the way these two boys were sparring with Sammy we didn’t need to go anyone else. This was as good as we were going to get anywhere in the world.”
The complexion of the middleweight division is currently going through a stage of change. After a decade of dominance Bernard Hopkins has lost his stranglehold on the division after losing close back-to-back decisions to reigning 160-pound kingpin Jermain Taylor this year.
Soliman, who became the IBF number one contender by pitching a virtual shutout over Dutchman Raymond Joval in July 2004, appeared to be in the box seat to fight Taylor since his mandatory challenge was long overdue. But rather than force the IBF to strip Taylor for not facing him immediately after the first Hopkins fight, Soliman did the noble thing by agreeing to wait a little longer for his chance to challenge the undisputed champion. But instead of sitting on the sidelines Soliman’s team opted to take on a top rated contender to consolidate their position at the top of the rankings. With the often avoided Wright sitting pretty atop the WBC and WBA ratings he was the obvious choice for the fight.
Almost immediately after the Soliman vs. Wright fight was announced Taylor revealed that he was abdicating the IBF portion of his championship. And this is where things get messy. According to the IBF’s rules, if a fight is signed prior to a title becoming vacant it cannot be sanctioned for that title as both boxers are deemed ‘unavailable’. As a result the next two available contenders – in this case Kingsley Ikeke and Arthur Abraham, who are fighting on the same night as Soliman and Wright in Germany – are offered the opportunity to fight for the title.
“We’ve always taken on the best and we think Winky is the best in the world,” said Hedgcock. “Winky is the most in-form fighter in the world today. I think the winner of this fight will definitely be the next middleweight champion of the world.”
Despite his ordinary looking record on paper, the story of Soliman’s career is one of triumph over adversity. As a self-managed fighter for much of his early career, Soliman jumped divisions and racked up frequent flyer points as he took on all comers, epitomizing the ‘anyone, anywhere, anytime’ ethic.
In 2001 businessman Stuart Duncan took Soliman under his wing and along with Hedgcock the three of them began plotting a path towards the world title. Racking up a 19-0 record with 8 KOs since 2002, Soliman has systematically worked his was up the world rankings by maintaining a hectic fight schedule.
According to Hedgcock the key to victory against Wright is to disrupt his rhythm by keeping up a high workrate and using angles to diffuse his jab.
“We’re going to explore and make him make mistakes,” said Hedgcock. “Winky is a very competent fighter, very calculated in the way he does it, but so is Sam Soliman. I think it’s going to be the best fight we’ll have this year. Without doubt it’s going to be a slugfest. Both fighters throw a lot of punches, both fighters have got good moves, both fighters are fit and both fighters are capable of hurting each other. I just think that Sammy is going to take him into uncharted waters and take him to places he hasn’t been with other fighters.”
Both Hedgcock and Soliman appreciate the fact that Wright is currently rated amongst the best fighters in the world in any division, but rather than being apprehensive about the task at hand they are relishing the opportunity to prove that Soliman belongs amongst the very elite of the sport.
“We’ve taken the challenge up too,” said Hedgcock. “We could’ve got other fights but with Sam Soliman he always wants to fight the best. He’s an occasion fighter, he loves a big occasion. We’re going over there to fight in Winky Wright’s hometown on his promoter’s card and we hope we get a good fair showing there. If we do I think we’ll be bringing it home.”
For Soliman the opportunity to fight Wright is the realization of a childhood dream.
“I’ve been looking forward to it for eighteen years,” laughed Soliman. “So to say that I’m looking forward to it in three weeks time is an understatement really.
“It’s an honour and a privilege to be fighting one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. People have got to take into account why this is such a good fight to watch because we’re both fit fighters who will fight for twelve rounds. After winning eleven of the twelve rounds we’ll both come out for the twelfth to win it as if we’re behind on the scorecards. That’s the attitude that Winky’s got and it’s the attitude that I’ve got. I’m fighting the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world in Winky Wright and the hardest fighter in the middleweight division at the moment. I can’t wait.”