Part 1- Love and Legacy: Worth Having; Worth Remembering

There was boxing all over the world this weekend. Significant bouts in and around the so-called classic divisions – middleweight & heavyweight – made famous by such mainstays in the discussion of athletic eternity, as Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhummad Ali, respectively.

Of the significant matchups, spanning four countries, across two continents, it was the two rematches of controversial original confrontations around middleweight that held the most interest for your excitable correspondent.

Felix Sturm vs Sam Soliman II, in Germany, held significant local interest here in Australia, especially in Sam’s hometown of Melbourne. This city has adopted many pugilistic sons over the years, because before Anthony Mundine and Danny Green shifted the focus north and west, Melbourne’s great traditional championship lineage and justifiable commercial renown, made staging major boxing events here both objectively desirable and financially lucrative.

From Lionel Rose to Lester Ellis and Barry Michael, Melbourne produced both fistic champions and perennial crowd magnets – terms coddled contemporary lamplighters would consider mutually exclusive, inside the cocoon of network contracts and the marginalising cash register of pay-per-view sales – who were comfortably world-class and popular enough at home to bring the world of boxing to Melbourne’s doorstep.

Of course other Australian imports and successively, international imports, recognised the lucre to be mined here which led both Jeff Fenech and Kostya Tszyu to stage major fights in venues traditionally used for AFL matches, showcasing our city’s pride and insatiable hunger for worthy sporting contests.

It’s been more than eleven years since Tszyu beat American Jesse James Leija at Docklands, with over 30,000 there to pay homage. From that day to this, Melbourne’s ‘fistianic’ connections have been usurped, eroded and marginalised – quite understandably – by the emergence of new markets to service the redefined status quo.

Sam Soliman is our last tenuous connection to the glory years. I say tenuous because while his lineage is undisputed and his appeal within the thinning margins of what contemporary sport boxing has slid to, is undeniable, Sam Soliman is far from a household name to the general public.

He doesn’t ‘love youse all’ any less than Fenech did, but his stage has often been a backyard game compared to the Boxing Day Tests that Fenech’s repeat Melbourne performances, in his prime years, represented.

Worse still, Soliman’s first ‘winning’ effort against Sturm was voided, after he tested positive as a result of the strict anti-doping regime his own team insisted on, prior to the fight in February last year.

I will admit to a bias on my part before saying what needs to be said next. I love Sam Soliman for who he has been – as a person of integrity and as a representative of the best example combat sports can provide in their competitors – and I have followed his career since he was ‘The Pony Boy’ and fought his way up the ranks on kickboxing undercards of established legends Stan ‘The Man’ Longanidis and Tosca Petridis. I’ve seen him endure the heartbreak of injury, incurring losses in fights he was dominating.

I’ve seen him grit his teeth, fighting through the enormous pain of abuse his already injured legs endured, just so he could carry the Australian team on his back in a ‘Kickboxing Nations’ challenge against Japan. This, long after he had been forced to ‘leave’ the sport and switch to boxing only, in order to preserve a career racked with leg injury after injury.

He came back to help a short-handed team, in order to preserve the promoters’ alliance with the powerful and lucrative Japanese television market. And after a promising start Soliman only had his courage and intestinal fortitude to get him to the end of the torture that being in with a seasoned opponent, with all the kickboxing weapons available, represented.

This is the Sam Soliman I have always known. Diligent. Loyal. Courageous. Determined. In every respect an exemplar and a champion for combat sports and for Melbourne.

Since his first fight with Sturm though? Unfortunately, rather less so. Whether that was circumstances, situations beyond control or something less equivocal, thus more regrettable, I don’t know. More unfortunately, I do know this. Boxing is a sport that is governed poorly, with both the desired rule and process uniformity and the integrity of athleticism in excelsis should demand, fractured by the very nature of its promotion.

As a result, when Soliman and his team demanded stringent drug-testing protocols from the German Federation overseeing the fight, I applauded their honest determination. I knew and expected that once overtly employed, such protocols would indeed be stringent, rigorous, state-of-the-art and ultimately comprehensive.

Although the nature of pre-fight medicals is already rigorous, with respect to infectious diseases and participants’ physical fitness to compete (especially at the most elite levels), there has always been a disturbing uniformity of loophole abuse, in order to preserve a promotion where there is even a minute possibility to proceed.

If a combatant’s pre-fight tests and scans come up clean, then any other number of injuries and ailments can be glossed over or hidden as ‘part of the price of admission’, to allow the promotion to proceed. Since time immemorial, combatants all over the world have been allowed loopholes the size of freeway tunnels to compete, once a certain level of scrutiny has been ‘observed’. As I noted above, Soliman himself has been a specific example of courage and determination overriding prospective health and safety.

Post-fight reports are replete with stories of fighters entering a contest handicapped in some way or other, being lauded for their ‘conscious’ decision to compete with ‘one hand’, ‘one leg’, ‘one arm’, ‘a bad back’, ‘a bum knee’ and so on, especially when they overcome any of the above to win.

However, those loopholes have ‘let the wrong ones in’ as well. Established, officially sanctioned screening for the lazily misnomer-ed PED’s, in boxing, is insufficiently ad-hoc at best. It has not institutionally evolved with ‘the times’. As a rule post-event urine tests are the only norm, doing nothing to preserve the integrity of a contest before it proceeds. Nor are the tests used consistently of the latest available technology, thus often rendering the hoped-for ALL-CLEAR a virtual fait-accompli.

Given that Soliman’s camp made so much noise prior to the first fight, the irony of the well renowned German reputation for exemplary thoroughness in excelsis being displayed ‘en extremis‘, to their detriment, was rich indeed.

As a result of the most advanced screening techniques available actually being employed, Soliman’s ‘A’ sample was found to contain the banned stimulant oxilofrine. What followed was weeks of dudgeon, doubletalk, backpedalling and irrelevant grandstanding that would have been the stuff of contemporary politicians’ wet dreams.

Despite the ‘B’ sample being tested in “an IBF approved laboratory” and coming up ‘clean’, Sam Soliman’s nine-month suspension was upheld, the result of the fight was changed to a ‘No-Contest’ and Felix Sturm eventually challenged Darren Barker for the Title. He won and Soliman took the long way back to a rematch by cementing his position as No.1 contender after having served his suspension.

In a clever display of tactical acuity and supreme fitness Sam Soliman finally became a Middleweight Champion of the World, this past weekend. The lack of debate about ‘testing’ was notable for its comparative absence. One hopes such a heartening result will not be tainted by that.

Sam Soliman’s integrity of self, competitive history and exemplary courage & determination deserve to be recognised, in and of themselves. And for adding rich strands of luster to Melbourne’s recently fraying connection to its fistianic legacy.


  1. E.regnans says

    G’day Gregor,
    Compelling story.
    So many shades to boxing (and to the background goings-on).
    Yet the physical brutality remains undiminished. Ouch.

  2. Gregor Lewis says

    Thanks mate.
    Boxing could be a particularly brutal Sesame Street example.

    ie: Mondays; brought to you by the letter ‘B’.
    … All adjectives befitting the most accessibly democratic of sports on the surface, but hiding the insidious undercurrents tugging threateningly, at the tenuous strands many participants retain to honesty & integrity, when that thin film of ‘chivalry’ is peeled back, to reveal the churning morass that lurks beneath.

    Thankfully, for fans like me there are exceptions. For the most part Sam Soliman has been such an exemplar. I hope to introduce you to another – Carl Froch.

    Stay tuned.


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