COMING TO AMERICA...
“Buy me something at the store,” the kid on the street commanded, jabbing his finger into his victim’s chest. “Or you could just give me your money.”
Every day on his way home, the local gangs in the streets of the Surulere district of Lagos would intimidate a teenage Lateef into purchasing things for them or to generously offer them some repayment-free loans. When he mustered enough courage to refuse their demands, he would succumb to their fists.
“If you didn’t give them your money, they beat you up,” said Kayode, shaking his head. “If you bought them things, it only made them want to keep coming back to you. That’s why I needed to learn how to fight.”
Sick of the daily poundings, Kayode ventured to the nearby National Stadium in 1998, where he asked the trainers to teach him how to defend himself. To their delight, the young novice was a quick study. Soon enough, he made an impression on his future coaches.
“I sparred a Nigerian amateur champion and knocked him down,” recounted Kayode. “The coaches were impressed. They invited me to train with the national team. A couple years later, they used me as a sparring partner for the heavyweights who were training for the 2004 Olympics.”
The metamorphosis from defenseless kid to knockout machine also spawned a new persona.
“Now that I knew how to fight, the gangs stopped bothering me,” Kayode nodded with a satisfied smile. “That’s how I got my nickname, because my power came from the streets.”
Then opportunity knocked for the newly christened “Power.” The top Nigerian amateur heavyweight, at the time, decided he didn’t want to box anymore in 2005, so the trainers offered his spot to Lateef. He accepted the assignment and won gold medals in Pan-African competitions in Ghana, Morocco, and Algeria.
As the rising 200-pound amateur began to develop a taste of traveling the world, Kayode soon would get more globetrotting experience than he bargained for. “I came to Chicago to qualify for the 2008 Olympics with two teammates. But because our flight was delayed, the tournament already started.”
When the plane landed in New York City, the three Nigerians took what little money they had, put their visas in their pockets, and put their faith in a friend of a friend who was stationed in the Big Apple. Like the millions who took the transatlantic trip to Ellis Island, Kayode and his friends decided to stay in America for the same reason why most people have traveled here over the centuries—to follow their dreams.
“The Nigerian Air Force wanted me to join them, but it wasn’t for me. Before he passed away, my father sold different types of metal, and my mother sold rice in bulk, so if I didn’t become a boxer, I’d be working in one of those businesses,” said Kayode. “But I knew I wanted to be a professional boxer. When I came to America, it was time to turn pro.”
Unfortunately for Lateef, he initially encountered some unsavory characters in New York who mistook his unfamiliarity with his new surroundings for weakness. “A Nigerian man told me he was a promoter. He had me come to New Jersey to train. He lied to me.”
It turned out this fellow countryman was nothing more than a con man who attempted to “sell his (Kayode’s) rights” to Lateef’s pro boxing career to another incognito “handler.” Kayode, upon discovering the truth, was incensed. “I was new and I didn’t know English that well back then, so they tried to take advantage of me.”
This incident was the beginning of a forgettable escapade that caused Kayode to travel up and down the east coast. After New York left Kayode with a bad taste in his mouth, he moved south to Atlanta with one of his teammates where he stayed in another acquaintance’s house with the help of a local pastor. Then, frustrated with his pro career at a standstill, he took a third excursion north to Baltimore to visit a cousin he never knew previously existed, which was followed by a return to Atlanta, necessitated by Kayode having to reassure his hosts there that he had not run away.
“I was ready to go home because nothing was going on,” remembered Kayode. “Then I got a call.”
One of Kayode’s two teammates had found his way to Texas. One day, while surfing the internet, he came across Nigerian trainer Young Dick Tiger (nephew of former middleweight champ Dick Tiger) in Los Angeles. He contacted Kayode’s other teammate, still staying in Atlanta, and the three made another fateful decision.
“The three of us [reunited] and traveled together to Los Angeles,” said Kayode. “Everything was good with Dick Tiger, but some things happened. One of my teammates had problems with his eye so [he] couldn’t continue fighting, and the other started a family, so he stopped boxing too.”
That left “Power” to fend for himself once more. But he wouldn’t be alone in his quest to jumpstart his professional boxing career for long.
GO WEST, YOUNG MAN…
“I was just minding my own business working out in Young Dick Tiger’s Gym,” said Steven Feder of Standing Eight Management. “Lateef was actually there that day to meet someone else who was in line to be his manager, but he was kind of flaky.”
Perhaps wary of his past fruitless experiences on the east coast, Kayode went in a different direction—the right one, it turned out.
“We talked about managing him, and he liked what he heard,” said Feder. “He was the first fighter I ever signed [to Standing Eight].”
Kayode’s new manager got to work right away, sending him to Wild Card to spar, incidentally, the first time his client met his future trainer, Freddie Roach. “We took him to the Wild Card Gym to spar, and he got some good work,” said Feder. “Freddie liked what he saw, so we kept coming back.”
The benefits from sparring in Hollywood were evident when Kayode scored two quick victories in his first two fights with the very capable Young Dick Tiger working the corner. By then, however, Feder felt a change was in order. “We decided to stay with Wild Card because after seeing his potential after sparring, I saw right away he had the talent, but he was raw as a pro. That’s why we felt going with Freddie was the best decision for Lateef.”
All eight subsequent victories with Roach have ended by knockout in three rounds or less, the last being a two-round destruction of David Whittom a month ago. While “Power” has made his nickname ring true, his trainer would like to see him show the other skills in his repertoire. “[Lateef] has good power in his right hand but I’d like him to use more movement when he fights,” opined Roach.
It is evident from Roach’s words that the Nigerian has only scratched the surface of his potential. Recent events in his career will allow him the chance to do so.
PIECE BY PIECE...
Team Kayode has begun to take shape over time; in addition to Feder as manager and Roach as trainer, he brought a promoter on board.
“[Lateef] signed with Gary Shaw,” declared Feder. “It’s a multi-year contract and we’re all really excited about it. [Gary] is giving us exactly what we want and we’re grateful that they see the potential in Lateef.”
The first bout under the GSP banner takes place this Saturday on the undercard of the Arthur Abraham-Andre Dirrell “Super Six” fight in Detroit, when Kayode takes on Chris Thomas, 17-9-2 (14).
“[Thomas] is a tough guy who’s fought a lot of fighters on his way up,” analyzed Feder. “We don’t take anyone lightly and he has over 100 rounds. We don’t come in looking for a knockout, but if it’s there, it’s there.”
Even more astounding is that all of Kayode’s wins have come at heavyweight. This Saturday marks his debut at the 200-pound limit. Assistant trainer Jose Benavidez Sr. chimed in on Kayode’s camp. “For this fight, we hope he continues to work the body. [Lateef] has been knocking out guys 20 or 30 pounds heavier than him, but we feel he can make cruiserweight easily and could be a world champ in that division.”
In retrospect, Lateef Kayode has come a long way from Lagos. The distinctive scars on his face are as much as a reminder of the ones he overcame on his way to Hollywood as they are indicative of his roots as a member of the Yoruba tribe. As he looks forward to the future, however, he can’t help but look back to his past with pride.
“I am Yoruba. [The cutting of my face is] a custom of our tribe. I miss my mother and brothers and sisters. I can’t wait to see them again someday. I still think of my father every day. Sometimes it’s sad because I don’t have nobody here. But I’m fighting for them. I’m fighting to follow my dream of being a world champion.”
Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org