Street Smart Chicago

Ring Leaders: The unlikely odyssey of a boxer, his manager and the woman who promotes them

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Osumanu Adama and his trainer Joseph Owinongya at Joseph's Joliet Gym/Photo: Bill Hillmann

By Bill Hillmann

When middleweight boxer Osumanu Adama represented Ghana in the Sydney Olympics, he was overcome by the pressure of the event and lost his very first bout. Adama turned pro and became the International Boxing Organization African light-middleweight Champion. He then left Africa and fought in Europe before he made his way to Chicago. Here he fought Chicago’s unbeaten super-middleweight Donovan George in a bout televised on Showtime. In the best fight of the night, Adama lost the decision. He fell to 17-2, and was ranked sixty-eighth by the International Boxing Federation’s (IBF) World Ratings.

While in Chicago Adama met Joseph Awinongya, a Joliet-based retired pro boxer originally from Ghana. Awinongya became Adama’s new trainer. Hardnosed Awinongya trains few fighters because few fighters are willing to work as hard as he demands. Unlike most trainers, Awinongya does not operate on a round system, in which boxers take one-minute breaks in between three-minute rounds. Instead his fighters hit the bag, spar and punch-mitts for half-hour and hour-straight stints with no break.

When Adama first started training with Awinongya, the trainer wanted to see what the boxer was made of. He drove Adama from his gym in Joliet to Bolingbrook and dropped him off. Adama ran the twenty miles back to the gym and then started training. “I do it to break him down, but now after running that far he is still strong,” Awinongya says. So he came up with another challenge: He took Adama outside and made him push his mid-size van around a parking lot for a half-hour.

Osumanu Adama/Photo: Bill Hillmann

“It’s our secret training method” says the thirty-one-year-old Adama with a bashful smile.

“No one else will do it. Osumanu, he do it everyday,” Awinongya says with a laugh.

As Adama began training with Awinongya, Wasfi Tolaymat, owner of the Chicago Fight Club gym on Elston on the Northwest Side of the city, signed him to his growing stable of boxers under management. “I could see that he was a warrior, if he can fight this good against George,” Tolaymat says. “And he was very nice when we met him. I think maybe we can help this guy. Maybe we can help him be champion!”

Tolaymat is a shrewd businessman who emigrated from Jordan in 1978 with almost nothing. He started working at a liquor store, saving every dime until he could buy one himself, eventually owning four. During the OJ Simpson trial, he made a name for himself as “The Man with the Sign” and created an international memorabilia craze. Tolaymat bought all thirty-one items from the Chicago O’Hare Plaza Hotel room where Simpson supposedly gashed his hand on a wine glass, then put the items up for sale for $1 million during the trial.

Tolaymat is socially conscientious, too—he’s sent enormous caches of food to Afghanistan as well as the nearby impoverished Illinois town of Harvey. He has an impressive collection of thank-you letters from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Tolaymat says he voluntarily acquired information that helped put away several corrupt political figures, including an Illinois Circuit Court Judge, an Illinois Sheriff and a Chicago Alderman.

His wife Cynthia is now a boxing promoter. She is similarly inclined to entrepreneurial pursuits. She started her own driving school years ago. Cynthia, a Mexican-American, moved from Alabama to Chicago thirty-one years ago to be closer to her mother. That’s when she met Tolaymat. They knew right away they were made for each other and married shortly after. Pooling the funds from their various entrepreneurial pursuits, the couple started Sibley Supply, a restaurant-equipment business. Sibley Supply is now one of the largest used-restaurant-equipment companies in the nation.

Wasfi and Cynthia Tolaymat/Photo: Bill Hillmann

It wasn’t until Cynthia and Wasfi started a family that they turned their business acumen toward boxing. Of the Tolaymat’s five children, their three sons were interested in martial arts. Cynthia and Wasfi encouraged their kids, and then went farther than most parents would ever dream: They opened their own gym. The Northwest Side gym attracted boxing trainer “Fearless” Fernando Hernandez, as well as several top Chicago-based fighters. Wasfi decided to try his hand at managing boxers. Just as Wasfi was getting into the business, Adama came along.

But Wasfi grew frustrated with trying to get his fighters bouts in Chicago. He realized he needed a promotion company. It’s illegal to be both a boxing manager and a promoter, so Wasfi turned to his wife. As a suburban housewife and mother, she seemed like an unlikely candidate. “I was nervous,” Cynthia says. “There aren’t many women in the business.” But Cynthia stepped up to the task and founded Chicago Fight Club Promotions (CFC). CFC co-produced its first boxing event with 8Count Productions at the UIC Pavilion.

Cynthia matched Adama against Chicago’s Angel Hernandez for the USBA Intercontinental title. In an exciting bout, Adama’s resurgent energy led him to a unanimous victory.

Matchmaking isn’t easy, but it’s an invaluable skill for a boxing promoter. It’s hard work finding suitable opponents. It’s even harder work to make exciting fights. Cynthia is a born matchmaker with an eye for the numbers but also a respect for the individual boxer’s personality. “I always check their records and who they’ve fought. A guy can have several losses but if he lost to strong opponents he’s probably better than his record shows. I also check into their amateur background. A boxer can have one or two fights as a pro, but if he has a hundred amateur bouts and was an amateur champion he can probably handle a pro-fighter with six or seven fights,” says Cynthia. “I also ask my fighters if they want to take the fight. If they don’t like the match I don’t pressure them into it. We just find someone else. Sometimes fighters see something they don’t like that isn’t apparent on paper or video. You have to listen to your fighters.”

In March of 2011, Cynthia held her first solo-produced show at the Hanging Gardens Hall in River Grove, Illinois. When the card was set, there were five title belts on the line. A near-riot broke out at the end of one of the main events, a testament to the high energy of the big fight. Bestselling author and longtime boxing enthusiast Irvine Welsh attended the CFC event that night. “Cynthia’s events are exciting to the point of incendiary,” he says.

Adama won the USBA Title by a sensational one-punch knockout, instantly putting him into the top ten in the IBF World Ratings.

All of a sudden, CFC was garnering interest from big boxing TV programs, including ESPN and Showtime. “They said if I could continue to put on cards of this caliber that they’d want to sign an extended contract with me,” Cynthia says.

CFC had burst onto the scene in a big way, gathering attention for its raucous first event and the title fights Cynthia brought in. There’s plenty of rivalry and jealousy between boxing promoters in Chicago—take the years-long bitter rivalry between Dominic Pesoli and Bobby Hitz—and a new female promoter putting on exciting shows certainly ruffled some feathers. The state commission that regulates boxing was paying more attention than usual to Cynthia and her promotion company, and it wasn’t a good thing. In an unusual situation in the boxing world, it was another woman, Commissioner Nancy Illg, who dealt primarily with Cynthia and CFC. “I don’t know why, but in all my dealings with her it really seemed like the woman hated me,” Cynthia says.

As she headed into her second independent pro-card, the Illinois Boxing Commission cancelled Cynthia’s event for a minor infraction. CFC had turned in an insurance document two days late. Cynthia was set to fly in several out-of-state fighters and celebrity guests, including Hall of Fame boxer Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns. She had three titles on the line, and CFC had already spent more than $100,000 on the event.

Veteran Illinois referee John O’Brien believes the commission should have been more conciliatory, rather than immediately cancelling the event. “A new promoter like Cynthia is going to need to have their hand held to know what’s expected of them and to be notified in a timely fashion,” he says. “That’s what the commission gets paid for. The idea is not to work against a promoter. The idea is to develop the sport because those tax revenues boxing events produce are what pays the commission’s salary. You don’t discourage a new promoter, you assist a new promoter.”

John O'Brien/Photo: Bill Hillmann

The only way to get the fight to happen was to convince the governor to reinstate the bout. CFC had just two days, but a bit of determination and $15,000 in lawyer’s fees got their case before Governor Pat Quinn, who reinstated it. The commission still fined CFC $10,000, which O’Brien describes as a “ridiculous” fine. “You’re lucky to break even in this business especially in your first year,” he says. “All a $10,000 fine could do is kill a promoter.”

Nevertheless, Cynthia’s event turned out to be another wild success. She plowed forward, setting up her third card for October of last year at The Club in Burbank, Illinois. She matched up Sean Eklund, a journeyman boxer who’s the son of Dicky Eklund and the nephew of Micky Ward—the real-life characters from the Oscar-nominated film “The Fighter.” The two famous brothers attended—working Eklund’s corner.

Adama was matched up too, this time in an IBF Title Eliminator bout against former World Champion Roman Karmazin. This was Cynthia’s most impressive card to date.

Irvine Welsh, who was ringside for the bout, was impressed by the Ghanaian. “Adama is an interesting fighter, not just because he’s fearless and skillful, but he seems to have the ability to mix up his styles,” Welsh explains. “In some fights I’ve seen him apparently fight to his opponent’s strengths and come out on top. It seems a risky strategy but when it works—and it seems to with him—it demoralizes his opponents.”

Adama obliterated Karmazin as Ghanian immigrants looked on, singing and dancing in a chain through the stands. They joyfully chanted, “Ghana! Ghana! Ghana!” as Adama devastated his opponent. Karmazin’s corner threw in the towel and the room erupted into pandemonium.

When all was said and done Adama had shot from an obscure sixty-eighth ranking to the IBF’s number one contender in the world. All this happened in just three fights with CFC.

Cynthia put together a card for February 25th at the Cicero Stadium. The event would include professional and amateur bouts—what’s called a pro-am card. The card was set to outdo all her past events: She’d even matched up many-time heavyweight title contender and Chicagoan Fres Oquendo.

Once again, however, her bout was cancelled by the commission. This time, there was no way to get it re-instated. CFC was disappointed, and so were the young amateurs who were set to fight.

“It would have been a dream come true to fight on the same card as Fres Oquendo. He’s one of my heroes,” says sixteen-year-old Yosif Sal of Taft High School. “I guess I just have to keep working hard and maybe I’ll get another chance like that one day.”

The commission hasn’t given Cynthia a reason for the cancellation and Illg refused to comment as well. “They refused my request for a meeting and they told me they’ll talk with me in two months. I feel like my company is being held hostage,” she says.

Cynthia says there are rumors that another promoter—her competition—knows why her bout was cancelled, even though she hasn’t yet learned.  “Chicago boxing insiders who I can’t name have been coming up to tell me that there’s a promoter in Chicago who knows why my bout was cancelled,” she says. “They won’t tell me who it is, but I want to know why another promoter knows why my event was cancelled and I don’t?”

John O’Brien, Jeff Linenfelser and several others in Chicago boxing have filed numerous official complaints with the Illinois Inspector General against the Illinois Boxing Commission on the grounds of Official Misconduct and Gross Negligence.

Some of these alleged accounts of misconduct have put the CFC in harm’s way beyond even the cancellations. Cynthia’s October card was officiated by referees, judges and officials who were not currently licensed by the state because the Commission forgot to renew their licenses. If a fighter would have been seriously injured or killed that night—two things that happen often in boxing—Cynthia and all the officials would have been personally exposed to lawsuits. As result of these complaints,  second in command of the Commission Joel Campuzano has been put on administrative leave. O’Brien believes the head of the commission, Ron Puccillo, will step down this week due to new complaints filed on the Commission.

The Tolaymats are suing the state for damages caused by the commission. They are frustrated with the business of boxing, where allegations of organized crime’s involvement are rife. “They are crooks!” says Wasfi. But he’s not ready to quit yet. “This is my passion.” He and Cynthia are planning to start an open national amateur boxing tournament based in Chicago—a throwback to when the Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions was an open national tournament. Back then, Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis won the Golden Gloves and Chicago was still a boxing mecca.

Osumanu Adama and Joseph Awinongya/Photo: Bill Hillmann

As Cynthia waits to hear from the Illinois Commission, she’s not giving up on CFC. She’s headed out-of-state, to Lowell, Massachusetts with a little help from her new friends Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund. Allegedly, the Illinois Commission called Massachusetts boxing officials and gave a negative report on CFC. But the Massachusetts Commission is already frustrated with Cynthia for different reasons: Her April 7th event in Lowell has already sold out its 2,500 seats, and the Commission is demanding Cynthia book a larger venue for her future events. They’re going to have to turn people away at the door—and that’s just not fair to the fans.

Meanwhile, Osumanu Adama has been pushing that van around Joliet and running the twenty miles between Bolingbrook and his garage gym. He’s been sparring with multiple opponents during hour-long sessions. And his steely-eyed coach Awinongya unflinchingly believes that on March 7th, in Australia, Adama will win his first world title.

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