Commentary

Through boxing, Ouma escaped nightmarish childhood

From his days as a child soldier in Uganda to his in-ring exploits and rise to a championship, Kassim Ouma is the epitome of a fighter -- as well as the American dream. Tessitore

Updated: March 30, 2008, 4:08 PM ET
By Joe Tessitore | ESPN.com

Jermain Taylor and Kassim OumaWesley Hitt/Getty ImagesNothing in the ring can compare to the challenges that Ouma faced as a child in Uganda.
Seemingly every night, ESPN programming is filled with world-class athletes who emerged from challenging backgrounds. Many have similar stories. Socioeconomic hurdles -- including hardships, limits or tragedy -- are the norm.

Now another world-class athlete who is overcoming adversity will have his story told.

This story, however, is far from that norm. This story starts in a living hell and may never escape from it. It's been told before, but now a much brighter spotlight is shining on it in the Tribeca ESPN Sports Film Festival -- and with new revelations.

Of all those athletes on our air this week who carry the tag of finding a better life through sports, only one of them was forced to repeatedly murder as a child. Only one of them escaped that life which resulted in the vengeful, brutal killing of his father. Only one had cameras follow him as he returned to that horrific place and allowed us to see his self-medicating remedy. Only boxing star Kassim Ouma knows the American dream from a perspective few, if any, have ever seen.

Ouma's story has been told numerous times through print and television. Now, it's about to be uncovered with new twists in a long-form film. It makes for interesting crossroads in Ouma's life.

Ouma will be the focus of this week's "Friday Night Fights" main event against Cornelius Bundrage (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET). Then, on April 25, the documentary "Kassim the Dream" premieres at the Tribeca ESPN Sports Film Festival.

"[Ouma] goes into detail about killing people and how he felt about killing people," said director/producer Kief Davidson. "I spent two years with him and had to gain his trust for him to reveal things slowly."

As a 6-year-old in Uganda, Ouma was abducted from his school and trained to kill by a savage upstart military. He experienced inhumane abuse and crossed lines he can never cross back from. Through boxing, he escaped to America to find freedom, success and attempts at healing. He became a world titlist and fought pay-per-view star Jermain Taylor for the middleweight crown.

Davidson's film delivers much more than just a recap of an African child soldier. He brings this story where no one else was able to go -- back to where it began.

[+] EnlargeKassim Ouma
Mulholland/FightWireImages.comIn winning a world title and competing with the very boxing fighters of his weight class, Ouma has lived the American dream.
"The idea of him going back to the army base he had come from was daunting. Kassim was visibly scared. He believed they would arrest him and try him for desertion," Davidson said.

With the producer pressuring the national government, Ouma was allowed back into Uganda. Two cameras on him at all times captured his triumphant return. Countrymen crowded the airport and rushed the streets to greet Ouma. Young boys reached high towards the sunroof of his motorcade to touch his world title belt.

The heroic welcome would be replaced by harsh realities. Those same cameras would film him reuniting with his family and visiting his father's grave. The whole time, Ouma was thinking somebody might kill him, perhaps a relative of a life he ended or perhaps a young boy-turned-angry man who remembers how Ouma once ruined lives.

"He needed to deal with some of the demons he was battling for so long," Davidson noted. "It will still be a lifetime of him trying to figure out his past."

Understandably so.

We also get a glimpse of just how Ouma deals with figuring out that past. He smokes -- and not Marlboros. The trailer for the movie will show you enough. His need to heal has been a lifelong battle for Ouma. The drug and alcohol use is just one of the sneak peeks Davidson gives us into his thorny life.

"There's ways he copes with his past," Davidson said. "He has an attitude of, 'This is who I am, make your own judgments.'"

As a fighter, Ouma is skilled. As a human, he is flawed. Flaws brought about from deep fractures in a child's psyche and spirit.

"He appears to have attained the American dream, but the American dream to Kassim can be very destructive," Davidson said.

Ouma has fought on ESPN through much of his career. For fight fans, he is a well-known, volume-punching, elite-level junior middleweight. He has always come across as a likable fellow.

He is always smiling, forever optimistic, yet sad in a way. It's been said all fighters are sad. Ouma's sorrow, portrayed through Davidson's cinematography, somehow seems deeper and penetrates further into our sensitivities than others.

"Kassim is a complex character. There are many sides to him," Davidson thoughtfully explained. "People may not like him because he has killed. The challenge was how he would come across. Kassim has a huge heart -- he can be self-destructive, for sure, but at the end of the day he has a huge heart. He isn't perfect; he's flawed like we all are. I don't think any of us could have walked in his shoes."

Those shoes have walked through hell. No one should ever have to face what he faced, especially not as a 6-year-old child. Now, thanks to Davidson's recent years of hard work and Ouma's cooperation, we will soon be able to experience his story in a new way.

The trailer for the movie can be found at www.kassimthedream.com.

ESPN broadcaster Joe Tessitore is on the advisory committee for the Tribeca ESPN Sports Film Festival.

Joe Tessitore has been the blow-by-blow announcer for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" and "Wednesday Night Fights" since 2002 and contributes a weekly boxing column to ESPN.com.