Steve Bunce explores the mysterious life and death of Ali Raymi
“ALI RAYMI was real” is something I
would like to spray on the wall of the grand arch leading to the magical souk
in Sana’a, the beautiful bombed city in the very heart of Yemen.
This is a true story of an
extraordinary man, a man with gifts, charm, a sense of history and, thankfully,
a sense of humour. It’s comic, it’s stupid and then, just when you think it is
a farce, the darkest of deadly curtains falls on our hero. Here we go.
Raymi was 30 when he started boxing.
He won the Yemeni amateur title repeatedly and claimed a record of 117 wins,
all by knockout and just two defeats as an amateur. He also, so he insisted,
fought bare-knuckle, arranged parties with booze for international visitors and
was in and out of prison. I met duckers and divers like him when I was in
Sana’a with Naseem Hamed in the Nineties. They were men that changed your
dollars for a brown paper bag of local currency, the men that could get you
anything you wanted on the streets of the old city. Men that took you into the
striking mountains to fire guns at goats at dusk.
Raymi was also a colonel in the
Yemeni army, a scarred veteran of the battles of Radda, Lawdar and Zinjibar.
All three were bloody, indiscriminate conflicts between the Yemeni forces and
Al-Qaeda. He was also present at the Abyan Offensive in 2012 and Operation Blow
to the Head in 2010, which was an early battle in the lethal unrest in Yemen.
Raymi’s fighting credentials are impeccable, the war still rages.
And then in 2011 he turned
professional and this is where the mayhem starts. Raymi, you see, won his first
21 fights by stoppage or knockout and all 21 fights finished in the opening
round. Raymi holds the record for consecutive first-round wins, two in front of
Tyrone Brunson, three more than Edwin Valero and six in front of Edgar
Berlanga. Sure, it’s a crazy record, compiled against drifters, forgotten men
and truly clueless men in funny fights in an empty gym. There are officials at
ringside, a referee in the ring, a bell and a lot of madcap fighting. It’s
Rocky meets the Brendan Ingle school of body sparring, with a bit of Charlie
Chaplin thrown in. However, it is still a record.
He was taught his body-punching “war
ideology” by Captain Nasr Al Code, a coach in the Mansoura district of Aden.
Sadly, Captain Nasr was thrown out of Yemen Amateur Boxing because of his
eccentricities and his love of booze (I note that this news was not covered by BN
Amateur editor John Dennen on these pages). Raymi then worked with Iraqi
maestro, Tasha Bidani, polishing his style, adding a jab – a punch I have so
far not seen him come even close to throwing.
His wins led to fame. He was ranked
by the big four, he started to issue challenges. He used social media, he threatened
the champions at flyweight, light-flyweight and the occasional Iraqi
light-heavyweight. He was hilarious, it has to be said, and the earnest
reaction of many in the boxing press only make Raymi’s comments funnier.
“Will Roman Gonzalez go down as a legendary warrior?” Raymi asked in 2013. “Or will he play it safe and fade into absolute obscurity?” Raymi was not finished and added: “Before he [Gonzalez] becomes anything grandiose he has to step into the depths of my unforgiving ocean.” Raymi’s ocean was a place where “many mighty men meet their fates.” Raymi finished 2013 with 20 wins, obviously all in the first round. He was ranked by four of the five recognised sanctioning bodies. A bonus of beating Gonzalez, according to Raymi, was the amount of “potential Nicaraguan mistresses” that would be available to him. I want to swim in Raymi’s unforgiving ocean.
By 2014 Raymi was talking to
everybody, giving interviews to a variety of outlets. He talked of conspiracies
inside Yemen to end his career, he talked of men he crushed with his fists of
uranium and the punches he took on his chin of titanium. He talked of the
trance that took control of his body when he put the gloves on. “I don’t feel
or see anybody.” In all fairness, that would explain a lot of his wild misses.
He was ranked by the WBO, WBC, and WBA. The Fists of Uranium was knocking on
the door. He finished 2014 with 24 wins, all by stoppage. It was a critical
time for Raymi – he was 40 years of age, his record was attracting attention
and he needed to prove something, fight somebody. There was also a war fast
“Men can avoid destruction by giving
up their titles,” insisted Raymi. “I train for eternal warfare.” It was at
about this time that he released the deathless, but glorious: “If beating me
was possible, I would have died long ago.” That little comment takes Ali Raymi
firmly into the land of Chuck Norris. There was also the wonderful: “I will
fight till the last moment of my biological existence.” Raymi was building his
own fighting empire in the ancient city of Sana’a, a place of beauty and mystery.
In late 2013 he warned his detractors to prepare carefully when they come for
him: “Your Lions I declaw. Your Serpents I defang. Your Greats I belittle.” OK,
hands up if you love this guy.
His last fight was in March 2015,
just six weeks before he was killed. It was in the usual gym of echoes, a place
of empty seats and a makeshift ring. He entered under armed guard, a
Kalashnikov salute and the soldiers had shirts with TGE across the chest; Floyd
Mayweather is the TBE, but Raymi is The Greatest Ever. The fight lasted just 46
seconds of the first, his International Boxing Institute minimum weight title
was not on the line. His opponent was unbeaten in seven, a Somalian. It was the
last fight before his duties as a colonel in the conflict took over. There was
a civil war to fight, a human disaster was about to begin.
And then this fairy tale of craziness
has a bloody and violent end. They never sent their lions, serpents or greats
for Raymi in death and final defeat. They simply sent something like a
Brimstone missile or perhaps a Paveway bomb. In May 2015 there was a deadly air
strike on the Al-Nahdeen district of Sana’a. It was a catastrophic strike and
Raymi was killed. There is some dispute about his remains and some of his
faithful believe he is still alive. Just to be safe, the WBA dropped him from
six to eleven in their rankings when news of his death was announced. At the
time of the bombing he was 41, unbeaten in 25 fights, all stoppages and ranked
at eight by the WBO. There is, sadly, no footage of Ali Raymi’s funeral.
However, Ali Raymi was real.