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The Annunciation of Efe Ajagba, an Emerging Shark in the Heavyweight Pool

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  • The Annunciation of Efe Ajagba, an Emerging Shark in the Heavyweight Pool

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    By Kelsey McCarson

    “This guy is definitely going to be heavyweight champion of the world.”

    That’s a bold proclamation about a 24-year-old heavyweight prospect named Efe Ajagba, one that borders on the type of emotional heraldry more often found adorning the lips of promoters and managers and publicists rather than coming from a man who had previously worked in the corners for legendary heavyweight champions like Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson.

    But coming from the mouth Ajagba’s trainer, Ronnie Shields, a man who's never uttered anything close to that seemingly unearned lofty praise about any of the other top prospects, world champions or Hall of Fame fighters I’ve interviewed him about over the last ten years, the declaration beckons forth some very serious contemplation.

    It’s not the first time one of Ajagba’s evangelical emissaries had appeared before me. Two years prior, before anyone had ever really seen or even heard of this great and terrible plague that now descends upon our suddenly quite interesting heavyweight landscape, I enjoyed a casual conversation with a local strength and conditioning guru, Danny Arnold, in which Arnold immediately forewent our traditional small talk pleasantries in order to announce his amazement about a new fighter in town.

    “Come with me,” Arnold said with his eyes uncharacteristically bulging out his head as if he’d just witnessed the second coming. “I want to show you something.”

    There they were. Two strong-looking fellows, one standing over the other the way a marble statue of a Greek God must have looked while overshadowing and dwarfing its maker.

    “The tall one: that’s Efe Ajagba. He’s the one.”

    I honestly don’t remember who the other fighter was. I remember he was talking up to Ajagba with a gleam in his eye the way a pauper might address a kindly prince, but for some reason or another, Ajagba’s name just always stuck in mind.

    He just seemed different, and judging by what has transpired over the last two years, which includes Shields comparing the relatively unknown Ajagba to George Foreman as well as one of the oddest scenes in boxing history, where one of Ajagba’s opponents, Curtis Harper, walked out of the ring in apparent horror at the mere sight of him, maybe it’s because I was seeing something I’d never seen before and might never see again.

    Is he a superhero?

    “He got in a fight on the soccer field one day and somebody suggested to him he should start boxing, so he did,” said Shields the way one comic book reader might inform another about a new title character’s origin story. “And in his first year, he went all the way to the 2016 Olympics. How crazy is that?”

    Speaking by phone earlier this week, Arnold seemed just as impressed with Ajagba as he was that first day we talked about him, even after observing the countless number of workouts Ajagba’s completed since 2017 at Arnold’s training facility, Plex, in Houston.

    “By far, he’s much more athletic than all other boxers that have come through here,” said Arnold. “In comparison to a professional football player, I’m telling you, he’s right there. He has the athletic ability of a defensive end.”

    Arnold went so far as to compare Ajagba to the All-Pro defensive end for the Houston Texans, Jadeveon Clowney, a specimen of humanity whose 2014 NFL combine results caused SBNation’s Jeff Gray to write Clowney was “bigger and stronger than just about everyone [in the world], and... much faster than all of us, too.”

    “Right now, probably the best athlete I have out here is Clowney who is built very similarly to Efe,” said Arnold. “They’re very similar to each other. I would say there is a good comparison between the two in terms of athleticism.”

    But it isn’t just that.

    While Ajagba is indeed a physical marvel, perhaps a true testament to what it would be like to have a god walking among us mere mortals, a 6-foot 6, 240-pound powerhouse, with NFL-level athleticism to go along with an 88-inch reach, he’s also a hardworking and passionate learner eager to hone his craft.

    “He’s so into boxing,” said Shields. “He does everything I ask him to do. He’s just a great guy. He trains hard, and he wants to learn the sport.”

    Despite having fought less than 12 full rounds over the course of eight professional fights, Ajagba has already displayed the types of straight punches, swift foot movement and dedication to nuance that only the most elite prizefighters are capable of producing.

    That doesn’t mean he’s ready to compete for a world championship right now. Ajagba is still growing and learning his trade. He doesn’t possess fluid fighting movements, which is the hallmark of veteran professionals, and it’s not really known yet how well this African Adonis can take a punch.

    But with Hall of Fame manager Shelly Finkel and old-school veteran trainer Shields guiding his path toward stardom, Ajagba appears to be steadily striding on predestined steps toward heavyweight supremacy.

    “You have to remember something,” said Shields. “This guy is only 24 years old. We’re not in a rush to just go ahead and get him rated as a top contender right now. He’s still learning on the job.”

    Ajagba’s next day at work is to annihilate 46-year-old veteran gatekeeper Amir Mansour, his opponent this coming Saturday at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California. While the southpaw slugger will represent the most experienced competitor to date to have answered The Ajagba Challenge (assuming, of course, he doesn’t leave the ring before a single punch is thrown), Shields indicated he’s hoping Mansour can help his young heavyweight prospect by facilitating more than just one or two rounds.

    “That’s the only reason we’re fighting Mansour,” said Shields. “We figure we’ll get a few rounds out of him. But I know once Efe hits him with a clean shot, it's going to be over.”

    Shields said the fight could go one of two ways. Either Mansour moves around the ring and chooses survival over trying to win the fight, or he comes forward and tries to push Ajagba backward. The latter would be far more appealing to anyone other than Mansour’s nuclear family, but Shields said that either way his fighter was going to keep moving forward.

    In that way, perhaps Saturday night’s fight serves as a metaphor to the larger heavyweight picture in general. Regardless of any other heavyweight’s choice in the matter, the sobering reality of the situation at hand is that there’s a new heavyweight boogeyman in boxing, a nightmare from Nigeria nicknamed “The One and Only”.

    Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel