Youngest boxer in Olympics went from Papua New Guinea fishing village to world's grandest stage

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Thadius Katua (left) (Credit: Loop)
Thadius Katua (Loop)

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RIO DE JANEIRO – Sometimes, it seems like the Olympics are all about, as Donald Trump would say, the deal: Advertising deals, marketing deals, sponsorship deals, broadcast deals.

A cynic would say that the Olympics are essentially a license to print money disguised as a sporting event.

The Olympic charter haughtily says, “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

Perhaps, but those noble ideals always seems to lose out on how much the IOC can make off a McDonald’s sponsorship.

Occasionally, however, the athletes themselves remind us what the Games are supposed to be about.

Two boxers, Lorenzo Sotomayor of Azerbaijan and Thadius Katua of Papua New Guinea, do exactly that.

Katua comes from a small village on the island of Buka in Papua New Guinea where the idea of mass transit is two canoes rowing side by side to the nearest island.

Katua, 18, is the youngest boxer in these Olympic Games and among the most unlikely. He didn’t even box for the first time until 2012. His gloves, he said, were older than he was, torn and worn down. His punching bag was filled with sawdust. The ring was a dirt floor.

“There’s no gym in a village like that,” Papua New Guinea coach Joe Aufa said. “[There is] no boxing ring, either. It’s very traditional. They just put a rope on the ground and that’s your ring.”

Katua has proven extraordinarily tough. On his arms are scars from the coming-of-age ritual all young men in his area must go through.

It looks painful and no doubt was at the time, but Katua has no issue with it.

“It’s a tradition to make you feel like you become a man,” he said. “They make the marks with a coconut stick by tapping the skin until it bleeds so it leaves a tattoo.”

His family of fishermen remains impoverished, though he cheerfully says he’s not lacking.

“We do not have money, but everything is available if you need it: Cocoa, coconuts, bananas, fish,” he said.

He’s not expected to medal in a strong division, but will gain much from the experience.

Coach Allan Nicolson of Australia raved about Katua’s potential and said he’s a future medalist.

“He’s got something special in my opinion,” Nicolson said. “Speed, power, movement. If he can put it all together on the day, he can beat anyone in the world. He was the first boxer from Papua New Guinea to win a Commonwealth Youth gold, which was a big deal. There were fighters from England, Ireland and Scotland, all experienced boxing nations, [competing].”

Sotomayor is a light welterweight who plans to do the ‘Ali Shuffle’ in the ring as a tribute to Muhammad Ali, the late former heavyweight champion whom he says he idolizes.

[Related: Inspired by Muhammad Ali, Claressa Shields chasing history at Olympics]

Sotomayor was born in Cuba and learned the game under its highly successful system.

“The first work in a Cuban gym is for the feet,” he said. “As soon as you start training, that’s what you do. This is their school of boxing. I guess it’s partly because Cuba is the country for tropical music. When you box, you make music with your feet.

“The [Ali] shuffle is all about creating confusion and deceiving the opponent. You’re moving your foot in one direction but looking in another direction. Your opponent is trying to work out where you’re going and then you punch when he doesn’t expect it.”

However, as he became a father and had to deal with the reality of becoming a provider, Sotomayor became disillusioned with Cuba’s political system and said he had given up on boxing in an effort to eke out a living.

He met a woman from Azerbaijan and moved there to live with her. He was working out one day when the national team coach saw him and invited him to join the team.

He now represents his new country in the light welterweight division.

Sotomayor said he never lost his love for the sport and quickly jumped on the chance to compete again. He said he’s already received offers to turn pro.

He’s done well for Azerbaijan, winning the gold at the European championships and finishing fifth in the World Championships.

Life is much easier and peaceful than when he was in Cuba, when he had to work as a street trader in an effort to scratch out a living.

“I was not finished because I was a bad boxer, I was finished because I had to provide for my babies,” he said. “I had no time to train. Every day, I went to the street to sell things, shoes, dresses, anything. [My motto was], ‘You need. I get.’ I earned little money but I got by.

“In Azerbaijan, it is a good life. Cuba has many problems. Salaries are low. In Cuba, you can have the best intellect, even as a doctor, and you earn just 25 dollars a month.”