Unbeaten heavyweight returns to the ring this Sunday night for the first time since one of boxing's most bizarre scenes occurred when his last opponent walked out of the ring instead of facing the dangerous prospect from Nigeria.
Heavyweight Efe Ajagba is now best known for the bizarre actions of his most-recent “opponent,” Curtis Harper, who walked out of the ring at the opening bell and into boxing infamy on August 24 in Minneapolis.
Harper cited a dispute over money for his decision not to fight, which resulted in his disqualification. Many wonder whether fear of Ajagba played a role.
Ajagba (6-0, 5 KOs) will get another crack at a different opponent as he steps into the ring against Nick Jones (7-0, 5 KOs) this Sunday night on the undercard of PBC on FS1 (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT) at Citizens Bank Arena in Ontario, California.
Who could blame Harper if he was afraid? Ajagba is an imposing figure—6 feet, 5 inches (196 cm) and around 235 pounds (107 kilos) of lean, chiseled muscle—and had knocked out each of his five previous opponents, four in the first round.
Harper, a journeyman, knew that he very likely would’ve left the ring shortly after the opening bell anyway as just another notch on Ajagba’s belt. Instead, he might’ve done Ajagba a favor.
“I think it was very positive for Efe,” said Ronnie Shields, the Nigerian’s Houston-based trainer. “I’m getting calls from people I don’t even know, people who didn’t even know I was working with Efe. People are really excited about him now.”
Ajagba’s habit of stopping his opponents began at the earliest stage of his fighting career.
As the story goes, when he was a tall, but thin teenaged soccer player, a minor argument with a young woman escalated into a situation where Ajagba was face to face with her angry, mountain-of-a-man boyfriend.
Moments later, after a single punch, the boyfriend was lying unconscious at Ajagba’s feet with a deep gash over his left eye.
“I thought I killed him,” Ajagba said. “I was with two friends when that happened. They told me, ‘Man, you should try boxing.’ That was the start of everything.”
Ajagba loved soccer but decided by 2011 that he had a better chance of building a career in the ring, which led him to a local sports center in his hometown of Ughelli in central Nigeria. There he found a boxing coach willing to work with him.
The argument-ending knockout not withstanding the young wannabe had no idea how to throw a proper punch. But, with natural gifts, he caught on quickly. Three years after lacing up his first gloves he represented his country in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, and won a bronze medal in the superheavyweight division.
Ajagba and his fellow medalists were invited to the home of the Nigerian president as part of a celebration and given stipends as a result of their success, which in Ajagba’s case allowed him to focus 100 percent on the sport for the first time.
The bronze medalist had been working at a bakery while he trained, his meager earnings helping his struggling family to make ends meet in a challenging economic environment. His father, Ajagba said, was unable to work because of health problems.
That’s why the elder Ajagba, a former amateur boxer who gave up the sport to work, wasn’t thrilled when his son declared he wanted to give up his job and pursue his boxing dreams in earnest. Dad marched to the gym and told the coach in no uncertain terms: “No, it’s not possible.”
The impromptu meeting produced an agreement: Efe would train early in the morning and work afterward.
“That was the only way we would survive,” Efe said.
Those days are now in the past. Ajagba would go on to cap his successful amateur career by competing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where he was eliminated in the quarterfinals. Along the way he caught the attention of boxing manager Shelly Finkel, who ultimately signed the prospect to a professional contract.
Ajagba’s first pro fight was in July of last year.
“I saw some footage on him,” Finkel said. “I thought he was a really special heavyweight. He’s so calm under pressure. He’s big. And he’s a giant puncher, a really big puncher.”
Finkel led Ajagba to Shields, which led to Ajagba relocating to Houston about 14 months ago. The fighter couldn’t be happier. He said Shields has become “a father figure” and that he can’t wait to get to the gym each day. He also enjoys living in Texas, far from the hardships back home in Africa.
“I’m very happy,” said Ajagba, who shares in a nice apartment with a cousin. “I love it. This is what’s best for me, the best stepping stone a boxer can have. And (Shields) is the best coach, the best coach I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m learning a lot every day.”
Ajagba’s hard work and contentment has paid off so far, as only one of his six opponents has survived beyond the first round. One of them, Dell Long, lasted only 35 seconds in May. The power is obvious.
Finkel and Shields don’t want to rush anything, though. Ajagba is only 24 and still has a lot to learn, which the fighter acknowledges. They project that he could become a championship contender within two years, assuming things continue to go well.
And, of course, no one connected to Ajagba expects bumps in the road. He’s too talented, too determined.
“I Googled him and saw his Olympic fights,” Shields said. “I thought, ‘Man, this kid has all the tools it takes to win the heavyweight championship of the world. That got me really excited. … And, oh my god, he’s a hard worker. He doesn’t know when to stop. He wants to be a world champion. He wants to show his people what he’s capable of doing.
“He doesn’t want to go back to Nigeria without a championship belt.”
That’s Ajagba’s goal, a world title. And, yes, he is motivated in part by pride. There’s more to it than that, though.
Ajagba was uncomfortable talking about the fortune he stands to make if things go well. He knows that sudden riches have ruined more than one boxer. Some turn into miserable boors while others simply blow through their earnings and end up worse off than they started. Ajagba, his feet firmly on the ground, doesn’t want that to be his fate.
That said he does have a plan for when the big checks start coming in.
Ajagba knows well how discouraging life can be for young people in his home country. He wants to become a champion in part to demonstrate what’s possible - to serve as an example for others as his favorite fighter, Lennox Lewis, once did for him.
As part of that, he intends to open a boxing complex back home for at-risk youths. He also plans to move his entire family to the United States.
“When I become something, I will open a big boxing gym there to motivate young people to become all they want to be,” Ajagba said. “I know how things go in Nigeria; it’s not easy. That’s why I want them to hear my story. I want people to know where I started and where I am today.”
Indeed, Ajagba is shaping up to be a terrific fighter — but also a fine role model.
- Efe Ajagba