Ten days away from what he calls the most important fight of his career, Richard Commey is lounging in his Long Island hotel suite one evening, when he is suddenly struck by a sense of the absurd. Or is it gratitude? Fortuity? Of the generation of countless Ghanaian males who grew up flogging weather-beaten heavybags in impoverished but boxing-rich Accra, dreaming of becoming the next Azumah Nelson, it was Commey, somehow, whose aspirations took him the furthest. This fact moves Commey; and for a moment, he is swept up by the contingent nature of his accomplishments.
“I can always end up being nowhere from where I am right now; I know that,” Commey mused. “I know a lot of fighters that come from Ghana; some have become legends . . . but there are a lot more who haven’t. I mean, it’s hard to get to here, where I am. I’m always grateful and always honored.”
Here is in New York City, where, on December 14 at Madison Square Garden, Commey will make the second defense of his piece of the lightweight crown against the young and cocksure Teofimo Lopez. Even in an age of burgeoning alphabet soup titles, this seems like a noteworthy feat for someone whose memory of toiling on the sandlots of Bukom is still fresh. And yet as he recounts the catalog of events that had to go right from him to reach this point, Commey is convinced that his career has been more than just the work of mere chance.
“I feel destined to be here,” he said.
Of course, nothing has ever been easy for Commey, thirty-two, so it feels like a matter of course that he is the de facto B-side in this matchup. Top Rank, who is staging Saturday’s card, has been priming the twenty-two-year-old Lopez as one of their next generation of elite fighters. Commey’s promoter is Lou DiBella, who lacks Top Rank’s vast resources, namely its exclusive output deal with ESPN. The winner gets the right to face lightweight kingpin Vasiliy Lomachenko, holder of two of the division’s four major belts. Naturally, the publicity has favored the Honduran-American. None of this, though, bothers the unconcerned Commey.
“I’m still the champion,” Commey said, chuckling. “Whatever they do, whatever they say, I’m just going to retain my belt. Boxing is not a joking matter. You don’t play boxing. For me, I’m just quiet. I don’t care what he says or what he does. At the end of the day, we’re going to meet in the ring. I’m just trying to be the better boxer on that night. Everyone will see.”
Beside him, his manager, the Ghanaian Brit Michael Amoo-Bediako, chimes in with a more experienced if unsavory take on boxing’s caste system.
“Teofimo, he’s fighting Richard in his fifteenth fight,” Amoo-Bediako said. “I was still paying for opponents for Richard to fight in his fifteenth fight.”
They met in Bukom, in August 2010, when Commey had only a handful of amateur fights to his name. Which is why while Commey always thanks God for giving him “the mindset” of a dedicated prizefighter, he never forgets to credit his manager, who “gave me this work,” without which a fighter is bound to flounder in obscurity.
“My vision has been the same since the first day I saw Richard,” Amoo-Bediako said. “ I saw a potential world champion. That thought has never wavered from me. It has always been one hundred percent a belief of mine to make Richard into a world champion because he had everything, every single thing to be a world champion, apart from . . .”
Amoo-Bediako’s voice trailed off. Apart from?
“Well,” Amoo-Bediako continued, “maybe other fighters get privileges depending on which part of the world they’re in, but it’s very hard for an African fighter, a Ghanaian fighter to be on the A-side.”
Not that Commey was complaining. Drawing the short end of the stick, after all, was a fact of life for Commey. After a string of fights in Ghana, Commey began building his career in the UK. He signed with Sauerland, one of the most prominent European promoters. In 2014, Commey defeated Gary Buckland to win the Commonwealth title and, at that point, it seemed as though doors were beginning to open. Around the same time, Amoo-Bediako got a call from the late Michael King, the Santa Monica-based television mogul who was looking to start getting into the boxing promotion business. King liked what he saw in Commey and asked him to join his stable. “That’s when I thought Richard’s career was going to take off, with Michael King in the States, Sauerland in Europe,” Amoo-Bediako said.
Instead, King passed away a year later. “That was very, very tragic,” Amoo-Bediako noted. “He was great for us.” That left Commey entirely in the hands of Sauerland. Still, Amoo-Bediako was confident that significant opportunities were imminent. Instead, as he saw Commey being buried on one Sauerland undercard after another, in Germany, Sweden, and Denmark, Amoo-Bediako began to form doubts about the relationship.
A flicker of hope arose in 2016 when Commey faced Robert Easter Jr. in his hometown of Toledo for the vacant IBF lightweight title. Finally, a title shot. Commey fought valiantly in an entertaining fight, but it wasn’t enough. The judges gave Easter a split-decision win. A significant consolation for Commey was that his break-out performance raised his profile before an American audience. That wasn’t good enough for Amoo-Bediako, who immediately petitioned the IBF to give Commey a rematch. His efforts yielded a title eliminator against Denis Shafikov, with the winner getting Easter. Amoo-Bediako expected Sauerland to stage the fight in Ghana, where Commey would have home advantage, but talks quickly fell through and, once again, Commey found himself on the road, going to Russia to face a Russian. Once again, Commey fell short on the scorecards.
“Richard clearly won that fight, but he lost a split decision,” Amoo-Bediako. “In my eyes, he should still be an undefeated fighter.”
But in Sauerland’s eyes, Commey was no longer an undefeated fighter, and they decided to release Commey him from his contract. It felt like the end, Commey admitted. Support, however, began pouring in from unexpected people.
“All the guys that I fought with, like Robert Easter, all his people were like ‘Richard, man, you’re a world champion,” Commey recalled. “Same thing with Shafikov. So I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ Even though I lost, these people saw something in me that I don’t even see in myself. They said if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to be a world champion.”
And he wouldn’t be promoterless for long. Amoo-Bediako promoted a show in Ghana to keep Commey busy to, as he put it, “build up his spirits again.” Soon after, the manager got a call from Lou DiBella asking about Commey. They signed a deal in 2017. At around the same time, Commey got a new trainer in Brooklyn-based Andre Rozier, joining a stable that included blue-chip prospects and contenders like Sergiy Derevyanchenko and Danny Jacobs. Just like that, Commey was back.
“I was like, wow, okay this is what I’ve been looking for,” Commey said of the union. “It felt like family. It felt like home when I first started training with him. I was like, yeah, this is what I want.”
With a solid team behind him, Commey had a string of consecutive victories before he found himself in line for a shot at the IBF lightweight title (vacated by Mikey Garcia) against Isa Chaniev. Meanwhile, DiBella worked behind the scenes, arranging for Commey to enter into a co-promotional agreement with Top Rank, who wanted to stage the show on ESPN. This time, Commey wouldn’t fail, drubbing Chaniev inside two rounds last February to finally earn a world title. He followed it up later in the summer with an eighth-round knockout of Raymundo Beltran. And now, on Saturday, Commey will look to extend his run with a win over the hard-hitting and dynamic Lopez. He will be the underdog, despite being the titleholder, and that suits him just fine.
“Without those defeats, we may not be where we are today,” Amoo-Bediako said. “Thank God. That was God’s doing there and then. Because we are in such a better place today with Richard’s training, with his mindset, everything related to his boxing. Sometimes, in his case, the loss served him better. Had we won those fights, he may not be where he is today, so it’s been a fantastic journey. It’s been a tough journey, but it’s one that we believed in for a long time.”
“The most important thing was that my manager told me if I keep working hard, I’ll definitely be a world champion,” he said. “He kept his word, and it is what it is. Our bond is everything. My spirit is always hungry.
“I just have to go in there and do what I do again.”