War Cry: Isaac Dogboe Invades New York

GLENDALE, AZ - AUGUST 25: Isaac Dogboe of Ghana celebrates his win by knock out over Hidenori Otake (not pictured) during the WBO junior featherweight championship bout at Gila River Arena on August 25, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Isaac Dogboe celebrates his knockout win over Hidenori Otake during their WBO junior featherweight championship fight at Gila River Arena on August 25, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Had he been born in an earlier era, say, when Lewis guns and the meat rationing were all the rage, Isaac Dogboe might have fought alongside his comrades during World War I, just as his great-grandfather did. Or perhaps if he came of age in the more recent past, he would have joined the British Army, like his father Paul. Whatever the period, hypothetically speaking, the twenty-four-year-old is certain it would have entailed a career on the battlefields. “I come from a family of warriors,” Dogboe told Hannibal Boxing in a recent phone interview. “Most of my ancestors and my grandparents fought in World War I.” Given his blue blood origins—Dogboe has links to a centuries-long royal lineage in the Anglo state of Ghana, helmed currently by his grandfather’s cousin, Torgbui Sri III—it is little wonder that he upholds the matter of one’s heritage as sacrosanct, inviolable.

But Dogboe is a child of the twenty-first century, and though bloody conflicts in one form or another still abound today, the grand wars of the past that his ancestors participated in no longer exist as such. Still, his belated arrival in the world has not left him embittered at being unable to continue a familial custom. Nor has it led him down to a more conventional path, much to the initial disappointment of his grandfather, who disapproved of boxing and envisioned a life in law or banking for his grandson. Instead, Dogboe decided to veer as close as he possibly could to a career in line with his predecessors. That he ultimately chose to prove himself in the hazardous trade of professional boxing underscores something increasingly unfashionable in the world today: a willingness to not only acknowledge tradition but to abide by it. While the days of charging into the battlefield may be over, as Dogboe puts it, that does not mean the gestures and rites, the mood and flavors of his rich ancestry, have to be forgotten. “Right now there are no wars to be fought,” he pointed out. “So we have to re-create this spirit in a figurative manner.”

When Dogboe, 20-0 (14), ducks through the ropes on December 8 to defend his share of the super-bantamweight crown against Emmanuel Navarrete at Madison Square Garden on the undercard of Vasyl Lomachenko versus Jose Pedraza, he will look to channel his ancestors as he tries his hand as the latest representative from Accra to capture the imagination of the boxing public. His predecessors, Azumah Nelson and Ike Quartey, have set the bar high for Ghanian excellence, but if there is any nervousness, Dogboe does not show it.

“The old generation is our foundation,” Dogboe stated. “When we lose the value of tradition, it means we have no headway and when the wind blows we’ll go in any direction that the wind takes me. We will get lost. So we have to present those traditions to the public and the core values that our grandfathers looked up to.”

Implied in the fighter’s nickname—”Royal Storm”—is a nod to both past and present.

“The ‘royal’ refers to my heritage, and the ‘storm’ is taking the world by storm,” said Dogboe. “The words are the source of our strength. When we enter into the ring, we tap into that energy to show people that this is who we are, this is where we come from, this is how our people are.”

At times, Dogboe sounds as though he were addressing delegates at a UN convention. But that is to be expected, considering that greeting high-ranking dignitaries has long been part of the young patrician’s job. In early November, at the request of the British consulate in Accra, he broke off from his training camp in London to fly to Ghana to welcome Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall on their eight-day tour of West Africa. Such tasks not only bring him immense pleasure, Dogboe stressed, but he sees them as more necessary than ever given his new status as a world champion boxer. His father, Paul, believes Dogboe will do more than act as a mere figurehead for Ghana.

“He keeps telling me he is going to use boxing as a platform,” said Paul, “to do greater and better things. When I talk to Isaac I show him all the poor people in Africa, and his response to that is very emotional. The people that are hungry and live in the villages. You know, Azumah Nelson gave back, as I told him. He helped humanity. So that’s what I explain to him. You can give back to humanity as well.”

A win over Navarrete will top off what has thus been a banner year for Dogboe, who expects another violent ending. The last time he was seen in the ring was in Arizona, where he bludgeoned the Japanese challenger Hidenori Otake in 138 seconds. “This has been a great year for us, a year of knockouts,” noted Dogboe. “I believe we will closing the year with another spectacular performance, another knockout.” There are times, however, that he admits to feeling a bit astonished that he has come this far, headlining major shows seven thousand miles away from the sandlots of Accra. “We kind of appeared out of thin air, just like they say that the world appeared with the big bang,” said Dogboe, chuckling.

But the air in boxing is not only thin, it is stultifying—which is to say it is not conducive for producing surprises. All too frequently the proceedings in the sport appear hitched to the strings of a conniving puppeteer, the outcomes of fights choreographed well in advance. So to see the previously unheralded upstart show up on a Philadelphia card last April and yank a super-bantamweight title away from Jesse Magdaleno—the talented if undisciplined blue- chipper who had been groomed by Top Rank since 2010—was a reminder that a sport generally averse to surprise was still capable of the occasional plot twist. All of which is to say that the rise of Dogboe has been one of the more genuine storylines to come out of 2018. He has been rewarded accordingly with a promotional contract from Top Rank, whose exclusive deal with broadcast behemoth ESPN ensures his fights will be disseminated widely.

Indeed, in addition to his propensity for knockouts, Dogboe possesses the sort of telegenic personality that could strike a chord with a general audience. Already his traditional war cry, the spondaic “Ne-ho,” which Dogboe can be seen chanting vociferously before and after his fights, seems to be catching on. The word cuts deep into his warrior lineage, though its exact meaning, in English, is somewhat hard to pin down.

“‘Ne-ho’ has a lot of meanings,’” Paul explained. “It means ‘fight on.’ It also means move go forward, charge forward, regardless of what the opponent brings, you are going forward at all costs. It also means ‘uproot.’ You are uprooting everything in your path. It’s something that motivates you, that charges the battlefield with, and makes you feel that you are top of it. It’s something to encourage people and feel that anyone that punches you, you are not going to feel it. Walk through something and go forward and knock him out—that’s what Ne-ho means.”

“Everyone prepares differently,” added Dogboe. “[Saying ‘Ne-ho’] is our way of charging ourselves up before we get into the ring.”

Amid his war cries, Dogboe has a clear awareness that his trade is only an approximation of the actual combat his forefathers engaged in. Because those in boxing typically originate from some state of desperation, there is a tendency to metaphorize every aspect of the sport—the fighter as warrior, as gladiator, as soldier in the trenches—and to seek overarching narratives where there may be none. That Dogboe makes no such conflation is rooted perhaps in the fact that he grew up with a lifestyle alien to the majority of those who punch for pay. “Isaac doesn’t need boxing to survive,” his father pointed out.

Born in Ghana, Dogboe moved to the London suburb of Kennington when he was eight. There he grew up like any normal school child, attending classes during the day and playing sports in the evening—a far cry from the average boxing story involving broken homes and abject poverty. He does not view such relative privilege as a drawback, as it relates to competing in a blood sport, though he credits his father for keeping him singularly disciplined and level-headed.

“Hunger comes from a great family,” said Dogboe. “My grandfather never liked boxing. He is a rich man. He has done well in his life. My father always gave me that guidance, that you are not like the other guys that are out there. You have everything. But you still have to maintain that. My father has to push me. I’m glad I listen to my father.”

“I used to tell Isaac that most of these hungry fighters that made it to greatness, they had to struggle,” said Paul. “You don’t need to work and go to the gym and train. All you have to do is go to school do your homework and train, sleep. Sometimes, I take him to the bad areas of Ghana to show him what other people are going through and what he has. There are those who come back from the gym and still have no food. In those times that other people are hustling for money, you will be training and resting. So I don’t see why Isaac should go wrong.”

Though he may have had a comfortable childhood, that does not mean that professional boxing has been an easy foray for both Dogboe and his father. Out of the Olympics, they signed with Gary Hyde, the then manager of Guillermo Rigondeaux, but that relationship quickly turned south. After he got his son out of the contract, they “hit the road” and soon ran into new allies, of all people, in James Toney and his trainer-manager John “Pops” Arthur, who Paul calls “my mentor.”

“We met James Toney when he was doing the Prizefighter [tournament in 2012] in England. I told him I had a kid. So he said he wanted to see my son fight and I arranged that. James said that this kid reminds me of himself. His body shots! The way he bobs and weaves and then come down with a body shot, James just loved it. It was James Toney that brought us to America where we then had about five fights.”

“I feel privileged to have that relationship with (Toney) and his team,” said Dogboe.

Dogboe’s ambitions loom large. Like Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, he hopes to become a multiple-weight world champion, perhaps in five divisions. In the more immediate future, he has his eyes set on facing featherweight champion and promotional stablemate Oscar Valdez. “He knows who I am,” Dogboe quipped “That’ll be a fun fight. Oscar comes forward.” But for now, he is content on making sure his Madison Square Garden debut falls in line with the rest of his year: with explosive élan, replete with loud rallying calls and hard lefts.

“Where we haven’t been before; when we get there, we believe we run the place!” Dogboe said with a hearty laugh. “We love it, we love it, trust me, you know Isaac is going to steal the show!”