(Sena Agbeko, left, sparring with Michael Moore; credit: Morgan Hines)
Ike Quartey. Joseph Agbeko. Josh Clottey. Azumah Nelson. The list of boxing greats to come out of Ghana is impressive, especially considering the sub-Saharan country’s modest population of 25 million. But before refamiliarizing yourself with this list, pencil in one more name: Sena Agbeko. The 21-year-old middleweight is not only confident that he’ll be the next Ghanaian world champion in the ring, but that he’ll be able to further the sport out of it as well.
Agbeko (15-0, 15 KOs) will make his U.S. debut next week in ESPN’s two-division Boxcino 2014 tournament, which kicks off this coming Friday with the lightweight class. With the network giant touting the tournament as a means to “develop boxing’s newest stars,” it’s easy to see how the 6’1”, uber-chiseled prospect with a 100% kayo rate might fit the bill.
Intrigued by what I saw from Agbeko in a sparring session at a Nashville gym (as well as the utter dearth of related YouTube footage) I decided to travel to his camp in Columbia, Tenn. to spend some time with the enigmatic up-and-comer and learn more.
THE EVOLUTION OF AGBEKO’S FUN FIGHTING STYLE
Agbeko is rangy and raw. His body overflows with athleticism — and his eyes with intelligence, whether he’s providing a thoughtful answer to a question you haven’t asked yet or processing shouted instructions from his corner mid-combination. While his tools are impressive, Agbeko is still very much a work-in-progress. Not only did he get a late start in boxing (he began boxing in 2008 at the age of 15) but, at the direction of his trainer Morgan “Doc” Hines, is still refining a new, high-pressure style he adopted just a few months ago.
“In Ghana, I had a counterpunching style, because that’s what was working,” said Agbeko. “My team has helped me to not wait on punches, initiate the attack and transition to being a pressure fighter. It’s made me more of a complete fighter. I’m able to deal with every style and I have a bit of every style within me.”
After watching Agbeko average almost 120 punches per round during a sparring session with Cleveland-based middleweight Michael Moore, it was hard to imagine the same sinewed frenzy of fists being successful as anything other than a “punch first, move head later” volume fighter. But Agbeko’s team insists the transition is real and only has been possible due to the extreme studiousness of their trainee.
“Sena is a sponge,” Hines said. “He’s realized there’s more he can do as a boxer. His desire to work hard makes all the difference in the world. He absorbs everything you say to him, and then he doesn’t mind working his butt off to perfect it.”
In fact, Agbeko’s mule-like work ethic drove him to isolate himself as he adapts to life in the United States. Shortly after signing with KO Management last year, Agbeko moved to a small town in middle Tennessee to dedicate himself to his craft.
“Hard work and dedication has brought me this far,” said Agbeko. “Being alone in Tennessee lets me focus on just the sport. If I was someplace like Las Vegas, I’d have distractions, but here it’s just me. I’m happy with it. I treat every day like camp.”
Agbeko also claims that, since 2008, he has never taken more than four days off from the gym. Whether that’s true or not, it’s a testament to his systematic approach that he’s even counting.
ACKNOWLEDGING HIS PREDECESSORS, BUT BLAZING HIS OWN PATH
Early in life, Agbeko’s focus was on education rather than athletics. It wasn’t until high school that he began shifting energy from his studies towards sports. After having success as an amateur judoka, Agbeko’s interest in boxing was piqued by the lead-up to the 2007 superfight between Floyd Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya.
“Growing up, I’d wake up in the middle of the night to watch these champions,” he said. “I imagined myself one day fighting in the U.S. and people in Ghana would wake up to watch me fight. So fighting on ESPN alone feels like an accomplishment… I’m also very happy to be the first fighter to graduate from college in Ghana, but I want to complete this picture by winning a world championship.”
When asked if he feels pressure from the weight of the eyes (and expectations) of a country, Agbeko insisted that he can handle it. In fact, he feels only inspiration.
“For many people back home, it’s surprising that I’ve transformed from a weak, nerdy kid to the guy I am in the ring,” he said. “So there are a lot of people looking up to me in Ghana. And sometimes I do think it’s a bit too early to be getting all of that pressure, but in another way, it’s a good thing because it makes me work extra hard.’”
Following in the footsteps of other Ghanaian pugilists has also given Agbeko — no relation to Joseph — a blueprint to become a more complete fighter. While religiously watching old fight tapes, Agbeko analyzes the best traits of each fighter and tries to apply them to his own game. He specifically named Quartey’s jab and Clottey’s defense as tools he’d like to emulate in order to hone his skills to a championship caliber.
Along the way, Agbeko has developed other plans to give back to his country outside the ring. He intends to pursue a master’s degree in sports management and eventually wants to start a promotional company in Ghana. Eventually, he wants to leverage his boxing success to grow the sport across Africa, helping develop champions and generate local income.
ON RAYMOND GATICA AND EXPECTATIONS
Agbeko will square off with Raymond Gatica (13-2, 8 KO) in the first round of the Boxcino tournament. Even with Gatica’s limited merits, he’ll unquestionably be Agbeko’s toughest opponent to date. However, the young fighter forewarns anyone who might dismiss his experience to this point.
“Gatica definitely is a step up in the level of competition. But I do think a lot of people tend to underestimate the kind of guys we fight [in Ghana],” said Agbeko. “A lot of people back home don’t have access to the facilities or the expertise of trainers that you have here, but they’re really strong. They’re raw, but have brutish strength. They’re durable and I knocked them out.
“So if you do tell me that the level of opposition I’ve faced isn’t high enough and you do underestimate me, you’re doing that to your own detriment,” Agbeko continued. “If you get surprised and you lose, that’s your fault. But everything I have to prove will happen inside the ring.”
Even after building a knockout streak against wholly unknown competition in Ghana, Agbeko knows better than to look for a quick kayo in upcoming fights. The current gameplan for the Gatica fight calls for Agbeko to out-jab and out-work his opponent, breaking him down with relentless pressure.
“Experience has taught me that if you stick to the gameplan, the knockout will come naturally,” noted Agbeko.
Tim Gibson, Agbeko’s manager and advisor, doesn’t feel that the knockout streak will be a distraction. However, he did caution that challenges might arise from an unexpected place: the bout’s context.
“Gatica is a tough fighter, but you have to remember this is Sena’s first fight in America,” Gibson said. “This is his first fight in almost a year and his first time fighting in front of all of these lights and cameras. There’s a lot at stake. It’s a whole new world for him.”
But Agbeko remains un-phased by the big stage and bright lights, let alone his opponent. Like with all of his triumphs to date, he knows anything is possible with the right amount of effort and preparation.
“I realize there’s a lot of hard work from now until a championship,” Agbeko said. “I just have to be consistent and I believe I’ll get there.”