Toka Kahn Clary with his promoter, Evander Holyfield, and trainer, Freddie Roach after defending his NABA Featherweight Title on June 2nd in Atlantic City. photo credit: Daniel Cork
After a dominant performance earlier this month, a unanimous decision over rugged veteran, Emmanuel Dominguez, Toka Kahn Clary (25-1, 17 KO) is on the verge of a world title shot in the featherweight division.
However, it's been a long and difficult road for the contender who celebrates his 26th birthday tomorrow. After immigrating as a child to America from the war torn country of Liberia, Clary lost his father to drug abuse and was left homeless before being adopted and finding his calling in the sport of boxing.
Now signed to The Real Deal Boxing, the ultra friendly Clary, who lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife and baby daughter, sat down to discuss a host of topics including his thoughts on a world title shot, what he’d change about the sport, the best boxing movie of all time and the powerful advice he would give to a younger version of himself.
Happy Birthday Toka! Will you be celebrating out in California or are you back on the east coast?
Back on the east coat!
Sounds like you are happy to be home.
Happy as hell. (Laughs.)
What was the hardest part about being away for your training camp?
I missed my wife and my daughter.
Have you ever done a training camp away from home before?
Not like this one. This was my first time.
How’d you make it? Lots of FaceTime?
Oh yeah. FaceTime everyday.
What’s the biggest difference between training on the east coast and the west coast?
I was training with Freddie Roach for starters. They got a lot of talent out there on the west coast. Every sparring day was a tough day. Like, back home there’s a lot of amateurs. Sometimes that’s all that is available to spar with and you just have your way with them. On the west coast you’re sparring with top notch professional fighters all the time. It was good for my confidence.
Did you see any celebrities while you were in Hollywood?
I saw Mario Lopez! He was boxing in the gym. Looked pretty good too.
Out of all the celebrities that use boxing as a workout, a lot of people consider him the most talented.
Yeah. I can believe that. Looks like he’s been training for some years. You can tell the difference.
Besides seeing Mario Lopez, what’s it like working with Freddie? Obviously he's one of the all time greats but he has so many high level fighters, were you able to get the attention you needed?
I loved it. Freddie is so experienced. Especially with me being southpaw. He’s had the best southpaw fighter in the world. He was able to show me some tricks. Little movements that make a big difference in a fight. I liked working with him. It was a really good experience for me. He showed me a lot and taught me a lot in the short time I was out there and it showed in my recent fight. Can't wait to start the next camp.
On a serious note, you had a very, very difficult and unique childhood. I’m sure it’s not the most comfortable thing to talk about but if someone wasn’t familiar with your early background, from being born in a war torn country, to losing your father, to being homeless as a child, how would you describe how you came to America and the difficult circumstances you had to deal with.
Luck. There was a lot of trials and tribulations. It was a very difficult childhood. That’s why I’m so glad to be here now. I’m happy to be in the position I’m in. Doing something positive in my life and helping my family.
I know you say you were lucky. But do you feel like anything else contributed to that? Divine intervention? Hard work? Most people in the position you were in as a child don’t turn into success stories. What was different in your case?
For me it was boxing. I'm serious. When I found boxing, I stuck with it. I wasn’t an A student. I wasn’t gonna go to college. When I found boxing it was an opportunity for me to do something with my life. It gave me a purpose. I ran with it.
What in your opinion is boxing’s biggest problem? If there’s one thing you could change what would it be.
There’s a lot of things I’d change about boxing. (Laughs.) I mean boxing is a good sport and gives people a lot of opportunity but most people don’t know that. I feel what boxing is missing is, if you look at the NFL, these guys they go to hospitals, charities and they do different functions. People see that and don’t think it’s a barbaric sport. A lot of parents don’t want their kids to be involed in boxing cause they think that it’s not a good sport. I disagree with that. I think boxing is a beautiful sport but we need to show it in a different light, a different image. NFL players go out there and have events with the kids and I see that Evander Holyfield and Real Deal fighters are starting to do that. I feel the sport needs more of that. I think that would put the sport in a better position. I feel like boxing needs to give back more. Not just giving back to the fans by going into the ring and putting on a terrific fight but I’m talking about world champions going to hospitals or going to a school and having a field day. Set up a ring and speed bag outside on a playground, so kids have fun learning how to hit the bags and do mitts. Introduce them to the sport. Show kids and parents what’s great about it. Maybe it can save a kid like it saved me.
Who’s your all time favorite fighter?
All time? I’d have to say Sugar Ray Robinson. If you see how he moved back in those days, how he was generating power, he was doing such remarkable things that a lot of fighters now don’t respect. I watch a lot of his old fights. I love Ali but for me, Sugar Ray Robinson is the pound for pound greatest.
It's refreshing to hear a young fighter respect the sport's history.
I watch a lot of old fights. Like the other day I was watching fights from the heavyweights in that great era with Tyson, Holyfield, Lewis, Bowe, Rahman. There was like a great heavyweight fight every week. We don’t have that now. We only got 2 or 3 good heavyweights and they won’t fight each other but they still get to make all the money. (Laughs.)
Alright, the only question that matters. What’s the best boxing movie ever made?
(Laughs.) Wow. Best boxing movie ever made? Let me peep my movies for a sec. We got Southpaw, that just came out. It was ok. Creed was really good. You know what though? I mean, the original Rocky has to be it. You gotta go with it cause it helped bring boxing back in a big way. Every kid who saw that wanted to box. It still gives you chills watching it. When I was young I couldn't believe guys got hit like that and didn't die.
Then you find out later, the punch sounds are actually a guy in a sound studio hitting a slab of beef with a baseball bat.
(Laughs.) Right. Right.
So you are ranked in the top 10 in the world in two of the four major sanctioning bodies. Maybe all four when next month's rankings come out. There is talk that your next fight could be a title eliminator. You are as close as you've ever been. Is that the ultimate goal for you in boxing? To win a world title?
When I was growing up my ultimate goal in boxing was to win a world title. But now my overall goal is to make enough money to provide for my family. I got a little daughter at home. I want her to have things I never had growing up. I don’t want her to struggle. She doesn't need to ever experience what I did. So that’s the ultimate goal for me. To provide for my family. But to be a world champion is still one of my goals. Who doesn’t want to be a world champion? Nobody can ever take that from you. That’s something that will always be with you. When they look you up they’ll always see you were a world champion. And that is a goal that I definitely, definitely have to accomplish.
Do you feel like mentally and physically you are ready to challenge for a world title in 2018?
I feel like if I’m not ready now, I’ll never be ready. If I’m going do anything with my career now is the time to do it. I'm happy to be with a promoter and a trainer that believe I can win a world title. I want a title eliminator in my next fight so I can be the mandatory challenger for one of the sanctioning bodies. I will fight any of the current featherweight champions anywhere in the world they want.
One last question. If you were to go back in time and talk to that young version of yourself that was in such a terrible place, what would you tell him to keep him going and have hope?
It is funny you say that. I was just in California and I saw a lot of homeless people out there. It seemed like they had no motivation to better themselves. I was thinking damn what can people do to help these people? If anything I’d tell them, and anyone in that place, to find something you’re good at. It could be school, it could be sports, it could be construction. Whatever it is you’re good at, find it. When you do hold on to it. Work hard at it. In life nobody gives you anything. And if they do, it’s only gonna be for a little bit. You need to find that thing you can learn and be good at and use it to support yourself. People have different talents in the world. I hope that everybody can find their talent and work hard to get to the highest level. They’ll be times that you don’t want to put the work in. There’s days I just don’t wanna run but those are the days that I need to run even harder and further. You got to push yourself. And to that young version of myself, I’d let him know… there are better days ahead.