1 February 2017

Two Brothers, One Story - Interesting Tidbits Behind "No Labels"

By Phillip Przybylo

It is not an everyday occurrence to interview and consult with one's own brother for a story, but it happened to the Chief Editor here earlier this year. I had the chance to talk to Bob Przybylo while doing background research for the "No Labels" story and trying to gather the public's perception about the start of Noah's career. While future plans for the Fight Retrospectives section will include even more sources and interviews about previous fights, it was nice to have an easygoing, accommodating source for the first piece. The Fight Retrospective and future "No Labels" chapters will continue to look into the heart of the sport and the fighters behind it. It will continue to explore the challenges in continuously writing and rewriting the narrative of one's career(s) and pushing one's self forward.

Back to my brother. Bob is a 10-year veteran of the journalism game, and because of it, he has a good feel for character and integrity while interviewing subjects. He wrote for The Oklahoman for about five of those years, and he quickly became the "go to" guy for sports and stories that were more difficult to find by the casual fan, be it high school or fringe sports. His Boneman Bout Blog became an unexpected critical success and was the one of the few places fans of boxing and MMA could find regional news. Ultimately, he had to follow other offers, and the void in combat sports journalism remains. Bob is now the driving force behind Sooners Scoop. A lot of strange twists had to happen along the way, but he essentially covered the first parts of Noah's career, and I have covered most of the most recent parts of his career after taking a seven-year break from writing about combat sports myself. While some of his words already appear in the "No Labels" story, I think that the interview has enough value and merit to be posted on its own. Here is our Q&A:

NoahZuhdi.com: How did you begin to cover Noah's career and how did you two meet?

Bob Przybylo: I was approached about writing a story on Noah prior to his professional debut. The hook was he was being trained and mentored by former world lightweight champion Sean O’Grady, who is also from Oklahoma City. Add in the fact he was going to law school and was a college basketball player, there were a lot of angles to pursue. I went to the gym on a Tuesday evening and just watched him work. I didn’t want to intrude and felt the best way to really get a feel of everything was to sit back and say nothing and observe. 

NZ: Where was he training at the time and what were some of your first impressions of that particular gym?

BP: He was training at Azteca Gym on the south side of Oklahoma City. It was hot--very hot. It's the first thing I always remember about that. Some of the equipment was pretty ratted and torn back then, but none of the guys seemed to mind. It wasn’t very big, but everybody seemed to get along and accommodate with each other. 

NZ: Did anything set Noah apart from the other fighters in the gym? If so, what?

BP: What I noticed immediately about Noah was how he was fighting for his future and trying to perfect his craft. He wasn’t trying to look flashy and cool in front of media or trying to throw highlight-reel punches you would never throw in a real fight. You could tell he respected the sport and wasn’t going to be a sideshow attraction. The lingering question was going to be about just how much legit talent he had, but you knew he was going to put in the work. 

NZ: It seemed like you instinctively knew Noah was heading in the right direction. Consequently, you covered his early fights at length. What was it about him that made it easier to cover him? Were there things in his answers that seemed to spark interest from you? Was it the novelty of his backstory? 

BP: A big key to me for any interview is to show the subject respect. Show them you’ve done your homework and understand this is their passion. Build the bond and rapport, and then they’re more willing to open up to you on a deeper, personal level. In establishing that I care about the story at hand, I think it allowed Noah to let his guard down and have as much of a conversation compared to an interview. It was very easy to just go back and forth and forget you’re actually supposed to be writing a story, too. You could tell how much he knew about the sport. He knew he was starting in the game incredibly late but that wasn’t going to deter him. His heart was in it 100 percent.

NZ: Did you see his first fight with Rafael Torres? If so, what were your thoughts on it?

BP: What stood out was his persistence in hitting the body. Everybody goes for the head, and if you’re starting out, you especially expect that. Instead, Zuhdi attacked the body and scored his first knockdown with a body shot before eventually finishing it off later in the first round.

NZ: In his early fights, what were some of the things you noticed--good and bad--about his fighting style and his attitude? Did you think he had a ceiling?

BP: He was so, so aggressive. Not careless, think that’s going a bit too far, but you knew there was a chance he could be caught because how he was in there with a mindset of I’m not being paid by the hour. He came to work, do his job and go home. The biggest realization was obvious: If Zuhdi was going to develop as a fighter with a legit future in the sport, he was going to have to leave Oklahoma City. Or at least stop fighting in the area. That usually meant I couldn’t cover the fights, but he wasn’t evolving as a fighter staying in Oklahoma City.

NZ: Anything surprise you about Noah's progression or development?

BP: His willingness to adapt and willingness to accept the first defeat. You never know how that is going to go. He got hit a good shot, which we all know can happen in boxing. It would have been easy to pack the bags and go home. Say I made some money, had some fun, now it’s time to be an attorney and move on. He didn’t. He got back on the horse, changed his style and kept pushing forward. He didn’t cheat himself. No idea if he has been fully satisfied with the way this nine-year battle has gone so far, but he never cheated himself or the sport. 

NZ: Do you miss the Bout Blog or covering the sport?

BP: Absolutely. If there was real money in just covering boxing, I would jump at it in a heartbeat. But there isn’t, especially not in Oklahoma. Now, I'm not complaining, we all make our choices. Nor am I denigrating boxing--I still love watching boxing, easily my favorite sport. I enjoyed it as a kid, but got really into it in December 1998 through the present day. I still keep tabs on it daily and hope for the sport to prosper instead of continuing to shoot itself in the foot as it has done on occasion.