No Labels:
A look back at Noah Zuhdi's first fight


He knew he would be here. One does not wake up each morning to run five miles, travel nearly two hours roundtrip to the sweltering heat and humidity of the Azteca Boxing Club’s gym, and give presentations at law school with a busted nose from the previous night’s gym war without knowing that the journey and destination is possible. When one sees obstacles as a challenge and goal instead of a hurdle and hindrance, the destination is even probable. When one is meek enough to try something new yet confident enough to carry one’s self like a champion, the championship destination is a certainty.

Nine years ago, if someone would have told world lightweight champion Noah Zuhdi, who is perhaps now Oklahoma’s biggest attraction amongst individual sports, that he would be where he is today, he would have called them completely sane. “You hear people talk about, ‘Oh, I never would have dreamed this would happen,’” Zuhdi explained with a chuckle. “Oh, they did. They did. You cannot accomplish something unless you see yourself accomplishing it first.

“Nothing surprised me. I think that’s the difference between me and some other boxers and athletes. I didn’t know the exact path I would take, but I completely humbled myself, understanding that it was going to be a process. You grow as you go.”

Zuhdi knew he would be here, standing tall as a two-time defending champion. He would listen to others to help him grow, but he would not let others tell him who to be. He would accept no stereotyping, doubters, or preset limitations. He would accept no labels.

The First Days

Zuhdi’s rise was as complicated as the aforementioned daily grind—run, study, attend class, spar, socialize, repeat—for months on end and as simple as making a list with his wife, Sara. These days, he is likely the only person to have a title of boxer/lawyer/real estate purveyor on his business card. But just over nine years ago, he was a college basketball player ending his basketball career and looking for something, anything, to fill that competitive chasm.

The fighter shed light on the transitional period: “I remember sitting down with Sara one night in her apartment, and we made a list out of all the sports that I could participate in after college while simultaneously going to law school. And we looked at just about everything. And the one thing that really jumped out at both of us, one that we thought that I could really excel at, was boxing. I have special ties to boxing. My father was an amateur boxer many years ago.

“So it wasn’t unfamiliar or outlandish to me. I grew up watching the big fights with my dad. It was the sport I always had the utmost respect for and was always interested in trying. I knew that being involved in law school that there was competition involved, but there wasn’t the same type of fulfillment that I received from sport. I’ve always been attracted to what are—in my mind—the toughest sports. In my opinion, the toughest sport in the world is boxing.”

One quick circle of boxing on the list later, Zuhdi would defy advice and the glares of some of his classmates in order to enter the brutally beautiful sport. He did not have to play one role—the grandson of a famous heart surgeon, the son of a lawyer, or a lawyer himself. There were no laws against taking on more roles. He could try to be something more, something not so easily defined.

It was definitely a tough task to take on, though. The schedule and physical pounding alone makes most athletes leave the gym in the matter of a month. The gameplan outside the ring is just as important as the one inside. Consequently, he requested the help of the accomplished Buck Smith, a veteran of over 200 bouts, and the nationally renowned Sean O’Grady, known to long time fans of boxing as simply “The Champ.”

Unfortunately, Zuhdi would not be able to box in the shadows because of this. The Oklahoman combat sports reporter and blogger Bob Przybylo was alerted to the situation. With the touted trainers and the fact that the boxer was also a law school student who was changing sports, a multitude of natural angles for a story presented themselves.

However, the writer saw more than a novelty or story when witnessing Zuhdi’s early professionalism. “What I noticed immediately about Noah was how he was fighting for his future and trying to perfect his craft,” Przybylo observed. “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.”

With the two trainers pushing him, discipline and tenacity were added to the daily regimen as he sparred often. A relatively small guy who studied textbooks just as much as the sweet science, Zuhdi needed the daily push from himself. The marquee name trainers, the publicity, the expectations--the pressure built up, but it was the only way to improve.

“I felt like I had an incredible challenge to face,” he elucidated. “Yet, I actually enjoyed and embraced the fact that I was starting at the age of 23. Just about everybody I would be competing against had started around the age of 5, like I did with basketball. I took that challenge and confronted it. I looked forward to each day and competing with those guys. And herein lies the problem and the solution: I always wanted to spar guys with more experience, who were established, crafty, polished boxers. That’s the only way to get better. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.”

Still, this would not be a story preaching perfection. There were no Rocky-like speeches at the ready just in case the grad school student needed an intervention or inspiration. For better and for worse, Zuhdi would rely on his mind and hyper-attention to propel him to his first official bout inside the ring.

The Irony and Agony of Anxiety

During the first months of training for this violent endeavor, Zuhdi’s most persistent opponent had proven to be anxiety and nerves. Despite knowing he could make up for initial deficiencies through an abnormally high and disciplined work ethic instilled since childhood, apprehension haunted the young fighter.

“I remember how nervous I was as I was going up the steps in the boxing club,” Zuhdi recalled. “With each step, you could hear the sounds getting louder and louder in the gym—the bags being hit, the people sparring—with each step, my nerves were getting to me more and more. I mean, here I am, just a guy in baggy basketball shorts and basketball shoes. I had no idea what to expect. I always had an issue with trying new things. I’m a regimented guy, I like structure, I like a schedule, and I like to be good at things. I was stepping out of my comfort zone.

“Because of this, for the first couple of weeks, I remember being very self-conscious, wanting to prove myself to others in the gym. I needed them to know that I was not just another guy who was going to be in and out. That was my first goal—to just earn the respect of everyone in the gym.”

Anxiety had made the walk up the steps to Azteca a shaky one. Anxiety also made the step inside the ropes an adrenalized, focused rush. Zuhdi’s biggest obstacle before fights was also his biggest strength.

When trying to describe the proverbial double-edged sword, Zuhdi concluded, “I’m a very shy person. Always have been. With that, there comes a hesitancy to go out of my comfort zone and try new things. I get really nervous, which a lot of guys don’t like to admit. But for whatever reason, when I’m nervous, that’s when I perform my best. When I’m nervous, it’s a good thing. My mom has told me ever since I was young that I was hesitant to try new things, but once I did, I loved it.”

Seeing the transformation from tentative to tenacious was Przybylo. “It was very easy to just go back and forth and forget you’re actually supposed to be writing a story, too,” the writer said of early experiences and conversations. “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.”

With each passing week and month, familiarity begat precision. Zuhdi’s frenzy soon had a focus. He tried to carry himself like a champion during all levels of training, just as his mentors had taught him. He could now give as much in the ring as he had received out of it.

“At first, they were lining up at the door to spar the kid with no experience,” Zuhdi said. “They wanted to take advantage of an opportunity, but it was by no means discrimination on their part. They would find out that it wasn’t much of an opportunity.”

Ready or not, Zuhdi opted for an opponent to make his narrative even more singular. Without one single amateur fight and entering his professional debut, he agreed to fight Rafael Torres, a veteran of 16 professional fights at the time and years of amateur experience before that.

The message was clear: Zuhdi was fighting for much more than his first win. He fought for peace of mind. He battled for respect. He waged war to show that he could accomplish anything and that potential trumps limitations.

He was now putting these inspired wars and his health in jeopardy by fighting someone who had been fighting professionally for over half a decade before Zuhdi even stepped into the ring. Everything was on the line. With all of these inner struggles and existential battles in mind, the battle of nerves would grow to be even more pronounced.

The return of nerves presented itself on the eve of the bout. Zuhdi confessed, “The day of the weigh-in, typically, you’re not supposed to do a whole lot. But Sean and Buck were big believers in what was called the two mile gut check, which was started by Pat O’Grady. Periodically, he would have fighters run 2 miles as hard as they could. You never do it the day before the fight, but I was so nervous. And I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to do a two mile gut check.’ Looking back at it, I laugh. That’s how anxious I was. I had to do something. Nerves were a big factor in that first fight.”

The Fight

Three minutes. Months of running, lifting, sparring, and balancing the various pressures of his personal and academic responsibilities sifted through the sieve of life, and now, Zuhdi would be measured by three minutes of work. All boxers are left with is how they perform in those three minute rounds.

As the bell rang to begin the first round of the encounter at Remington Park in Oklahoma City, Zuhdi could now be at peace. He had made it. The peace, however, translated to immediate violence onto his opponent Torres.

Harmful, pounding left hooks to the body set the tone of the fight from the first seconds onward. It also set Zuhdi apart. Bob Przybylo, who covered the bout, noted, “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.”

Armed with controlled fury, Zuhdi stalked his opponent from one end of the ring to the other. The assault was both deliberate and menacing in nature. He would try to break his opponent down immediately. Mentally, Torres felt the effects all too soon. After the fight he admitted he was already taking mental notes about the pressure Zuhdi was giving him. Zuhdi explained, “Torres told me that from the very start of the fight that he knew I was coming, from the way I came out in the very beginning. And he knew I wasn’t going to stop coming after him.”

Body shots, punishing jabs, and repeated rights to Torres’ ribs forced the opponent to wilt for the first time in just over 1:45 into the first round. The beginning of the end drew near.

“He was so, so aggressive,” Przybylo described. “Not careless—I think that’s going a bit too far, but he was in there with a mindset of ‘I am not being paid by the hour.’ He came to work, do his job and go home.”

The attack continued. “It was kind of a blur,” Zuhdi said of the experience. “I just remember that as I kept applying pressure, I could feel him breaking down. I enjoyed the stoppage of that one because anything to the body--going to the body—is a gritty, well-earned reward.”

Three minutes are what a boxer is measured by. Zuhdi only needed two and a half.

After knocking out his opponent in his professional debut by way of body shot and uppercut combinations, the first of many professional goals was now complete. Zuhdi reflected, “It was a cool experience. What I really enjoyed was that after that fight, proving to people—friends, family, doubters alike—that this wasn’t just a hobby I was doing on the side. I also enjoyed proving that to the people and pundits in boxing. I beat a veteran boxer like Torres. It wasn’t a rookie versus a rookie. We’re talking about a skilled and experienced boxer. The happiness that I had was in that I established myself on Day One as a professional boxer. I had shown those who I truly cared about that I was capable of doing it.”


Years later, Zuhdi had overcome one defeat, trained under the tutelage of Dickie Wood, and won a world championship in front of thousands of Oklahoma City fans.

On the overall success of Zuhdi, Przybylo added, “His willingness to adapt and willingness to accept the first defeat surprised me. You never know how that is going to go. 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. I have 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.”

While Zuhdi felt indebted to his first trainers, he knew that he had to try something new, just like he always had before. New challenges, new nerves, new successes. He found Wood, a trainer of all-time greats. And it was Wood who would go on to provide lessons to Zuhdi about setting up his success with strategy and skill as much as with will. He has since engaged in 12-round wars, as well as tactical affairs, all with success at the championship level.

As the years progressed, so did Zuhdi. Now a veteran, he can now look back at those first days with the clarity that adversity, experience, and success provide. The champion stated, “Did I see myself going this far? Yeah, that was the goal from Day One. I often times have to work very hard on the mental aspect of sport, but I always believed that you set up a plan and you stick to it. You can accomplish anything. To this the day, I like it when people tell me that we haven’t come close to accomplishing what we’re capable of. Dickie Wood often tells me when I visit for training camp, ‘You get better and better each time you come to Colorado Springs.’ That was the goal from Day One.”

He knew what his goals were. He knew what it took. He knew where he would end up. He knew he would be here.

*All fight photographs by Wayne Robertson