Karama Leota has a recurring dream. He's in the center of a boxing ring, wearing the world championship belt. Marvelous Marvin Hagler is face down on the canvas. "I take him out with a left hook," Leota says.
Leota is a 23-year-old Salt Lake middleweight, better known in boxing towns such as Reno and Las Vegas than in his hometown of Salt Lake. But he's convinced that come next May, he's going to be famous. "Watch out, Hagler," he smiles softly. "Here I come."Marvelous Marvin Hagler, of course, has never heard of Karama Leota. Leota is what manager Jim Young terms "a year away" from a title fight. That makes him a million miles away from the Champ. Just another kid with a plan.
Leota's 12-1 record, including eight knockouts, is impressive, nevertheless. He has turned a fine left hook and unusual tenacity into a profitable business. He hasn't yet fought an especially well-known boxer, and once the big boys start coming, glossy records tend to tarnish. But he isn't fazed, either.
"It's gonna be a good fight," says Leota. "Toe-to-toe, me and Hagler."
Hagler's menacing glare isn't the most frightening thing Leota has ever seen. His roughest fights have been on the streets of L.A. The scar tissue over his left eye came compliments of a bare-knuckled punch during a gang fight. An eight-inch gash on his left forearm and a whitish dig on his back are reminders of a series of knife fights he had, beginning when he was 11 years old.
"I'm lucky to be alive," he says. "I finally decided I didn't want to get killed in the street."
Leota is the most promising fighter Young
has had in his 10-year career as a manager. Young made good money in the plant nursery business and is now spending it on mostly poor, mostly desperate youngsters who think they can make a living at boxing.
Leota is a rarity among local boxers because he supports himself on his earnings. He drives a late-model Camaro and lives in his own apartment. Such amenities would seem commonplace to most people, but to club fighters it's the big leagues. Most of his colleagues work on the loading docks by day and run the streets by night. Young can't number the times boxers have fled to his basement for a place to sleep.
"Kids will stay with us when they get booted out of their houses. I don't know how many times I've heard the doorbell ring at 3 a.m.," says Young.
Leota has logged his share of time in Young's house, as well. His early youth was spent in American Samoa, before he moved to Los Angeles with his mother. When he was 16 he moved to Salt Lake City to live with an uncle and, later, the Youngs.
In Utah, Leota hooked up at Young's Gym and joined the LDS Church, a move he says changed his life. "People can come up and slap me now. I just sit," he says.
Young got involved in managing fighters a decade ago when his father-in-law, Jake Westbrook, invited him to help out at the Sheriff's Gym. He had a forgettable amateur boxing career, but a good eye for talent and a no-frills manner that attracted boxers. He talked so much about what the fighters needed to do to improve that Westbrook eventually said, "If you know so much, why don't you do something about it?" Young did, setting up a makeshift gym back of the nursery off West Temple that he and his wife, Bonnie, maintain. He put up a mat, ropes, a heavy bag and a sign.
He was in business.
Gradually, the kids with empty pockets and wild dreams began to drift in.
Though Young has poured money into the handling of fighters over the years, he is a pragmatist. He isn't out to save the world. "People say you're keeping them off the streets. I've got former fighters who are in jail now. Boxing doesn't necessarily keep them out of trouble," he says.