The Grand Avenue Boxing Gym sits on a dusty side street off Northeast 82nd Avenue, in a neighborhood of clone "luxury plexes" and older bungalows. Most yards look desperately parched in this drought-plagued summer. A sign in the Grand's parking lot advises visitors "SMILE YOU'RE ON CANDID CAMERA."
Inside, snapshots of smiling students cover a bulletin board. Everyone who drops by Fred Ryan's pugilistic paradise on a searing July afternoon is friendly as could be. Still, this is probably not the sort of place most people in foreign lands picture when they think of America's Land of Opportunity. Two or three times a week, Paul Mpendo rides the Greyhound from Eugene to Portland so he can train here. A welterweight who first learned the ropes, literally, in Uganda, Mpendo hopes the Grand will be the launching pad for an assault on pro boxing's heights.
"I thought I should go some place where boxing was big time," Mpendo says. "Boxing is the sport Uganda does best in at the international level, but soccer and other sports are more popular there."
Mpendo grew up in a rural village in the small East African republic, a nation of 23.3 million people where English is the official language and the crimes of exiled ex-dictator Idi Amin endure as a dubious claim to fame. It wasn't until he and his mother moved to Kampala, Uganda's capital on the shores of Lake Victoria, that he was able to take up the sport.
"I become one of the best fighters for my high-school team," Mpendo says. "But in Uganda, it gets to the point where education costs. When my mom couldn't afford my school fees, I dropped out. I said to myself then, 'Hey, I'm not going to sit here and do nothing.'"
For Mpendo, boxing provided discipline to fill the void left by the end of his schooling. Soon enough, after he established himself as a top amateur and pro prospect, it gave him the chance to travel.
First he fought in Cannes, as a sponsored guest of Kampala's French Embassy. Then, with a Ugandan national title fight promised, he came to the U.S. to train. Though the championship shot fell through, he soon found more than one compelling reason to stay in the States. There was better training and richer paydays. And there were even sweeter inducements--a new American bride, and a chance to further his long-delayed education at Eugene's Lane Community College.
On April 28, Mpendo iced Cuban light-middleweight Amary Banderas in the third, bringing his pro record to four wins, one loss and a draw. On Aug. 3, Mpendo is scheduled to take on a mysterious welterweight named Ullises Caballaro in Yakima, Wash., a fight that could make ESPN2.
"Can't find anything out about the man," says Grand czar Ryan. "The savage ethics of the prize ring say, 'Just be well-prepared.'"
Whatever Caballaro offers, Mpendo has likely seen worse. "It was bad, man," he says, of growing up amid Uganda's political turmoil. "You would hear, sometimes, that someone had just disappeared. Then you didn't hear anything more from them. And you can't believe how hard we'd work out in the gym I went to there--and it was an hour to get there from where I lived. Transport's really bad, so I'd hike there, then hike back.
"I appreciate everything boxing's done for me," says Mpendo. "It's not as brutal as people think it is. It's a sweet-science sport, like they say. It's a game of planning and thinking. Sometimes you know about your opponent's style, sometimes you don't. I just go in with my plan."
CORRECTION TO LAST WEEK'S CORRECTION:So that would be Lenny Wilk
ns. With an "e". Sometimes you just can't win.
For the August bout with Caballaro, Mpendo is contracted to fight as a welterweight (147 pounds). According to Ryan, Mpendo will generally fight as a light-welterweight (140 pounds), though he can go up as high was light-middleweight (154 pounds), as he did against Banderas.
Though he lives in Eugene, Mpendo says he prefers Portland's metropolitan attractions. "I'm from Kampala," he says. "I'm a big-city boy."
Sorry about that headline, by the way