What draws one to a boxing gym? Some rare individuals, such as Floyd Mayweather Jr., enter its doors almost as toddlers, virtually growing up inside its walls. Others find their way there later in life, out of necessity, desperate for an outlet for all of life’s frustration and pain. Others go to learn how to defend themselves, to instill courage and discipline. Whatever the case, when a serious commitment is made and a genuine boxing journey begins, the story is always unique and deserves to be told.
For Theo Owusu, a Montreal-based amateur pugilist, the adventure in boxing began rather haphazardly. Growing up, he competed on a number of team sports, including track and field, rugby, basketball, and soccer. But it was while pumping iron at a YMCA during the off-season that he saw a boxing coach training some kids, a coach who invited Theo to join in. Not interested at that time in the fight game, Owusu rebuffed the coach’s invitations. But eventually Theo relented and he decided to lace up the gloves for the first time and spar with this meddlesome trainer, confident he would be too big and too strong for the coach they called “Shady.”
“He was pretty small,” recalls Theo. “So I was like ‘I can take you.’ I was eighteen, thought I was all that, and I was getting big. And he’s like ‘So show me.'” But it was Shady who put a beating on his new pupil. “That’s when I realized,” says Theo, “size doesn’t mean a thing.”
This was the turning point, the beginning. But while Owusu continued to box and learn the technique, he wasn’t doing it from a genuine passion for pugilism. Instead, he wanted to learn the skills so he could hopefully someday turn the tables on his future coach and mentor. Theo’s sights were set on Shady and dishing out some payback for that bruising initiation.
But as he continued to train at his coach’s club, Ambition Boxing, Theo found himself becoming more and more attached to the sport and after a while he was no longer motivated by revenge. Instead he wanted to leave his mark in boxing and he knew that in order to do so, he had to develop the skills.
After a full year of training, Theo had his first amateur contest, but as is often the case with late teens, his focus wasn’t as sharp as it needed to be. For his first two years in boxing, he wasn’t truly “all in.” His scheduling conflicts and his desire to hang out with his friends prevented him from training consistently. It was only when he was twenty, and had experienced the pain of defeat, that Theo gave pugilism the respect that it requires and demands. After ten straight amateur wins, he suffered his first loss and Owusu immediately knew that changes were necessary.
“I hated the feeling of defeat so much,” recalls Theo. “And I just said to myself, ‘I don’t want to ever lose again.’ So I started training and training and training.” The result was a renewed commitment to completely dedicate himself to boxing. From then on, he followed Shady’s training regimen in a manner most strict and meticulous, doing his roadwork and practicing at the gym not when it was convenient, but every single day. Without fail.
Having built up a 19-7 record as an amateur, Owusu intends to turn pro by the end of this year and to do so he has enlisted the services of former Olympian Howard Grant, the renowned Montreal trainer who has worked with, among others, Librado Andrade and Lucian Bute. And according to Theo, training with Howard Grant has allowed him to discover new resources and abilities.
“For a year, I was on a plateau. I wasn’t moving forward. Then I started working with the Grant Brothers and now I find I’m continually progressing and moving up.”
Howard is currently helping to tweak Owusu’s fighting style to make it more suitable to the pro game. “I have the skills,” says Theo. “But Howard is shifting my style to be more like a power puncher and less of an amateur. Howard is focused on power and knocking out opponents. It’s going good. I’m the new guy and people tell me good things. It’s nice to hear, but at the same time I want more. I want to be the best.”
It also helps that Shady was himself trained by the Grant Brothers, ensuring that there is no animosity between any of the parties involved. Although Owusu does much of his training now at the Grant Brothers Gym, he still puts in regular work with Shady at the Ambition gym. And because the Grants are aware that Theo has been loyal to Shady for years, they know he will demonstrate that same loyalty to them.
“I’m still with my coach and he’s happy for me,” says Theo. “Everything is going good. I just need to keep pushing.”
Howard himself is also very positive about Theo and what he brings to the ring: “He’s a nice kid and he has a great work ethic,” says the man who represented Canada at the Olympic Games in 1988. “He’s tall and lanky and he reminds me a bit of a fighter like Thomas Hearns with the height and the reach and the right hand. And he’s a real gentleman, a beautiful kid. He’s got real potential.”
As for being “focused on power and knocking out opponents,” Grant says it’s more about using the proper technique.
“Sometimes guys have the power but they really don’t know how to turn on the punches and make it work for them,” says Grant. “I stress the fundamentals of the game. I see a lot of these young guys try to do fancy stuff and I pull them back and make them focus on the basic techniques. And if you do that, if you get those skills down, then the power will be there for you.”
As for Theo turning pro at the end of 2019, the elder of the two Grant brothers is cautiously optimistic.
“There’s a lot of kids who want to turn pro but that doesn’t mean they’re ready for the jump,” says Howard. “More than once I’ve worked with guys who want to turn pro but then they get in there with the smaller gloves and it’s a rude awakening. The truth is it’s a different game and you need to be ready. But hopefully Theo will succeed at the sport he loves so much because he truly loves boxing.”
And when Theo steps through the ropes in his first professional match, there’s no question as to who will be in his corner. “Of course Shady will be there,” says Howard. “He was one of our fighters and he’s a great guy, a family man. And he’s like family to us. When Theo started training here, I called Shady and made sure he was okay with it. I didn’t want him thinking we were going behind his back or anything. But we’re all on the same team. And Theo is working hard. That’s the key. He puts the work in.”
Which he must if he hopes to achieve his dream of becoming a world champion. With that long-term goal in sight, young Theo is putting everything he has into learning how to become the best boxer he can be. His schedule is packed, as he balances his training with his job as a personal fitness coach. But that means he’s always in the gym, either training himself or helping his clients achieve their goals, something he loves.
Now Owusu is happy he decided to take Shady up on his offer to learn to box, even if it was a painful first lesson. If he had never made that choice, The Fight City would have one less talented prospect in its stable. And in fact the relationship between fighter and coach has only deepened since that pivotal sparring session which marked the beginning of Owusu’s boxing journey.
“Shady has always been there for me,” says Theo. “And not just for boxing. When I was in high school, he helped me with homework. And when I wasn’t working, he let me train for free because he knew if I had the money, I would pay. He’s always been there for me, in terms of boxing and everyday life. He’s like a second dad to me.”
With Shady and the Grant Brothers, Owusu has the right people looking out for him and he’s determined to fulfill his potential. No one works harder and if Theo stays at the grind, day after day, there’s no reason to think he cannot embark on a lengthy and successful pro career. Indeed, nothing else will satisfy him, nor the passion that was discovered on that fateful day when Shady first showed him the beauty of “The Sweet Science.” — Jamie Rebner