Red tape and a suspension prevented Mehrullah Lassi from becoming Pakistan’s best, but Osman Samiuddin finds the boxer has made peace with life.
Drug ban that laid Pakistan boxer low before Olympics
I first met Mehrullah Lassi nearly five years ago on a day in Karachi when discontent hung so heavy in the air it never lifted. Pervez Musharraf, the president, had entered the political vortex that would first chew him up, then spit him out over a year later.
Suicide attacks were peaking, a severe power crisis had crippled daily life, the economy had begun to dip, a judicial crisis was forming: if it can ever truly be said that control had been lost of a time and space, those were the days.
Mehrullah was pacing around on his own little island of discontent. The featherweight, pound for pound the best boxer in Pakistan, had been banned for life by the Pakistan Boxing Federation (PBF) after testing positive for cannabis use months before.
He did not look particularly put out, even though he would miss the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He was appealing against the ban and made the right kind of protestations, but it just felt like this was not the worst thing that had happened to him.
In that vague and informal, half-said, half-implied and fully contradictory conversational style of so many subcontinental sportsmen, unbuffered to media, he all but admitted something.
"You know how we come and go in Lyari," he began of the Karachi locality he was from. "It's normal here but it's normal everywhere, it happens. Across the world it happens. My performance doesn't improve because of it; it's not steroids. We were clear when fighting here. Guys who take drugs lose, they don't win."
Lyari is a little planet inside Karachi. It is possible to live an entire life in the city and never come across Lyari, especially if newspapers and TV channels are your thing.
They will tell you it is a forbidding place, violent and ghettoised, run by gangs run by political parties. Neighbourhoods are called Baghdadi or Cheel Chowk (Kite Roundabout); lost tales of legendary crime dons slink through gambling - or rummy - clubs looking to be found.
Episodically, areas of Lyari do undergo sieges, of the making of its gangs or by the state, and it can get so that it feels like the area is retching to try to expunge something from within itself.
Just last month, for example, the police and security forces entered Lyari to rid it of crime syndicates. An eight-day battle left approximately 25 dead and nobody any the wiser why.
But most days Lyari has the kind of alluring lived-in, used-up authenticity that a city's older settlements have, a back story you need to know. It also invests itself in sport in a way few other localities in Karachi do. Not cricket, but real sport, residents will tell you, like football (the Pakistani Pele, Abdul Ghafoor is from there), cycling and, of course, boxing.
Mehrullah has lived his entire life in Lyari. When I met him that day in 2007, he'd had enough.
"I will have to leave it because the situation is pretty bad at the moment with gangs roaming around. My younger brother Sherullah got shot but he is OK now."
When we met again during the recent troubles, a year retired from boxing, now husband and a father, he has changed his mind.
"We have choices outside Lyari but I'm not feeling it there. I was sitting happily at home" during the police operation. "We neither owe anyone, nor does anyone owe us. I can leave but our area was clear. Until I hear firing at night I don't sleep anyway. The family is happy, what more do I want?"
In a way, boxing is Lyari's response to its own shifting relevance within the city. It houses the country's best boxing clubs and has produced the finest boxers, including Hussain Shah, who won the middleweight bronze at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. That remains Pakistan's only Olympic medal other than for hockey.
One of six sons, Mehrullah began boxing at the famous Kakri Club when he was 10, the sport passed down to him like a damaged family heirloom.
"My uncle and his kids used to box, so I started from watching them. My parents didn't want it but uncle came and convinced them."
Within five years, he had been inducted by Karachi Port Trust (KPT), the government port authority with a long history of patronage of sports, particularly less-popular ones such as boxing. Predominantly, employment with a private or state-owned body is how most Pakistani sportsmen are sustained.
"He was small and quick," was the assessment of one of Mehrullah's first - and best-nicknamed - mentors, "Tiger" Mohammad Ali. "But mostly he was cunning in that he was seriously determined about not getting hit."
Once in the system, a succession of coaches from Cuba shaped him into a featherweight. Briefly, once he achieved his ambition in 1998 of "boxing for Pakistan" (he lost his first match) he was almost lost to the game. He failed to qualify for the Sydney Olympics and though continued training, he began to look at other ways to survive.
In 2000, he began selling chole, a spicy chickpea dish, from a roadside stall.
"After our morning training, the whole day was free till training in evening, so something needed to be done. A friend said let's sell haleem", a pasty, spicy mixture of grains and meat, "and I said no, chole will sell more."
It went well for six months or so, but once he was selected for a training camp in Kazakhstan, after a number of first-choice boxers left disgruntled, he knew what he wanted. "I got up immediately and said 'Let's parcel all of this, I need to go.' I gave it all away to neighbours and went to train."
Until the ban six years later, Mehrullah came close to becoming Pakistan's best boxer ever and, at his weight, one of the best in Asia. He won gold at the Asian Games in 2002 in Busan, South Korea. At the Asian Amateur Boxing Championships in 2005 he won gold again.
At the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006, he won silver. He qualified for the 2004 Athens Olympic in first place from Asia and though he was eliminated early, it was at bantamweight and to the eventual gold medallist, the Cuban Guillermo Rigondeaux.
But Beijing was the one he really wanted.
"That ban really hurt because it came during my peak," he remembered. "International authorities banned me for six months, but the PBF first did it for life, then two years. Why? It's obvious: here a hundred guys pull you down and only a few pull you up."
The ban was lifted in 2008, but after Beijing. Mehrullah returned but never was as sharp. London 2012 was a target but last year, after a middling few years, at 32 he decided to quit. He now works at KPT as a traffic supervisor, content.
"I work from eight in the morning and I have a good post. I have my own office." He laughs at how KPT kept him on daily wages and didn't make him a permanent employee until 2002, when he won gold at the Asiad. And they did so only because Mehrullah had the good sense to ask the president, Musharraf, to resolve the matter.
"I was told to say nothing to him at a function arranged for us, but when he asked me do I need anything, how could I not ask him to sort this? He was the president!" The president - and prime minister - also gave him cash rewards of Rs6 million (Dh239,000), securing his future.
But as he faded, so too began unravelling the fragile thread of recognition and financial support on which Pakistan boxing was always balanced, tipping this way and that but never falling.
Mehrullah's peak capped off a golden age; in seven Asiads up to and including 2002, Pakistan won 40 medals in boxing. They have not won a medal since. Not one qualified for Beijing or London 2012.
Given the sport and the country, it is no surprise to find much administrative malpractice behind this. The PBF president, Doda Khan Bhutto, is feuding with the secretary, Akram Khan. It is undignified stuff, accusations of corruption and human trafficking traded.
That side of it has never been clean; the late Anwar Chowdhry, the father of Pakistan boxing and a long-time Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA) president (and creator of the modern point-scoring system) gave much to it, but took back equally.
But then, as Mehrullah acknowledged, someone cared.
"I miss it now, but the way boxing is going, my heart has gone," he said. "There aren't any good boxers and even if there are, they won't be able to get ahead."
Bureaucracy remains a formidable opponent. Though he has been made permanent at KPT, nine years on, he still has not received the letter confirming it.
"I will go to the chairman, I will wear a blazer when I go and will ask him for it," he said. And he will go mostly happy. "Could I have done more? Yeah … maybe the Olympics. That was an obsession."