I was raised as a Catholic, but stepped off the religious path at a very young age. Since then, my views in that area have been shaped by a number of faiths yet it is Islam that I identify with the most in some, not all, respects. If pushed, you could call me a Theoretical Muslim—I actually wanted to go down that route but it caused an inordinate amount of problems with the trade mark department over at the Intellectual Property Office.
However, I only believe in what I can see and hold, so, removing love from the equation, faith cannot grown within me and I cannot take the slice of solace that religion can offer. If someone tells me that they are going to the next room to get something out of a draw, I don’t truly believe them unless I see them do it or they emerge with the object. I have that innate doubt in me.
This is why it is troubling to watch Abdul Haqq, formerly Anthony Small (23-2, 16 KOs), on the BBC’s car crash reality TV show Muslims Like Us. As you probably know, Small had a moderately successful boxing career, and could have continued with it, only fall into the form of insidious Islamism that attracts all the headlines and detracts from the many Muslims who live in peace and do not share the more outlandish views held by Small, who, unlike Muhammad Ali, does not deserve to be known by his Muslim name at this point.
“As for the nickname, I had to do it. I watch boxing night and day and these four fighters are my heroes. If you are going to have a nickname, it has got to be the best.”
—Small speaking to Niall Hickman in 2009
These views started to percolate in Small towards the tail end of his boxing career, at a point when there was a chance he could still fight again following his loss to Sam Webb in March 2010, his last paid outing. Still on the peripheries, Small’s talk went from odd, a lot of boxers say strange things, to downright disturbing.
In 2009, Small, then calling himself “Sugar Ray Clay Jones Junior” was talking to Niall Hickman for an article in The Express. He was set to face Webb in a British light-middleweight title defence, a decision lost in what became his final fight, and the most controversial thing about him at that time was that overblown and underdeserved nickname.
“As for the nickname, I had to do it,” he told Hickman. “I watch boxing night and day and these four fighters are my heroes. If you are going to have a nickname, it has got to be the best.”
Then the defeat came and he became further enmeshed in the web of militant Islamism. By 2010, he was hitting the headlines for another reason after joining a group of Islamists to shout abuse at returning British soldiers, which prompted a response from Robert Smith, who told the Daily Star that: “Anthony Small has become a controversial figure.”
He added: “He has caused a lot of outrage and everyone in boxing wants to distance themselves from his views. Many people in the game think he has brought the sport into disrepute with his actions. If he has we can ban him. It will be a priority to discuss the matter at our next meeting this month.”
Small had also released a Youtube video in which he compared British forces to Hitler. Frank Warren had already removed him from his roster of fighters. Rumours of a link with Ricky Hatton’s new promotional outfit, Hatton Promotions, was also denied, with many in the trade turning their back on the controversial figure.
“We have to be objective and non-biased, that the beheading of James Foley, Mr Beheaded infidel, not to be disrespectful to him or his family, I can’t remember his name, Mr Infidel, it wasn’t unprovoked.”
—Quotes from a Youtube video posted by Small in September 2014.
Still, he was viewed as an irritant at best, a deluded fanatic at worse. When Small announced he was quitting boxing later that year as ‘It leads people to drink and to celebrate violence’ former promoter Warren joked that ‘The 31 people he sold tickets to when he fought on my promotion were no trouble!’.
The comedy element, this image of him as a figure of fun, ended from 2014 onwards. Small tried to justify the beheading of American journalist James Foley in one video before reiterating his belief that British soldier Lee Rigby had also deserved to be hacked to death in London in May 2013.
Words became alleged deeds that year, too, after Small was charged in relation to an alleged plot to smuggle men abroad using false documentation. It was claimed that the men were being sent abroad to join Isis. One of the men was charged under the Immigration Act 1971. A further claim was that Small had sold his boxing memorabilia, including gloves—barely used—to fund his part of the trip.
Although cleared of the charges against him (namely, disseminating terrorist publications and supporting a proscribed organisation and conspiracy to possess false identity documents with improper intention) Small was later found guilty of traffic fraud for a different offence after he produced fake insurance papers and racked up parking fines. He was handed a 32-day stretch and community service.
So he went 1-1 in his fight against the law, then, but the nature of the charges levelled against him were disquieting to say the least once you took his other views into account. Not to mention an alleged association with hate preacher Anjem Choudary that saw Small name checked in multiple articles about a man who was convicted for ‘inviting support for a proscribed organisation’ under the Terrorism Act 2000.
In the midst of all this, and in my role as U.K. Editor of BoxingScene, an article arrived in my in-box from one of our regulars. It was an in-depth interview with Small that, while well-written, was unpublishable due to the views he espoused and the claims he made about both the trade and those within it. However, we had published strong stuff before so I consulted Glyn Leach—the former edition of Boxing Monthly—who is sadly no longer with us, and he confirmed what I had suspected—this one couldn’t be “touched with a bargepole”.
What struck me then, and strikes me now, is the complete lack of cohesion in what Small says—something that some of his other housemates have pointed out this week. As a fighter, he was scatty when on the mic, so it makes sense that his thinking is foggy on a deeper, broader subject. Indeed, he looks and sounds like a man who has been groomed by the bottom of the barrel fanatics who prey and latch on to vulnerable people.
It is the one area in which Small can draw a legitimate comparison with Ali, who he impersonated on last night’s show while doing some training in the garden. Like Small, Ali was infected with a militant strain of Islam—and by the people closest to him both personally and professional—when joining the Nation of Islam. Unlike Small, Ali continued to box, travel and develop. By the 1980s, he was humble enough to admit that there were flaws in the NOI’s ideology and that he had converted anew to the “real” Islam.
Without the support system of boxing, or at least the influence of peers from varying political backgrounds, Small has tumbled into fanaticism. Clearly, this is a road that he is unlikely to deviate from. In many ways it is a shame, his boxing career still had some legs under it and he was still in contention, plus his verbalism always meant he would receive fights as he played the bad guy role quite well.
A huge plus point of boxing is that, unlike footballers, the fighters are not media trained robots, but could the free-spirited nature of the sport also be a negative point? The Board try to maintain standards yet boxers fall into various traps: crime, drug use and, in Small’s case, religious conditioning. The boxing ring is a lonely place, the sport can be lonelier still, and a bored mind is a mind that is fertile, one that can twisted and turned in the long gaps between fights.
Watching Small, two thoughts spring to mind. The first? ‘It could be worse, we could be watching him box’. The other? ‘In the year in which Ali died, it is a pity that Small did not learn the lessons of the older Ali and has replicated the mistakes he made as an impressionable young man’. It strikes me as a journey that is not going to end well, with the enlightenment Ali found later in life, rather one that will continue apace until reaching a dispiriting finale.
We recently spoke about depression and watching out for maladies of the mind, we should also bear in mind that there are those of the spirit, and we may see more of them in this ever-changing world. One thing is for sure, in the year we bid a fond adieu to “The Greatest” recent ring fatalities and injuries have underlined what Ali gave to the sport physically, and, in the case of Small’s religious unawakening, as he seems half-asleep to me, has reminded us, that despite his flaws, Ali grew both as a fighter, a man and an icon.
Let’s just hope that the next time Small thinks about Ali, he considers some of the spiritual changes that the former world heavyweight Champion went through as he made his way down the road of life.