Sherif Younan Sr. is worried. In less than two hours, he’ll witness his son Junior “Sugar Boy” Younan knock a man unconscious, but he doesn’t yet know that. For now, he stands with his arms pretzeled across his chest, hovering over Junior as he casually flexes in front of a camera while waiting for his urine test to begin. It’s the night of Junior’s second professional boxing match, and his father shoulders all of their anxiety.
“It’s a very dangerous sport,” he says. “Sometimes you feel helpless.”
It’s strange Sherif Sr. should be so tense this evening: he is, after all, the man who molded his son into a prize fighter. For 12 years, he has taught his son how to conquer other men, at no cost himself. The son has more than fulfilled his father’s aspirations. Junior is 18 years old, well over six feet tall, and lean. His arms are tattooed and his short mohawk is dyed red. He punches very fast and very hard.
He fought 95 times as an amateur, winning 90. When he announced in October that he was turning professional, it was met with the sort of fanfare accorded to only those young men who are deemed commodities in the fight game. He had a promoter – Lou DiBella – and two managers – Josh Dubin, his lawyer, and James Prince, founder of the iconic Houston record label Rap-A-Lot Records. And, as always, as his trainer, his father.
Sherif Sr. is 46 and he too had been a boxer, though of modest achievement. He grew up in Cairo where he worked as a flight attendant for Egypt Air and trained as a body builder. He did not start boxing until he arrived in New York when he was 28 – ancient for a beginning boxer. He fought as an amateur but stopped when his son was born in 1995. What remains of his brief career collects dust on old VHS tapes.
He never stopped training, and would take his infant son to Gleason’s Gym. When Junior was 14 months old, his father says, he climbed out of his stroller, clambered into the ring and pulled on headgear and tried to pull a boxing glove onto his hand.
“It was fun then and games, because he was little and it was cute,” the father says. “But we knew he was hooked.”
Junior won his first amateur fight at the age of six. Two years later, he had racked up his first Junior Olympics victory. Everything he knew came from his father. In 2006, the boxing world was beginning to take notice of the fighter Sherif Sr. was creating. The New York Times hailed him as “a boxing prodigy.”
“I’m like Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr. combined,” Junior boasted.
But there was something else that struck the writer, Geoffrey Gray: the way the father was treating his son. Sherif Sr. showed an aggressiveness with his son that, Gray wrote, worried his fellow trainers, as well as the gym’s owner.
“They always end up the same way: the father screaming for the son to exercise harder and the son crying,” Gray wrote. In the ring he hit his son, hard. He yelled and cursed, forever ordering him to run another mile. “I’m a drill sergeant,” he told Gray. “Sometimes I go off, you know. But these rigorous methods are why we are at where we are right now.”
The son did not protest.
“I always knew how it felt,” Junior now says. “I don’t remember the first time clearly, but I know it was normal.”
Sherif Sr. and Junior weren’t alone in this dynamic. There’s a long history of father and son tandems in professional boxing. Guty Espadas, Jr. trained under his father Guty, Sr.; Leon Spinks taught all three of his sons to fight. But boxing’s patrilineal streak is mired in cautionary tales of fractured families. It’s ironic Junior counts Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Roy Jones Jr. among his heroes; their relationships with their fathers have become the benchmark of boxing’s father-son struggles. Mayweather fired Floyd, Sr. as his trainer and hired his uncle Roger in 1999. Jones endured years of physical and emotional abuse under his father’s regiment. He, too, fired his father as his trainer: the first time was in 1992, the second in 2005.
Years later Sherif Sr. seems pained when asked about his depiction in the Times. His voice becomes soft. The tough approach, he says, was necessary to protect his son. He knew what could happen if Junior wasn’t properly prepared to step into the brutality of the ring. He wonders whether he trained his son too hard, too early.
“Sometimes I was hard on him when he was younger, “ he says. “Sometimes I pushed him a little too much.”
But he also believes he has done work well. Junior has grown into a fearsome boxer, and a cocky one, too. His debut fight came in November against Kenneth Schmitz, a fighter with two wins and 11 loses – an ideal first opponent for a young fighter with investors on his side. Within 35 seconds of the first round bell, Schmitz was on the canvas. A minute later he was out for the count.
Junior saved a picture of the vanquished Schmitz on his cell phone. He laughs.
“I have pictures of his face,” he says. “I have pictures of his face on my iPhone. Man…”
It is two hours before his second fight, this one at the BB King Blues Club and Grill in Times Square. Junior excuses himself for his urine test. His father has been watching him shadowbox, just as he watches everything he does. The father and son do lots of other things together; they fish and play PlayStation. But there is always the gym, and now, another fight to prepare for.
“We’re a boxing family,” the father says. His eyes follow his son out of the dressed room. He asks his son if he needs help.
“You gonna hold it for me?” Junior jokes back. “The doctor said you shouldn’t lift anything heavy.”
Sherif Sr.’s stern countenance momentarily breaks into a smile.
“Kid’s a pain in my ass,” he mutters.
It’s 8 PM, and time for Junior to fight. He swaggers to the ring as Maybach Music Group’s “Ain’t Bout That Life” blares over the speakers. His sequined shorts glare in the bright lights; his shoelace tassels bounce as he bobs and weaves. He gazes into a void, oblivious to the cheers building from the sold-out crowd around him. The only thing that pulls him back into the moment is his father grabbing him by the neck and kissing him on the cheek.
His eyes are menacingly vacant. His father, too, has a distant look. Gone is the visible look of worry that crossed his face earlier. His eyes are drawn close in a dark, cutting glare. It’s as much his fight as it is his son’s.
Junior’s opponent Travis “Barracuda” McClaren stands in the opposite corner. He’s shorter, but his hulking frame is intimidating.
The bell sounds. Junior races across the ring. His hands cut at McClaren’s face, a blur of red leather. McClaren dodges a few punches, takes a few to the chin, and then counters with a few his own.
A left jab grazes Junior’s face, but it barely registers. Junior presses in on McClaren, his punches almost impossible to follow. McClaren last jab leaves him unprotected. Junior sees his opening. A left hook crashes into the side of McClaren’s head.
Twenty two seconds have passed. McClaren tumbles back and falls drunkenly to the canvas. Junior vaunts around the ring, arms outstretched and mouth triumphantly agape. “Who wants next?” his face seems to scream. He runs over to his father and hugs him. Sherif Sr.’s face is spread open with a smile.
Sherif Sr. sits back, beaming. The victory, he says, is especially satisfying: McClaren had dared to trash-talk his son before the fight, letting him know he was going to learn how a man punched.
The father laughs. It’s the same laugh I heard earlier that night when I asked who would win in a fight, him or his son.
“Oh yeah, he’ll kick my ass – don’t tell him that,” he said. “No, I think the student will be the teacher.”