Boxer Isaac Chilemba of Malawi has his eye on the world championship in the light heavyweight division of the World Boxing Council. He’ll be fighting Tony Bellew in Bellew’s hometown of Liverpool, England, on March 30; whoever wins that bout will challenge Chad Dawson, reigning light heavyweight champion.
Rooting for Chilemba, but probably with her eyes closed and head down, will be his manager, Jodi Solomon. Solomon, who is Jewish, is the first woman to serve as a boxing manager in South Africa. She was named South African Boxing Manager of the Year in 2010.
“I’m like a Jewish mother. I don’t like to see my children fighting,” Solomon told NJJN in an interview with the pair at the Café at the J at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange, where Chilemba and Solomon have been training for the fight.
The boxer and his manager have been staying in Livingston for close to 10 weeks as guests of Solomon’s cousin, Ava Reinfeld.
Chilemba works out with his trainer, Buddy McGirt, in Newark at Elite Hit Boxing Gym every day, and then heads over to the JCC, where Solomon works with him on conditioning. They had just finished “an exhausting” day of training when all three sat down to chat.
Chilemba’s kind green eyes and soft-spoken manner offer an appealing combination; together with his smallish frame, they belie the explosive nature of his punches.
Fifteen years ago, Solomon, a South African native, was looking for a physical outlet. A lifelong dancer, she said she was “drawn” to boxing and took it up for fun and exercise. “Both are based on rhythm and movement. You have to have rhythm to be a good boxer. In fact, many boxers are defeated when they cannot get into a rhythm,” she said.
Over time, she became friendly with many of the professionals in the sport, and eventually became familiar with the boxing culture of South Africa. “Most boxers come from impoverished backgrounds and have a lack of education. They sign contracts they don’t understand. Because I was friendly with them, many would tell me what was going on behind the scenes,” she said.
She became a kind of confidant, and many boxers sought her informal, unofficial advice.
Six years ago, Chilemba, then boxing in a lighter division, started looking for a new manager. “In my career, there was no one I could really speak to about what was going on. And I was working for the manager instead of the other way around. And I realized that Jodi was the only one who would give me really good advice. I got to the point where I said, ‘Why don’t you just manage me? You seem to be the only person who really cares.’”
Solomon picked up the narrative. “At first, I thought he was a little insane,” she said. “But I’m always one for a challenge.”
But she was determined to do things differently. “I wanted to do the right thing for them. The way I work with boxers — I’m open and honest. They always know what they are signing. Everything is above board.”
Raised on Jewish values in an Orthodox home, Solomon acknowledged that her ethics are probably intertwined with her religious values, and with Jewish history. “I grew up in South Africa during apartheid. Coming from a Jewish home, with stories of the Holocaust, I could not understand the racism,” she said. “I just want to see people treated fairly.”
Meanwhile, Chilemba said, over time he’s found himself drawn to Judaism. His parents are both Christian, but, he said “about 80 percent of the people I interact with are Jewish.”
He wonders if his comfort level with Judaism is more than just an attraction.
“I think maybe my family might come from the Lemba,” he said, referring to a group of Malawians who identify as Jews. He hasn’t done the research, but he shrugs it off. “I’ve just got a love for the religion.”
He’s traveled to Israel, “just to visit the Holy Land,” and called it “quite an experience.”
He had his first synagogue experience when he attended Friday evening services at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, a Reform synagogue in South Orange. “I didn’t expect such a welcome. I knew I would be different-looking from most of the people there, but I didn’t feel that way. I just felt like I belonged there,” he said.
“Maybe one day I will get to convert.”
‘They cut us off’
While Jews are no strangers to boxing, and Jackie Kallen, a Jewish woman manager, broke the gender barrier here in the 1970s, the world of South African boxing was unaccustomed to and “intolerant” of women, according to Solomon.
“Why would he go to a woman trainer?” she recalls colleagues asking of Chilemba. “He must be sleeping with her. How did he get a U.S. promoter? He must be sleeping with her. How did he win the fight? She must have slept with the judges.”
And then things got worse, she said. “Once they realized I was a force to be dealt with, they cut us off. They wouldn’t give us fighters or book fights.”
Chilemba added, “When she got Manager of the Year [in 2010], they said, ‘How did the boxing world give it to her, as a female manager?’ But I got an American contract. No South African manager ever seemed able to get a promotional contract in the U.S. This is the boxing mecca of the world, and to get a promoter here is not easy.”
“That took two years of hard work, lots of phone calls and e-mails,” said Solomon.
The two agreed that they have stood by each other, and that formula has worked for them.
She now manages three other South African boxers: Zolani Marali, Prince Ndlovu, and Thandoxulo Gatyeni.
At press time, Solomon and Chilemba were scheduled to leave New Jersey on March 20 for England. Looking forward to the March 30 match, Chilemba said, “It’s a big fight. It brings me one step closer to the world title that every boxer dreams of.”
He doesn’t worry about fighting Bellew on his home turf. “The fight is won or lost in the gym,” Chilemba said.
On the day of the bout, Solomon knows their roles will shift, and Chilemba will become a doting “Jewish” boy.
“It’s quite funny,” she said. “He will console me. He’ll say, ‘Don’t worry, it will be okay.’”