Four men wearing only loincloths carry a cage to the ring containing boxing’s next great lightweight. From afar, most fans can’t even spot Sharif Bogere. All they can see is a mouth of snow-white teeth and two squinting eyes.
Bogere crouches until it’s time to climb through the ropes, transforming into a beast not unlike the lion whose skin and head he’s wearing.
“People don’t want to come to only see a fight in boxing,” Bogere says of his entrance. “They want to get some entertainment. Who doesn’t love that stuff? And it’s real; it’s not fake.”
For Bogere, a 23-year-old who has trained in Las Vegas the past four years, the lion represents where he’s going and where he’s come from. When Jimmy Alex, one of his two managers, told him he fought like a lion, Bogere took it to heart. Through 21 professional fights, he’s unbeaten. He’s captured a WBO North American title and might have a shot at one of the major belts before year’s end.
“He could win a title where he’s at right now,” says Bogere’s trainer, Kenny Adams. “He could beat anyone right now—period.”
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Adams, a 71-year-old former Army sergeant, pushes his pupils so hard that few stick with him for the long haul. Bogere is a rare exception. Living the first 18 years of his life in Kampala, the capital city of poverty-stricken Uganda, gave the boxer an unusual outlook.
Bogere began fighting—unwillingly—when he was 7 years old. Hanging out in the streets, an older boy would pair the children together before telling them to take off their shirts and box.
Bogere beat everyone. Eventually, he made his way into a legitimate gym, where the older men took notice of the kid whose shadowboxing looked so fluid, so natural. He started spending all of his time at the gym, sometimes practicing for hours without hand wraps or spare change for a drink.
“Getting a good, clean cup of water was not easy, so someone would have to buy you a cup,” Bogere recalls. “To get water or tea after working out was big.”
It wasn’t long before Bogere was a promising amateur fighter. He traveled around to competitions as word spread about the promising young boxer from Kampala. Soon, he was capturing regional titles in less-than-glamorous conditions.
“When we would have tournaments or fights, we would have to share a mouthpiece,” Bogere says. “It would come out of my mouth and into your mouth when you had to go fight. That’s how it used to be.”
Through it all, Bogere watched boxers like Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Oscar de la Hoya—Bogere’s promoter—dreaming of the opportunity to chase a career in Las Vegas. When he earned captain status on Uganda’s national boxing team, he got his chance. The squad traveled to Chicago for the World Boxing Championships in 2007. Then 19, he split from the team and headed west.
“I made some connections before I came to the U.S. so when I came here we got in touch,” Bogere says. “I dreamed since I was a little kid that I wanted to move to the U.S. to fight professionally and become a world champion. God made it happen.”
At first, Bogere wondered if he could get a live lion to walk him to the ring. Instead, he settled on a lion headdress and skin. One of his managers, Ralph Heredia, started looking for an authentic skinned lion from Africa and, after nearly a year, got word that he could purchase a lion scheduled to be put down for killing humans. In fact, Heredia could fly to Africa and euthanize the animal himself if he wanted.
“I’m not interested in killing the lion,” Heredia remembers responding. “I’m interested in getting the lion.”
A few years later, it’s Bogere’s trademark. When Heredia meets boxing fans around the world and tells them he represents Bogere, some look at him blankly. When he mentions the lion, their faces light up. Heredia hopes before long, fans will know the fighter, too.
“Back home, they think I’m one of the greats, but I’m trying to make it,” Bogere says. “The way I am right now, I’m not at the top yet. But I’m pushing my best to get there.”