At 12 years old, Immanuwel Aleem came with his older brother to watch the latter’s first day of boxing. From a chair on the side, Immanuwel watched Moshea Aleem go through a routine warmup and begin to learn the fundamentals. When he was done, Moshea remembers seeing Immanuwel chuckle and his face filled with a smile.
“He was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll be back tomorrow,’” Moshea said. “And that’s how it started.”
Not many kids were drawn to boxing at that age, instead sticking to basketball and football, but Moshea wanted to try something new. Immanuwel followed suit. Their family was surprised — neither Moshea nor Immanuwel had shown interest in boxing, though numerous family members had followed or participated in it.
In the five or six years afterward, Moshea estimates that he and Immanuwel didn’t miss a day in the gym. They were there training, with their father, Omar Aleem, watching from the side. Omar’s boxing connection with his sons was almost “telepathic” — he’d tell Immanuwel to jab and the young boxer would already be jabbing, Immanuwel said.
Both brothers traveled to Colorado Springs for 2012 Olympics qualifying, but came up short. Immanuwel didn’t want to wait four years until the next Olympics, so he decided to go pro to “make a future for myself.” This time, Moshea followed his younger brother’s lead.
In the years since, Immanuwel has emerged as one of the top professionals in Richmond. The Thomas Jefferson High School graduate is 18-3-2 since becoming a pro boxer in 2012.
But in December 2019, after suffering consecutive losses for the first time in his professional career, Immanuwel walked away from the ring.
The Richmond-raised boxer said his morale began to plummet in part because of his management then. He no longer felt he was fighting for the right reasons. Moshea compared it to “fighting with our own team” instead of the opponent. The circumstances led Immanuwel to take a year-and-a-half hiatus, one when he didn’t know whether he’d return.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is a turning point in my career. I’m only 27, but I could either go up or go down,’” Immanuwel said. “I can either just sit and let this happen and be a fighter that was, or I can turn this around.”
In August 2020, Immanuwel was “soul searching” in an attempt to relocate his passion for boxing, Moshea said. Ahead of a late-September bout between Jermall Charlo and Sergiy Derevyanchenko, both fighters’ teams reached out to ask Immanuwel whether he’d help train them. Immanuwel went with Charlo, a two-time World Boxing Council middleweight champion and No. 1 in their division.
Immanuwel’s past manager-trainer, George Peterson, had been close to a deal for Immanuwel to fight Charlo, but the details weren’t ironed out and the fight didn’t take place. (Attempts to reach Peterson were unsuccessful.)
The chance to fight the best in his division was too good to pass up, Immanuwel said, even if it was “behind doors.”
Staying at Charlo’s house, Immanuwel got to see how the best fighter in his division trained, ate and lived. He hadn’t made the decision about whether he would come back, but working side by side with Charlo every day for weeks reignited Immanuwel’s drive. He felt more inspired, because Charlo reinforced the fact that Immanuwel was on his level. Moshea said his brother started to smile more. It was proof he could still compete on the highest level.
“He got his hunger back, he got his groove,” Moshea said. “...He comes back harder and stronger.”
After boxing alongside his brother for 15 years, Moshea said he saw Immanuwel’s world-class level surfacing. That’s what they’ve been trying to show promoters for years, Omar added. Immanuwel is a quick boxer whose hybrid style includes parts of Joe Frazier’s game, Mike Tyson’s, and his older brother Moshea’s, who had an Muhammad Ali style.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” Omar said of Immanuwel.
Shields noticed Immanuwel picking up tidbits from Charlo’s game and trying them in his own. Shields added that Immanuwel had to be on his “A-game all the time” against Charlo. He was.
Charlo won his fight against Derevyanchenko. Trainer Ronnie Shields said the partnership between Charlo and Immanuwel was a good fit so he brought Immanuwel back to Houston in March to continue the partnership. Shields worked with Immanuwel one on one too, becoming his official new trainer.
“I think he just showed everybody that he has the skills to compete with anybody in the sport of boxing,” Shields said.
And on July 17, he appeared in his first fight in a year and a half. The national event on Showtime in San Antonio against an undefeated Amilcar Vidal ended in a narrow, controversial loss for Immanuwel. But without the hiatus, he would’ve knocked out his opponent, Omar said. Now, it’ll serve as a steppingstone for his professional career.
“He’s proved to the world that he’s back,” Shields said.
When the fight ended, Omar and Shields could hear the crowd booing Vidal. They thought Immanuwel won the controversial fight. The majority on social media said Immanuwel won, too, he said later. That marketability is important for a fighter because though a loss is a loss, this one was “a good loss.” He’s starting to understand the business side of the industry better after working with Charlo and seeing “how the top is built.”
Immanuwel isn’t alone in his struggles with the business side of the sport. He didn’t feel he had freedom, and he said younger athletes should focus on the business side more than he did to take full advantage.
It’s about entertaining, about earning another chance to showcase himself on “the big stage.” This fight, despite the loss, he hopes he did that.
After the fight, Omar said Immanuwel delivered strong uppercuts, and moved his head well to dodge strikes. Of course, he made mistakes, like backing into the ropes, and going too far on one particular leaping left-hook, but no boxer is going to be error-free.
Especially not one with a new trainer, one that’s still adapting to a new training routine, one that strayed from the one he used for the last eight years. That had a large psychological weight on him, Moshea said. Immanuwel had taken the hiatus and was now in a prime time fight against an undefeated fighter.
He was a “heavy underdog.” The expectation was that he’d get knocked out in three or four rounds, his brother said. Vidal was supposed to “run through me,” Immanuwel added. Instead, he lasted all 10 rounds and lost on a majority decision by a mere 4 points.
“Show the world that he’s back,” Omar said. “It was a tune-up fight for him.”