Thrown from his cushy seat in the Chevy Suburban to the back window, Maurice "Termite" Watkins could see the ground skidding swiftly by his feet. Despite riding in a car doing 125 mph through Iraq with 60 gallons of gasoline on its top, Watkins had failed to fasten his seatbelt, something he typically did.
When the Suburban finally came to a screeching halt, Watkins leapt from the licks of flame that were creeping up his legs and helped pull the driver from the burning vehicle.
Then came the explosion. Watkins realized that moment might have been the end of his story.
But the former professional boxer, in Iraq with KBR as a pest control expert, had little time to contemplate either the dangers avoided or the dangers ahead. He was already on to his next assignment: cultivating an Iraqi national boxing team.
At breakfast one morning, Watkins had the conversation that suddenly changed his life. Mike Gfoeller, an official with the Coalition Provisional Authority, asked, What are the chances of putting together an Iraqi boxing team from which someone could qualify for the Olympics?
"I said, 'Slim to none; maybe one in a million,' " Watkins said.
But they only needed one. And they got one.
After assembling the top two Iraqi fighters in each of 11 weight classes, Watkins had to see the boxers in action. The only gym was an abandoned-looking expanse of concrete, far from suited for boxing.
"We went down to a soccer field, and they began to pair off," Watkins said. "I stopped it because there were mouths bleeding; they had no mouthpieces, no groin protectors. Half of them had no shoes. They said, 'This is the way we do this every day.' "
With no equipment, no matches in two years and little hope of making it to the Olympics, Watkins knew this might be the biggest fight of his career. The man who had come to Iraq vowing to serve others now had a reason to continue on amid the always imminent danger.
Watkins originally had come to Iraq because of what he said was "almost like a calling from God." The 1973 national Golden Gloves lightweight champion, who had fought on the undercard of the 1980 Larry Holmes-Muhammad Ali bout, felt the need to give back after having received so much in his life.
He thought he could contribute through pest control but ended up teaching what he learned during his 16-year career in the ring.
"Boxing was important because they wanted to compete," Watkins said. "They wanted to be back in the flow of sports. They looked at it as the opportunity of a lifetime. . . . They knew the chances of making it were slim, but they wanted to give it a chance."
Because of the lack of equipment, Watkins spent the first two weeks of training demonstrating techniques and stance. More important, he explained to the Iraqi boxers that they deserved an opportunity to try for the Olympics and persuaded them to trust him, an American interloper.
One fighter, a 106-pound flyweight named Najah Ali, seemed to have the skills and the attitude to turn the long shot into reality. Ali, fluent in English from his time in college in Iraq getting a computer science degree, had spent years learning the sport from his father, also a boxer, and years trying to avoid the ramifications of being an athlete in Iraq. Ali was lucky enough only to hear about the reported torture of Iraqi athletes by Saddam Hussein's son, Uday.
"I never meet this guy," Ali said. "When I'm there, I try to stay away from this guy. I heard about the soccer team. If you didn't do good, this guy maybe take you someplace and begin to kick you, hurt you."
In May, just a year after he began training with Watkins, the 24-year-old Ali received a special wild-card invitation to Athens from the International Olympic Committee after failing to qualify on his own.
"I'm so excited to be in this position," said Ali, who trained in Colorado last month with the U.S. boxing team. "When I was very young, that was my dream. When Termite [Watkins] come, I know this is good chance to be there. I want to represent Iraq because now it is free. Of course, all of Iraqi people supported us. When we go to the Olympics we will carry the Iraqi flag with us. That's the biggest thing in my life to happen to me."
It's one of the biggest things to happen to Watkins, as well. The former fighter left for Iraq a year and a half ago despite vocal protests from his wife and two children, thinking something would happen to change his life. He was considering making his way back to boxing once he ended his time in the Middle East, after experiencing years of success as a car salesman in Texas. With an Iraqi boxer under his tutelage now heading to Athens, his premonition seems to have come true: These days Watkins helps Ali train while fielding book and movie offers for his story.
But it hasn't come easily. Near-death experiences were daily occurrences in Iraq, where it got so dangerous for Watkins that he was warned not to go to the gym or he would be killed.
"The big picture is not that he's going to the Olympics," Watkins said. "We are ambassadors of freedom. We are believers in freedom, me and Najah both. This hit me months ago when I got out of bed [when there was mortar fire in the area]. I could have packed up and left. I made a decision that I was willing to give my life for this because it was such a big thing for me. I even called my wife because I thought I was going to die over there."
Watkins and Ali have transcended cultural barriers and conflicts in a country that has been torn apart by such issues. They are coach and student, father and son, friend and friend. Watkins marvels at the prescience of one of their first conversations.
"He said, 'Mr. Termite, I will be your one that goes to the Olympics,' " Watkins said. "I said, 'That's good, that's good spirit.' And he was. He told me the day that he got [a spot in the Games], 'I will bring back a medal for you.' And I bet he will."