154 is one of the best if not the best division in boxing today. Some would call it a hot take, but the proof is in the pudding. The amount of fight of the year candidates that have come out in the last 5 years have been incredible. A division where truly any champion, contender, or journeyman can pull off a big win or spectacular upset on any given day. So, I really wanted to highlight a forgotten fight of yesteryear from this great division. I had found an old list that I did some years back of fights that I wanted to do a future “Forgotten Fades” article about. This just happened to be one of two that I did not get a chance to write. No better time than the present. The first half of the 2000s had some a lot of elite talent that operated there at the time. De La Hoya, Mosley, Vargas, Wright, Trinidad are some of those names but there were also some solid vets and up and comers. Enter Kassim Ouma vs Verno Phillips. Kassim Ouma has one of the unbelievable life stories that you will hear from a boxer. So unbelievable that a great documentary was made about it called Kassim the Dream. If you come across it, full recommendation to watch it. However, in the early 2000s, Ouma was a highly touted prospect who started his career in 1998. Outside of an unexpected blip where he got knocked out in one by a journeyman in 1999, Ouma showed chin and punch resistance to go along with the above average work rate he possessed. Verno Phillips was farther along in his career debuting in 1988. He had already been a world champion having won the WBO 154 title in the mid-nineties and having world class wins over the likes of Julio Cesar Vasquez, Gianfranco Rosi, and Julian “The Hawk” Jackson. He was in the hunt for another title opportunity.
Ouma vs Phillips 1
The first fight between these two fighters took place on 9/7/2001 on an episode of ESPN Friday Night Fights. What a slugfest this was. From the opening bell, both guys went at each other with fists of fury. Ouma set a furious pace and outworked Phillips for prolonged periods of the fight. But with most high work rate fighters, they usually do not have the soundest defense. Ouma was also taking some heavy shots round and round from Phillips who was not easily dissuaded. By the mid rounds, both men showed the effects of the punishment on their faces. The referee is having a night off as there was little clinching. The crowd were showing their approval very loudly. In round seven, the non-stop attacks by Ouma were starting to take its toll on Phillips. Phillips found himself on the ropes taking some extended punishment but would come firing back at the end of the round. Those shots were wild and Ouma, in a rare display of defense, simply ducked under them. In the ninth round, Ouma would score a knockdown when in between combinations to the head, he landed a left hand right to the body of Phillips. Phillips immediately grimaced and sat on the ropes of which ref counted as a knockdown. After that Phillips was starting to wilt in the waning seconds of that round with another punishing body attack. Lucky for him, the bell before Phillips got counted again or stopped. In the final round, both were switching stances throwing as If it was the first round. Again, it looked like Phillips was fading as Ouma moved in for the kill with several unanswered shots. Holding on the best he could with the gas tank on E, Phillips had a final surge trading hook before the final bell rang. The punch stats for this fight were incredible especially for Ouma.
Ouma vs Phillips 2
For this rematch, the stakes were a little higher. In the 3 years since the first fight, both men had raised their stock in the 154 division. Ouma would capture the 154 USBA belt, which is a guaranteed top spot for the IBF. Phillips would regain a world title defeating Carlos Borjorquez for the vacant IBF 154 title. A title that was stripped from Winky Wright who opted to forego his mandatory for a more lucrative rematch with Shane Mosley. Ouma was the IBF mandatory that Wright was supposed to face. Ouma could not take advantage of fighting for that vacant belt due to injury. So now the stage was set for 11/20/2004 on a live broadcast of Showtime Championship Boxing. The early rounds saw the champion Phillips take a more tactical approach with plenty of stick and movement. Far cry from what went down in the first fight. Phillips was doing clever work with keeping Ouma on this toes and off balance. However, in the third round a right hook from Ouma knocks out the mouthpiece of Phillips. When the ref resumed the action, Ouma took over with nonstop punching and pressure to even up the cards. It was the pattern of the middle rounds. Phillips was hitting Ouma with some hard shots to the body. Phillips though would make an impressive comeback taking the later rounds. As in the first fight, you can see Phillips start throwing wide shots and getting sloppier. Up on the cards, Phillips would hit the wall going into the last two rounds. Ouma would land on an almost 4 to 1 ratio on a gassed-out Phillips. Broadcasters were mentioning ring rust being a factor. Just like in the first fight, a body shot had Phillips doubled over and in between ropes. Ouma would then throw combinations that had Phillips reeling around the ring. Phillips would also go down after a swing and a miss, but it was ruled a slip and not a KD. The 12th round Phillips was on empty again just getting pounded around the ring. He would also go down again but ref would also rule that a slip. Ouma was a fresh as a daisy landing whatever he wanted; shots managed to also close Phillips eye. By the end of the final round Ouma walked to his corner with his hands in the air. Phillips walked dejectedly to his corner. The final effort from Ouma in the last two rounds would prove to be the difference on the score cards. Kassim Ouma would capture the IBF 154 Title by unanimous decision. One judge had 117-110 but the other judges had it 114-113 x 2. Damn good display of stamina and work rate to break the will of a good champion.
As always, I like to mention what each fighter went on to do after highlighting them in a “Forgotten Fade”. For Verno Phillips, he managed to rebuild himself once more. A close loss to the great Ike Quartey highlighted with some quality wins over names such as Teddy Reid and Cory Spinks. The latter was seen as an upset and netted him his third world title at 154. However, he would not stay champion for very long. He would give up the belt for a fight with Paul Williams who stopped him in 8. This would be the final fight of Phillips’ career. From the excellent “Best I Faced” article from Ring Magazine, they gave us an update on what he was up to. Phillips, now 51, lives in Colorado, he is married and has two children. He keeps busy with different activities outside boxing but also trains his son, who is 13-2 as an amateur.
Unfortunately for the new champion Kassim Ouma, it would be a slow and saddening decline. He would lose the belt in his second title defense in a listless effort against Roman Karmazin. He would rebound with some good wins over the likes of Marco Antonio Rubio and Sechew Powell. A challenge for the Middleweight Title against then champion Jermain Taylor would prove to be the start of an irreversible slide. Taylor landed clean and often against Ouma and win a clean unanimous decision. He took simply too much and the losses on his record accumulated at a greater frequency. Losses to Saul Roman, Cornelius Bundrage, Vanes Martirosyan, Gabriel Rosado, and Gennadiy Golovkin ended his status as a world class fighter/contender. A plethora of legal and personal problems compounded the slide. As of 2022, he is still an active fighter on a 9-fight losing streak dating back to 2016 taking overseas fights. A sad ending that you hope does not get even sadder. It does not take away from how great both fights were. Full recommendation to watch