Boxing Rings, War Zones And The COVID-19 Ward: Termite Watkins' Many Bouts

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In a lifetime of battles, former boxer Termite Watkins always came out swinging. (Dusan Vranic/AP)
In a lifetime of battles, former boxer Termite Watkins has always come out swinging. (Dusan Vranic/AP)

Maurice Watkins barely ever responds to his birth name. He’s always been "Termite." It makes sense, considering his family owned a pest control business in Houston. And, although the nickname was inspired by his small frame and wiry disposition as a child, it’s even more apropos in his adulthood.

After all, termites aren’t just hard workers. They’re incredibly resilient. Those qualities served Termite well in the ring.

"I fought for the world championship in 1980," Termite says. "It was when Ali fought Holmes. It was a double main event. I had the other main event, so a huge time. Got through with the fight, I came back home. Very shortly after that, I was introduced to cocaine. And, for probably the next five years or so, I had a major cocaine problem."

A Wake-Up Call

Termite was in the throes of full-blown addiction when, one morning after running into two acquaintances during a routine drug deal...

"I got a phone call, and they said, 'You’re lucky,' " Termite recalls. "I said, 'What are you talking about?' I was just woken up. And it was a girl, and she says, 'They let you leave because of who you are, and because of your name. They felt like it would get a lot of publicity, and they let you live.'

"And I said, 'What are you talking about?' And [she] said, 'Bill and this other guy are both dead. They were shot gangland-style.' One was shot walking upstairs. And then the other one was asleep, and they walked up and placed it right against his forehead, from what I understand."

Young Termite Watkins. (Courtesy Termite Watkins)
Young Termite Watkins. (Courtesy Termite Watkins)

That brush with death set Termite straight. He quit drugs, committed his life to his faith and returned to boxing, collecting 11 more wins and a draw before calling it a career. He retired after 69 pro bouts with 61 victories, 42 by knockout. He was 33 years old.

Termite went to work for his family’s pest control business for a while. Then, in early-2003, fate dealt him another unexpected hand in the form of a call from a friend representing the United States military.

"They said, 'Well, they’re needing the pest control support,' " Termite says. "And I told my former wife that, you know, it felt like I was being called to go to Iraq. And she laughed at me and she basically said, 'I don’t hear that call.'

"So a period of time went by — I believe it was probably a week or two — and, one day, her and my kids came to me, and they said, 'We’ve never seen you so passionate about doing something, and we give you our blessings to go to Iraq.' "

Four weeks later, Termite Watkins was in Iraq as an independent contractor. Working in temperatures that soared above 125 degrees, Termite rid the U.S. bases of scorpions, cobras, rodents and spiders up to a foot long. But his mission was suddenly altered when he met a colonel named Steve Bruce.

"And I said, 'I hear an accent. Where are you from?' " Termite recalls. "He said, 'I’m British, can’t you tell? ... Why do you ask?' I said, 'You know, they’ve had some great boxers in Britain.' He says, 'And what do you know about boxing?' And I said, 'I know everything about boxing,' and I actually mocked him. And he says, 'Have you ever boxed?' And I said, 'I have boxed.' He asked, 'Were you any good?' I said, 'I was the best.' And he said, 'Meet me on the British side tomorrow morning.' "

The British colonel was looking for a trainer. Before long, Termite was leading a 40-soldier boxing clinic. It didn’t take long for Termite’s boxing reputation to spread throughout the region. That’s when an American ambassador came calling with an unexpected question: What are the odds of getting an Iraqi boxer to the Olympics?

"And I kind of chuckled and said, 'You have a slim to none chance of getting them to the Olympics. ... Maybe one in a million,' " Termite recalls. "He says, 'Great! All we need is one, we don’t need the million. I expect you to get this done.' "

A New Mission

With a military security detail by his side, Termite combed the war-torn country in search of boxers that could help get Iraq to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. Less than a year before the Games were scheduled to kick off, Termite’s team assembled for the first time at the national boxing facility in Hillah, Iraq.

"And, all of a sudden one little young guy starts coming up," Termite says. "And he said, 'My name is Najah. I will be the one to represent Iraq in the Olympics.' And I just smiled and said, 'Well, come on in.' "

Najah Ali was the 23-year-old reigning Iraqi champion. He had finished second in a regional tournament staged in Egypt. But the odds would be stacked against Termite and his team of Iraqi upstarts.

For one thing, their facilities and equipment didn’t meet even the most marginal standards — never mind that their outdoor training sessions were accompanied by a chorus of gunfire and bomb blasts. One day, Termite was leading a team workout.

"And all of a sudden: Boom!" Termite recalls. "I started grabbing everybody and telling them to get under the benches. And they said, 'What are you doing? What are you doing?' And I said, 'Get down. They’re bombing us, they’re bombing us.'

"And they all started laughing. They said, 'No, Mr. Termite. That is a transformer. We’re not being bombed.' They were so used to bombs that they knew the difference was between a transformer blowing up and a bomb."

Termite trains Iraqi boxer Najah Ali for the 2004 Summer Olympics. (Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)
Termite trains Iraqi boxer Najah Ali for the 2004 Summer Olympics. (Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)

Mere weeks before the Games’ opening ceremonies, Termite was informed that the Iraqi team had been awarded a special wild card exemption, allowing a single Iraqi boxer to compete in Athens regardless of how they performed in Olympic qualifiers.

After a team box-off and a vote among the fighters and team officials, Najah was selected to represent Iraq in Athens. Just as he predicted he would when he first met Termite.

Termite had successfully completed his mission to bring an Iraqi boxer to the Olympics. And Termite — an American — was planning to walk under the Iraqi flag alongside his boxer in the Opening Ceremonies. But, the day before, he received a dire warning.

"The Iraqis are afraid, and they had gotten some type of intelligence, or something, that if I was to walk out on the field with them, then people would die and towns would be attacked," Termite recalls. "So I had to make a decision: Do I go out on the field and take a chance on somebody getting killed, or do I just pull back? So I prayed about it, and an incredible peace came over me that I had done my job, and this was it for me."

Termite sat in Greece’s Olympic stadium with 75,000 spectators as Najah walked out onto the field under the Iraqi flag.

"And I cried, I have to be honest," Termite says. "I cried a whole lot of the time they were walking around the stadium. Because I’m a real proud American, but, to some degree, I felt part of the team — because we had worked for 10 months to get them to the Olympics."

Facing COVID-19

After the Olympics, Termite returned to Houston and relative normalcy: working a day job and continuing to train local boxers. Life remained mostly calm. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and a business trip to Dallas in early March.

"The case worker told me, 'If you know people that pray, you need to start praying.' And I realized how serious it was at that point."

Cindy Watkins

"He'd gotten back from his trip on Tuesday, so his aching started Wednesday, so by Friday he started having ... low-grade fever," says Termite's wife, Cindy Watkins. "And we did know about what was going on with the coronavirus. But I just kept thinking — making excuses, I guess — like, ‘Well, it’s probably just the flu,’ because we did know some people that had the flu."

Cindy took her husband to the local emergency room, where they gave him antibiotics and sent him home. A few days later, they raced back to the emergency room with Termite complaining of shortness of breath.

Termite and Cindy Watkins. (Courtesy Termite Watkins)
Termite and Cindy Watkins. (Courtesy Termite Watkins)

"I remember going to the hospital that second time, and I had to go in by myself," Termite says. "I had to hug my wife bye. I knew there was a chance I’d have to get on the ventilator, because I was feeling that bad. And so we did our hugs goodbye and, really ... I wasn’t sure I’d ever see her again."

"The next morning, I got a call from his case worker, telling me he was in intermediate care," Cindy says. "I didn’t even know that he had been taken to that level. And the case worker told me, 'If you know people that pray, you need to start praying.' And I realized how serious it was at that point."

Termite had COVID-19. Less than 24 hours after being admitted, he called his wife to let her know that his condition had worsened and he was likely going to be intubated and put on a ventilator.

"What do you say when you think you’re talking to the love of your life for the very last time?" Cindy says. "I just said, 'I love you with all my heart,' and he said, 'I love you, too.' And I just tried to be strong while I was on the phone and just said, 'I love you, and we’re gonna talk later. You just be strong and fight.' 'Cause I knew he was a fighter."

"And then I remember struggling to breathe," Termite says. "And then I remember when they laid me down and put the IV in my arm. And then, all of a sudden, I went out. And that’s all I remember."

The Toughest Battle

After a lengthy pro boxing career, after surviving an unusual mission in Iraq, after everything he’d been through, Termite Watkins was in for the fight of his life. Cindy documented his progress on Facebook. There were good days and bad days. Here's an excerpt from her post on April 14, four weeks after Termite was admitted:

This morning I did not hear the news I wanted to hear, but I have to trust that God is continuing to bring healing through Termite’s incredible medical team. Termite was reintubated and placed back on the vent early this morning. As hard as it is for me to deal with, I am glad that he is not struggling so hard. His nurse FaceTimed me for just a few minutes, so I could see him. He does look more comfortable, and his color looks good, so my heart was satisfied.

On April 21, after 35 days in the hospital and 18 days on a ventilator, Termite was finally discharged from the hospital.

"[I] couldn’t walk, so I was in a wheelchair," Termite says. "And I remember being rode down the hall and coming out the door. And, all of a sudden there was — number one was my wife and then all the friends and family. It was just a great day."

He was 35 pounds lighter and so weak he could barely handle his phone or get in and out of bed. Within a few weeks, the 63-year-old Termite was back to his usual routine and even driving again.

I asked him: in a lifetime of battles, was this the toughest yet?

"Yeah, you know, over in Iraq all I had to worry about was people shooting at me and bombs going off, stuff like this," Termite says. "I could control somebody shooting at me or a bomb going off, because I could get behind cover. Getting off the drugs was very tough, because your system craves it, but I had a lot of people helping me there.

"But this is probably the — yeah, I would say this was the toughest. I almost died."

Whether it was staring down an opponent in the ring, or training Olympic hopefuls in Iraq, or fighting for every last breath in a hospital bed, whenever Termite Watkins found himself in unusual circumstances and forced to fend for himself, he always came out swinging.

Termite Watkins has continued to see plenty of highs and lows since he returned to health. On June 5, his mother, Wanda Watkins, passed away. Around the same time, he signed an agreement with a production company fronted by a Hollywood icon, who intends to make a film about Termite’s life.

This segment aired on July 18, 2020.



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