In the sports world, “hustle” means more than diving to recover a fumble or booking it from first base to third with a headfirst slide. And the word “hustler” doesn’t have to evoke the negative connotations of sticky-fingered fight promoters or rule-bending college coaches.
Ismael AbduSalaam is a hustler with a healthy hustle trait.
The 33-year-old Atlanta resident by way of New Jersey — a practicing Muslim since his early teens — is the creator and editor of two websites: Beats, Boxing & Mayhem, which covers hip-hop and boxing culture; and NYK Loyalist, which covers the NBA’s New York Knicks. In addition to running each site as a mostly one-man operation, the Morehouse College graduate is also a staff writer and podcaster at Bad Culture, a site that covers boxing, mixed martial arts and special interest news. He is also a contributing writer for Knockout Nation, another boxing site, and he works in the financial counseling and mortgage industries.
“I’m a writer by trade … it has always been my passion,” AbduSalaam says. “Whether it’s paying or not, your passion should never be viewed as a ‘hobby’ if you want to get everything you can out of it. So even before I was getting any money, I treated it as a regular full-time position with my complete dedication and focus.”
In this interview, AbduSalaam talks about his passions, his projects and the perfect religion:
UMMAH SPORTS: Talk about your history with boxing. What drew you to the sport and sparked your love of the sport?
ISMAEL ABDUSALAAM: The seed for my love of boxing was planted as a child when I used to watch fights with my parents.
Being a Muslim, my father had a lot of admiration for fighters of the faith like Muhammad Ali, Matthew Saad Muhammad and Dwight Muhammad Qawi. So he would tell me stories from their heyday as well as show me their classic fights. I remember vividly watching Ali-Liston I, and him explaining how monumental that upset was. The same with Ali-Foreman.
As I got older, I watched fights occasionally but the deep interest didn’t return until the early 2000s. I was out of my own for the first time and started to really gain a renewed interest in it. I started watching regularly around the time of Floyd Mayweather‘s ascent in the sport.
What drew me to boxing over other sports is what I like to call “The Pressure and Assurance of Solitude.” What I mean is that in the Sweet Science, your success and failure in the ring is mostly decided by the fighter. There are no substitutions when you get tired and no timeouts when you hit a bad stretch to break your opponent’s momentum. You have to think on the fly, be able to execute adjustments, and keep your composure under intense physical pain and mental strain.
For all its barbaric brutality, boxing shows the mental and physical feats we as human beings are capable of. For me, it’s fascinating to watch and cover.
US: How did hip-hop music become a passion of yours?
IA: Hip-Hop has been the soundtrack of my life. Unlike my parents, there is no world that has ever existed to me without it.
My parents were also instrumental in this area. My mother is a big fan of the Native Tongues, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest in particular. I’d constantly hear hip-hop before being dropped off at school on stations like WBLS and Kiss FM. And at home she had vinyl of Run DMC, Biz Markie, Whodini and others.
I started viewing the culture as reflecting my beliefs once I hit teenage years and started becoming more independent. I was 12 around ’93-94, and that’s when a new school of emcees started to emerge with Nas, Wu-Tang, Black Moon and others. My first article ever was a two-page piece in seventh grade I penned for my computer class. It was on Wu-Tang’s success with 36 Chambers. It’s been a done deal ever since.
US: And how long have you been a basketball fan? Where did that interest come from?
IA: Once again, I have to credit my mother [laughs]. She’s a big Knicks fan, and I envy her because she was alive the last time the team won a championship.
I started to pay close attention to the Knicks in the early 90s, so I grew up on those hard-nosed, defensive-heavy Pat Riley teams helmed by Patrick Ewing. At the same time, I got to watch first-hand as Michael Jordan built a good portion of his legend breaking New York’s heart.
The teamwork required to make a good basketball team drew me to it. To succeed, you have to have a well-oiled machine where everyone knows their roles, and the strengths and weaknesses of their teammates. When all cylinders click in that regard, it’s beautiful to watch. The Spurs are a good modern-day example of that. Also, the contrast in styles between all the different teams makes for great viewing.
US: How did you get started as a writer professionally?
IA: My big break came in 2007. I was into the hip-hop message boards and was a regular poster on the AllHipHop.com board. I started a thread on boxing which had generated thousands of views and comments, catching the attention of one of the site’s editors. He took a look at my Myspace page and saw potential in my writing on boxing and hip-hop. He asked me if I would be interested in writing a weekly column on boxing.
At the time, I had no real experience with writing on that level. But when a door like that opens, you jump at the opportunity and figure out the details later. My first column was on Mayweather’s knockout win over Ricky Hatton, and the feedback from AllHipHop.com readers was great.
At the time, AllHipHop was the No. 1 hip-hop site on the web, so the immediate attention I got opened up opportunities to do exclusive interviews with the likes of Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto. Then I expanded to hip-hop coverage with news reports, interviews and album reviews. It was a blessing to get that much exposure right out the gate. Eventually it led to me getting the honor of being accepted into the Boxing Writers Association of America for my work. I don’t know where I’d be today without that opportunity.
US: What are some standout experiences you’ve had through your work? Concerts you’ve been to, fights you’ve covered, people you’ve interviewed…
IA: I’ve had a bunch, but these stand out:
Every year Atlanta plays host to a hip-hop festival entitled A3C (All 3 Coasts). I’ve been able to see some great performances and interview artists like Wale, Killer Mike, Rakim and Murs.
The most interesting people I’ve interviewed would have to be David Banner, The RZA, Manny Pacquiao, boxing trainer Naazim Richardson and Diddy. The best live performances I’ve seen have been De La Soul, Nas and Damian Marley.
On the boxing side, the big pay-per-view fights stand out. The biggest I’ve been to thus far was Mayweather vs. Canelo in 2013. The crowd was just insane and they were hype the entire fight week. I have never seen anything like it.
US: Who are some of your favorite boxers, past and present?
IA: Current favorites are Floyd Mayweather, Lucas Matthysse, Vic Darchinyan, Roman Gonzalez, Amir Khan, Miguel Cotto, Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin. All-time favorites are Muhammad Ali, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Mike Tyson, Naseem Hamed, Roberto Duran and Sam Langford.
US: Who are some of your favorite rappers, past and present?
IA: The No. 1 emcee to me is Nas. I love the poetic value of his work and the risks he takes in his art. My other top picks are A Tribe Called Quest, Lauryn Hill, MF Doom and Treach. Among the newer emcees, I like J. Cole, Curren$y, Wale, The Game and Kendrick Lamar.
US: Who are your favorite basketball players? They don’t have to be Knicks [laughs].
IA: As far as NBA, of course I’m a fan of Melo. Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol also really impress me; that’s probably because New York is in dire need of a big man [laughs]. All-time, I’m a fan of Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon and Latrell Sprewell.
US: What’s your take on the Mayweather-Pacquiao situation? It seems like everyone with an interest in boxing has to pick a side. Will a fight ever happen? Whose fault is it that it hasn’t happened?
IA: They both hold equal share of the blame and have done irreparable damage to their legacies. There is absolutely no excuse for this nonsense going on for what will be five years in 2015.
Initially with the first negotiation, Pacquiao’s side had more of the blame for not agreeing to drug testing. Let me be clear: There is no reason for any athlete to decline steroid testing in the modern age, especially when it comes to a sport as dangerous as boxing.
Afterward, Mayweather takes more of the blame due to being a lot more uncompromising on the financial splits. The reason the fight continues to stall is simply ego and greed. The fact that both sides are driven by money over legacy, and have been able to make big money fighting lesser talents for the last 4-5 years, has made the fight extremely hard to make. Yes, they can make more money facing each other than anyone else, but they are still making $20-$30 million no matter who they fight, so they don’t feel the pressure to go all-out and make the superfight happen.
They had a chance when both were close or near their primes to make the biggest fight in boxing history and put their names up there with the epic battles in history like Ali-Frazier I and Leonard-Hearns I. Instead they let the business of boxing ruin that opportunity.
Will the fight happen? I think it will before both hang it up, possibly as early as late-2015. No matter the outcome, it means nowhere near what it could have. I always picked Mayweather to win, but he’s slowing down and Pacquiao has a better chance now than he did in 2010.
US: There are some grown-up hip-hop fans that say the art form is dead, dying or just not in good hands. But to be fair, you can always find older fans on any music genre who talks like that. Do you think hip-hop is getting any “dumber” with these newer acts, or is it just that older fans don’t get it anymore?
IA: Commercial hip-hop has definitely regressed in terms of the diversity of content. The themes have become more redundant and that’s partly due to labels not wanting to take risks of anything that’s not a sure bet. Every change is not for the better.
Every other genre of music has no problem admitting a particular five- or 10-year stretch might have been a down period creatively for their art form. Hip-hop is no exception. These days, the older fans are at a disadvantage because they’re not used to having to search as hard for good music. In ’90s radio, you could hear a superstar like Snoop Dogg in the same rotation as underground acts like Channel Live or O.C. You won’t get that on the radio these days. But once you learn how to dig, you’ll see a lot of excellent artists contributing to the culture away from the machine.
With the albums we’ve heard this year from people like J. Cole, District, Freddie Gibbs, Rapsody, Run the Jewels and Big K.R.I.T., we can’t say there isn’t good hip-hop being made.
US: If I’m a Knicks fan, give me one reason not to give up hope for the future.
IA: If this losing trend continues — and there’s no reason to think it won’t — the Knicks will get a top-three draft pick. New York needs a good point guard and a big man, and a top pick would solve one of those areas with either Jahlil Okafor (Duke), Emmanuel Mudiay (China) or Karl-Anthony Towns (Kentucky). Plus, we’ll have the cap room to sign or trade for another elite player to compliment Melo like a Goran Dragic or Marc Gasol. Yes, the Knicks don’t have a track record of wise decisions, but this is a best situation in years to rebuild correctly.
US: Were you raised Muslim, or did you convert?
IA: I grew up in an interfaith, polygamous household with my mother being Christian and my father Muslim. My stepmother was also Muslim. So I was equally exposed to both faiths very early. People usually fear confusion from that happening, but I believe it made me much more open-minded about spirituality. I have identified myself as a Muslim from my early teen years.
US: What led to you choosing Islam?
IA: The oneness, or Tawhid of Islam appealed to my logic. The Trinity concept was problematic for me to accept. I felt closer to God viewing that essence through an Islamic lens.
US: How did your mother react to your choosing Muslim?
IA: My mother accepted my decision, but of course any parent wants to see a child follow in their footsteps, so there was some initial disappointment. But she is very proud of the man I’ve become.
How was your experience as a Muslim at Morehouse? Was the environment there accepting?
There are a good number of mosques in Atlanta, and a Muslim Student Association was in place during my time at Morehouse. I didn’t face any type of discrimination or ill treatment. The main issue at the time was the outreach to those who weren’t Muslim and spreading education about Islam. There was too much in-house debating about trivial things which prevented that.
US: There are some Muslims, including scholars, who say all music is or should be haram. Obviously you’re not in that camp, but are there ways in which your religion sways your choices of which hip-hop you like or listen to?
IA: That, and being grown plays a significant part. Hip-hop is a youth-driven art form, so there will be some types of emcees you’ll find yourself growing out of. I can’t listen to too much misogynistic or materialistic hip-hop for prolonged periods of time.
When it comes to covering it on my site, I’ll add some commentary on it if it’s real over the top. I don’t assume all the readers on my site are in my age bracket, so I want them to have a realistic view of what they’re listening to and what is considered entertainment.
US: What role do you think Muslim media members can play in how Muslims are represented in the media? Do you feel like there is a responsibility on us to put out positive images?
IA: Some are going to be more outspoken than others, but at the bare minimum everyone should lead by example. I can’t tell you how many people have come to me asking about my background simply because they sense something “different” in the way I carry myself.
Unfortunately, a lot of people still have stereotypes about Muslims and Islam due to extremists, so in reality most of us just living our lives as upstanding people is enough to change opinions.
But I do think we should go above and beyond when the opportunity presents itself. I recently did a workshop on Islam at a Fortune 500 company as part of a diversity initiative. Things like that make a huge difference in the perception of our faith.
US: What are your plans and goals for your future in this business?
IA: The plan is to keep expanding Beats, Boxing & Mayhem and join with like-minded individuals to build a coalition of young, dynamic writers in the field of boxing. The sport has an older clientele and is in dire need of young, innovative thinkers. With the hip-hop connection on my site, I hope to draw them in.