The Great Albanian Hope

Two hours before his pro debut in Atlantic City, prizefighter Elvir Muriqi seems remarkably composed and focused – until he notices the back of his new red satin robe. Decorated with a two-headed eagle, it is supposed to resemble the Albanian flag. But Muriqi spots a serious discrepancy – a star on top, signifying Serbian rule – and flies into a rage, spewing forth a stream of invective in his native Albanian and demanding a red marker to conceal the mistake. It may seem like a minor detail, but to the young boxer and his family – not to mention his legion of supporters back in Kosovo – the symbol is more important than the fight itself.

Muriqi has been in the United States since only 1996. He had won Kosovo’s amateur kickboxing title at 15 and was about to start training for the Olympic trials when his father moved the entire family to the Bronx. Muriqi started boxing in local amateur bouts as a light heavyweight and even won a decision against a heavyweight. But it was not until the 1998 Golden Gloves at Madison Square Garden that people began to talk. He swept through his preliminary fights and, in the final, put on such a dominating performance that renowned commentator Gil Clancy called him “the best prospect I’ve seen in years.” Tony Danza, Gerry Cooney, and Magic Johnson each called to inquire about backing him. The young Albanian signed with Frank LoCascio, a local manager, to be close to home. “I live with my family,” Muriqi says. “I feel safe there.”

His family, however, would not stay together for long. In January of this year, his father, Rumz Muriqi, returned to Serbia to join the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Today he lives in a mountain town, supplying food and clothing to some of the province’s nearly 180,000 homeless. “He went back to Kosovo because he had to,” says Elvir. “He wants to die over there. I feel good that he’s there. If I wasn’t boxing, I’d be there.”

But for the time being, he is boxing, and he approaches his sport with the same intensity he feels for his country. “The mission he’s on is 75 percent mental,” says his trainer, the legendary Teddy Atlas. “You have to focus all the time,” Muriqi explains.

Outside the ring, though, it’s another story. A Muslim (like a majority of Kosovo’s population), he does not drink alcohol or take drugs, but he freely avails himself of the other pleasures of rising stardom. “I like to dress nice,” he confesses. “And I’ll go to clubs, the movies, or go eat.” Women? He giggles, then starts laughing uncontrollably. “I go out with lots of girls. I don’t want just one.”

Atlas, who’s trained such champions as Michael Moorer and Mike Tyson, was initially struck by the confidence and skill – not to mention the concentration – that already gives Muriqi the aura of a champion. His opponents have not failed to notice those qualities, either. “The average guy don’t want to fight,” says former contender Tyrone “the Harlem Butcher” Jackson. “They’re looking for any excuse not to fight, because they’re scared. This kid wants to fight. That’s the difference.”

Back at Trump Marina, the Rocky theme is blaring from the loudspeaker. Flanked by a dozen compatriots in red KLA T-shirts, the Kosovo Kid enters the ring for his first bout. His opponent stands nervously in a corner, looking like he showed up at the wrong party. One minute and 23 seconds later, the Kid’s left hook ends the fight.

It’s a big win, but Atlas tries to keep him grounded. “He hasn’t proven anything yet,” he warns. And his effort to prove himself recently hit a snag: Following his second pro fight (a win), he tore a finger ligament, and he’s just now getting back into the ring. “Don’t worry. I’m still young,” he insists. “Teddy says it’s all part of being a champion.” For the Kosovo Kid, the battle’s just begun.

The Great Albanian Hope