Son of Syria prepares for shot at the title
Much of the sporting world will only come to notice Manuel Charr on Saturday, when he gets into the ring with Vitali Klitschko in Moscow.
If the 27-year-old Syrian beats the 41-year-old Ukrainian, being noticed will turn to being famous. Taking Klitschko's WBC title would mean Charr becoming the first Arab heavyweight champion of the world.
It was hard not to notice Charr after waiting for him outside his gym in Cologne, Germany, last month.
Six feet, three inches tall. A striking pink shirt doing nothing to conceal slabs of torso muscle. The squarest jaw in all Westphalia. Keen, intense Arabian features given easily to a beaming smile (they could go the other way too, as I would find out).
I was surprised to be given a massive hug.
Born Mahmoud Omeirat Al-Charr in Beirut, Lebanon, Charr moved to Germany after his Syrian father was killed in the Lebanese civil war that ended in 1990.
He retains his Syrian passport and nationality, but believes it is the mixed nature of his upbringing that has brought him to the brink of a world title fight.
"I always say that I am an Arabian horse, raised in German discipline," Charr tells me as we sit down to talk ahead of his training session, in the warehouse he has rented and kitted out with a ring, punchbags, and nothing else.
"I am of original Arab pedigree, raised and trained in the German discipline and punctuality.
"After the war where my father was killed, we moved to Germany. I came with my mother and the whole family to start a new life here.
"I started boxing at the age of 20. I was told I must change my name; otherwise I would not get a licence to fight. I was told to change my name to Manuel Charr; and I agreed simply because it is a means of living for me to support my family."
Our Spartan surroundings are reflected in Charr's personal situation as he heads into a fight against one of boxing's two greatest heavyweights of the past 10 years.
While this could be one of Vitali's last fights of a brilliant career, before he concentrates on a new life as leader of a Ukrainian political party, Charr is fighting for his sporting and financial future.
He is unbeaten in 21 professional bouts, but the wins – such as against the Briton Danny Williams – have not been against the sport's elite.
He has come from virtually nowhere to face Klitschko, and may go back there if he doesn't beat him.
But if he does, he may get a shot at the younger Klitschko, Wladimir, holder of five belts – let alone smaller fry such as David Haye.
Those belts would look nice in the Charr household. But he has weightier responsibilities that go hand in hand with the sporting prizes.
"I had some money in the bank but spent it all on organising my own events," Charr says.
"I had to pay the boxers and coaches; I not only lost all money I have, but also accumulated a large amount of debts. I thank God Almighty to have offered me this opportunity to fight for the world heavyweight championship title.
"I am not fighting only for myself; I am fighting for my family as I am the only breadwinner supporting them all – my father died in the war when I was only two years of age."
The weight of that responsibility becomes apparent as soon as Charr changes into his training gear. The smile is replaced, at first, by a frown of concentration as he warms up.
Soon after, as he begins pad work with his trainer, he becomes so focused that a tense atmosphere descends on the room. At various points, he growls at the camera team to stop filming – not wanting to give Vitali any tips.
Everyone, including a strapping six-footer from his German marketing team, hangs around nervously, occasionally talking in whispers as Charr smashes the pads with frightening ferocity.
Partly we are nervous about getting enough material. But it also feels like some primitive survival instinct has kicked in.
I start wondering if it is the fight-or-flight syndrome that protected early human beings from predators. In this case, my syndrome is set unwaveringly to "flight".
When the cameraman drives me to the airport, I feel – ridiculously, of course – like I have escaped. Not many boxing commentators are giving Charr a chance, but I can't help but feel a slight amount of pity for the gargantuan Vitali Klitschko, who has never been knocked down in professional boxing.
I'm relieved to get a friendly text from Charr an hour later – at least I now know he just had his game face on.
And his desire to win does not translate into disrespect for his opponent.
"It is known that Vitali Klitschko is the world champion and world class athlete; but each soup has its own recipe," he said earlier.
"I am not a swaggerer; I do not like to brag. I respect my opponents, and respect is very important in sports. But I have confidence in myself.
"I have a brave heart and this right iron fist. I am waiting for the big day, September 8 in Moscow. The whole world will know my name, and know who I am and what I am – Mahmoud Omeirat Al-Charr, the first-ever Arab world heavyweight champion."