Archive for May, 2009

Judith Ayaa: Uganda’s Sprinting Superwoman

May 29, 2009

Judith Ayaa established herself as Uganda’s renowned pioneering female sprinter as confirmed by her record on the international track scene. Relatively tall at 5’9″, Judith Ayaa was born on July 15 1952. Ayaa is reported to have died in 2002 amidst poverty (even involving Ayaa crushing stones for a living), and looking after her children that were said to be as many as eight. During the early 1970’s, the names John Akii-Bua and Judith Ayaa were the most prominent among Uganda runners; the two competed in many international athletics meets.

During an era when African female participation in competitive sports was in its nascent and prevalently amateur stages, young Judith Ayaa became a resounding name amongst female African track stars. But her career was short-lived, likely because she got married early and ended up bearing several children and because she was of Acholi ethnicity…a group (for political reasons) on which Ugandan President Idi Amin kept a constant eye on. Similarly, John Akii-Bua was of the Lango ethnicity which was considered strongly averse to Idi Amin. Akii-Bua’s ethnicity, despite his fame and record, is said to have hindered his fully realizing his potential as a hurdle. Akii-Bua would sometimes be put under house arrest and frustrated from competing internationally.

The record of Judith Ayaa in the East and Central African Athletic Championships is astounding. In 1968, Ayaa won gold in the 100 meters sprint, finishing in 11.5 seconds. The following year 1969, Ayaa cemented and confirmed her formidability by in the same championships winning in the 100 meters (11.8 seconds), the 200 meters (25.0s), and the 400m (53.6s). Similarly, in 1970 at the same championships, Judith Ayaa did not slip behind. The slim young woman with the “Mercedes-Benz” body again won in the 100m (11.8s), the 200m (24.1s), and the 400m (54.0s). In 1969, with based on her best time of 53.6s, Judith Ayaa was ranked amongst the top women 400m runners of the world.

It was at the Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh in Scotland in 1970 that Judith Ayaa established herself as an international female athlete to be reckoned with. At these Games, Judith Ayaa notably competed in the 400m. The finals saw legendary World record breaking Jamaican Marilyn Fay Neufville, aged 17, winning (51.02s) astoundingly by more than two seconds ahead of silver medalist Sandra Brown (53.66s) of Australia, Judith Ayaa (53.77s) coming in with a photo-finish third and thereby capturing the bronze medal. This would notably be Judith Ayaa’s most renowned international performance! Marilyn Neufville’s superb career would be short-lived because of physical injuries and inconsequential surgery. At the 1974 Commonwealth Games held in Christchurch in New Zealand Neufville was 6th in the finals. And at the Olympic Games of 1976 held in Montreal in Canada, she was eliminated in the first round.

The next major challenge for Ayaa, the Olympic Games of 1972 held in Munich in Germany would prove to be interesting for Ayaa. In the first round, Ayaa in lane two came in fourth (52.85s) thereby qualifying for the quarter-finals. In the quarter finals, Judith Ayaa was drawn in lane 7 in her heat. Ayaa comfortably finished third and established a Uganda national record of 52.68s. The national record would stand for many years, and this would be Ayaa’s personal best. Of note, in these semi-finals, Ayaa beat 26 year-old Colette Besson of France the petite surprise winner in the same event at the previous Olympics (Mexico City in Mexico, 1968). Besson was in lane 3 and her 5th place finish disqualified her from getting to the next round. After 1972, Ayaa’s performance record would become lackluster soon after she got married and started having children in close succession. Her demise was far from glamorous, it was disheartening. But her reign in the women’s track was short but is superb and enduring. Trophies and national athletic meets in northern Uganda have become commemorated in Judith Ayaa’s name.

Jonathan Musere

Advertisements

Eridadi Mukwanga: Uganda’s First Olympic Silver Medalist

May 18, 2009

Eridadi Mukwanga was born on July 12, 1943 in Kawanda in the Eastern Uganda region of Busoga, and died in January 1998. The circumstances and exact date of his death are largely unknown despite his enduring accomplishment of being Uganda’s first Olympic silver medalist.

Eridadi Mukwanga, at only age 25, was recorded as Uganda’s oldest participant at the Olympic Games of 1968 held in Mexico City from mid- to late-October in trying high-altitude weather. At the Olympics Eridadi Mukwanga, a 5’3″ tall bantamweight, was in the second round pitted against 5’6″ Ramiro Suárez (García) of Spain. Mukwanga easily knocked out Suarez, late in the second round. In the next bout Mukwanga similarly disposed of short 5’0″ Romanian opponent Nicolae Gîju by knocking him out in the second round. Next came the quarter finals, and Mukwanga convincingly beat 20 year-old Roberto Cervantes of Mexico by 4-1. Similarly, in the semi-finals, Mukwanga outpointed Jang Sun-Gil of South Korea by 4-1. However, in the finals, against Russian Valerian Sergeyevich Sokolov, the bout was stopped late in the second round in favor of Sokolov. Though beaten, Eridadi Mukwanga proudly flew back to Uganda with a silver medal hanging from his neck.

The Olympics of 1968 proved to be the peaking point in Mukwanga’s boxing career. The next major international boxing hurdle came with the Commonwealth Games of the summer of 1970, held in mid- to late-July in Edinburgh, Scotland. Mukwanga was eliminated in the very first round of the bantamweight division, losing to Joe Cooke of Canada by points on July 18. Joe Cooke would thereafter be knocked out by Stewart Ogilvie of Scotland when the referee halted the bout in the first round. But thereafter in the semi-finals, Stewart Ogilvie was stopped in the second round with the referee stopping the bout in favor of forthcoming gold-medalist Sulley Shittu of Ghana.

Ironically and disappointingly, Mukwanga was the first Ugandan boxer to fall in these Commonwealth Games in which Ugandans overwhelmingly established themselves as Commonwealth boxing champions. The final tally would include James Odwori, Mohamed Muruli, and Benson Masanda securing gold medals for Uganda; and Leo Rwabwogo and Deogratius Musoke claiming silver medals.

Thereafter, legendary Ugandan Mukwanga faded away from the boxing scene. And unlike his fellow Ugandan Olympic medalists, notably Leo Rwabwogo, John Akii-Bua, John Mugabi and Davis Kamoga, Eridadi Mukwanga after his losses in 1970 largely disappeared from the press and the public eye. He never turned professional, and anyway did not flourish in an era (1970’s and beyond) of Africans joining the professional ranks. Sometimes Mukwanga was rumored to be a boastful heavy alcohol drinker. Even his exact date of death is not recorded. But the memory of Eridadi Mukwanga is enduring. The Mukwanga Memorial (Boxing) Cup is dedicated to his memory.

Jonathan Musere

Leo Rwabwogo: Uganda’s Top Olympic Boxer

May 13, 2009

Leo Rwabwogo is officially recorded as having been born on June 3 1949, but some of his family members place his date of birth as being as far back as 1942. Rwabwogo died on January 14, 2009 (some sources state, January 15, 2009), when he collapsed while tending to his crop plantation that included bananas, in western Uganda. He likely died from heart failure.

Leo Rwabwogo was one of the most prominent of Uganda’s amateur boxing fighters during the 1960’s. Rwabwogo’s international prominence came with the African Boxing Championships that were held in Zambia’s capital Lusaka in June 1968. Rwabwogo, as a flyweight, emerged as gold-medalist with a win over Mohamed Selim of Egypt.

The memorable Olympic Games of 1968 (October 12 to October 27), were held in the populous Mexico capital of Mexico City. Rwabwogo started in the preliminaries by defeating Sang Byung-Soo of South Korea by 5-0. Next came the quarter-finals, and Rwabwogo managed to beat Tibor Badari of Hungary, by 3-2. Because of his incredible speed and efficiency, muscular and well-conditioned Rwabwogo was suspected of having inhaled marijuana. There was no proof that Rwabwogo had broken any rules! Next came the semi-finals in which Rwabwogo was pitted against Artur Olec of Poland. Unfortunately, Rwabwogo was judged as having lost the bout by 2-3. Nevertheless, Leo Rwabwogo, by winning the bronze medal, became Uganda’s first Olympic medalist. His name would become cemented into Uganda’s sports history, forever!

Subsequently, Artur Olec was defeated by Ricardo Delgado (Ricardo Delgado Nogales) of Mexico, in the finals. Delgado turned professional in 1969, but his professional record is mediocre with about half as wins and half as defeats by points. Delgado retired from professional boxing in 1975.

In 1970, Leo Rwabwogo would shine as a contributor to Uganda’s emergence as top Commonwealth boxing nation. The 1970 Commonwealth Games were held in Edinburgh in Scotland during July 17-24. In the quarterfinals, flyweight Leo Rwabwogo shone by defeating Leon Nissen of Australia with the referee stopping the bout in the second round. In the semi-finals, Rwabwogo was pitted against David Larmour of Ireland. Rwabwogo won by a majority points decision. However, in the finals, Rwabwogo was defeated 4-1 by Dave Needham of England. Rwabwogo became honored with a silver medal. Dave “the Artful Dodger” Needham is legendary in the British Empire, and won several British professional titles.

Rwabwogo next mainly shone in the next Olympics. Rwabwogo notably maintained his weight and represented Uganda, again as a flyweight at the 1972 Olympics that were held from August 28 to September 10. In the preliminaries, Rwabwogo would overwhelmingly defeat Jorge Acuna of Uruguay by 5-0. Next, muscular Rwabwogo technically knocked out Maurice O’Sullivan of Great Britain in the first round. The next preliminary bout would again favor Rwabwogo with a 4-1 win over Orn-Chim Chawalit of Thailand. Rwabwogo then moved on to the quarter-finals and delivered with a third-round technical knockout of Neil McLaughlin of Ireland. And in the semi-finals, notwithstanding the outstanding dominance of Cubans at the 1972 Games and in world amateur boxing as a whole, Leo Rwabwogo was able to convincingly defeat Douglas Rodriguez of Cuba by 3-2. The Cubans dominated boxing at these Olympic Games, and though Rodriguez was defeated by Rwabwogo and settled for bronze, later at the World Amateur boxing Championships held in Havana, Rodriguez would capture gold.

Unfortunately, in the final of the 1972 Olympics, Rwabwogo lost to Georgi Kostadinov of Bulgaria by 5-0. Rwabwogo had allegedly accumulated a thumb injury that may well have been a major factor in the loss. Nevertheless, Leo Rwabwogo had further cemented himself in Uganda history as the only Ugandan to have won two Olympic medals. No Ugandan has ever re-enacted Rwabwogo’s feat. Furthermore, because Rwabwogo won more Olympic boxing medals than any other Ugandan boxer, Rwabwogo is regarded by many as Uganda’s top amateur boxer. this is a moot issue, given that several other Ugandans, such as James Odwori, Mohamed Muruli, and Ayub Kalule won more gold medals in their international competitions. But again, many regard the Olympics as the traditional hallmark of international competition!

Let it also be considered that in Rwabwogo’s next major international outing, that is the All-Africa Games (held in Nigerian capital Lagos from January 7-18 1973) Leo Rwabwogo (only 3 months after his silver medal win at the Olympics) was in his very first preliminary eliminated (3-2) by Laha Ratavi of Madagascar! Ratavi was virtually unknown in the boxing world just as Madagascar’s stance in the boxing world was abysmally low. Next, Laha Ratavi was defeated in the quarter-finals by Isaac Maiawa of Kenya. Maiawa eventually became the silver-medalist. Ratavi was never heard of, again, as regards international boxing! Furthermore, Leo Rwabwogo would little be heard of again as regards fighting for his native Uganda nation. Rwabwogo is not even listed amongst Uganda’s team of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, that eventually boycotted the Games’. Even in retrospect, Rwabwogo was not included in the 1974 Uganda teams of the African Boxing Championships, the Commonwealth Games, and the World Amateur Boxing Championships.

Maybe age and injuries had caught up with famed Uganda amateur boxer, Leo Rwabwogo; maybe the national coaches considered upcoming younger boxers as more competent than Leo Rwabwogo. Rwabwogo never moved into the professional ranks, but he sometimes lamented that he was denied the opportunity when Uganda boxing officials either blocked his chances or were discouraging! Rwabwogo still persists as one of the most skillful, strong, agile and well-conditioned of Uganda’s boxers.

Jonathan Musere

Mohamed Muruli: Uganda’s Commonwealth Games’ Double Boxing Gold Medallist

May 8, 2009

Born in Kichwamba in Kabarole, Uganda on July 14, 1947, 5’7″ tall Mohamed (Muhammad) Muruli remains among the most outstanding and respected of Ugandan boxers.

At the African Amateur Boxing Championships, held in Lusaka in Zambia in June 1968, Muruli ably displayed international promise, though in the finals he fell to legendary Kenyan Philip Waruinge of Kenya in the finals of the lightweight division; and therefore settled for the silver medal. Waruinge had also won gold in the Africa Boxing Championships held in Brazzaville in Congo in 1965. Among Waruinge’s other achievements were fighting for Kenya in three Olympics (1964, 1968, and 1972), the later in which he won bronze and silver, respectively. Partly out of disillusionment about the judging that he considered biased, Waruinge turned professional and fought in Osaka in Japan. He also won lightweight gold at the 1970 Commonwealth games in Edinburgh, in the finals outpointing Deogratias Musoke of Uganda. Within a couple of years later “Deo” Musoke died, allegedly from overstarving and overtraining, in his quest to maintain his boxing division weight limit.

Naturally, Waruinge is remembered as one of Uganda’s biggest boxing rivals. He was a common fixture in the frequent friendly boxing tournaments between Uganda and Kenya. On turning professional in Japan, Philip Waruinge became known as Waruinge Nakayama. He fought as a professional from 1973 to 1978, but his record, including losses in the quests for the world title and Japanese titles is mediocre (14 wins, 10 losses, and 1 draw).

It was at the Olympic Games of 1968 (October 12 – October 27) in Mexico City, that 21 year-old Muruli further displayed his international competence. Muruli would easily beat, by decision, the first two (South American) opponents that were in his path; firstly Luis Munoz of Chile (by 4-1), thereafter tall Armando Mendoza of Venezuela (by 5-0). Muruli’s next encounter, that with Ronald Woodson “Ronnie” (“Mazel”) Harris of the USA would not be as fulfilling. Skillful and 5’10” (quite tall for a lightweight) Harris thoroughly outpointed Muruli (5-0); and in eliminating Muruli allowed him to settle for a respectable 5th, just a breath away from bronze medal contention.

Harris would become the eventual gold medalist, in-like fashion heavily outpointing his east European (Romanian Calistrat Cutov [bronze], and thereafter Polish Józef Grudzien [silver]) both by 5-0. Interestingly, Gruzdien still in the same mass class as a lightweight, had won gold as a 25-year old at the previous 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Harris would turn professional in 1971, he remained undefeated until 1978. In 1978 he challenged Argentine Hugo Pastor Corro for the WBC/ WBA middleweight title, but lost by decision. Harris retired from boxing in August 1982, although he had won his last four bouts. Harris’ final tally as a professional is 35 wins (with 14 knockouts), 2 losses (1 knockout), 1 draw.

At the next major international contest…the Commonwealth Games held in Edinburgh in Scotland from July 17-24 1970, Muruli had blossomed to light-welterweight, the division in which he represented Uganda. In the quarter finals, Muruli would outpoint Guyanese Reginald Forde. Next, the semi-finals involved hard-punching Muruli causing the referee to stop the contest with Ghanaian Odartey Lawson in the first round. In the finals, Muruli would beat Welsh Dave Davies by 3-2. Eventually, Muruli’s gold, together with golds by light-flyweight James Odwori and heavyweight Benson Masanda; together with silver medal wins by flyweight Leo Rwabwogo and lightweight Deogratias Musoke would for the first time establish Uganda as Commonwealth Games’ boxing champions; therefore a world boxing power to reckon with.

The next major international challenge for Muruli, came in June 1972 involving the Africa Amateur Championships held in Nairobi in Kenya. Still as a light-welterweight, in the finals, 25 year-old Muruli would beat 22 year-old future African Games’ champion and later Nigeria national boxing coach Obisia Nwakpa.

Muruli, given his astonishing record, would logically be included among Uganda’s Olympic boxer medal hopes for the summer Olympics of 1972 that were held in Munich in Germany. Unfortunately, Romanian Calistrat Cutov, the previous Olympic bronze-medalist, outpointed Muruli in the very first preliminary round!

Fortunately, again Mohamed Muruli was selected to represent Uganda in the next major international competition. It would be the prestigious Commonwealth Games, this time held in Christchurch in New Zealand from January 24-February 2, 1974. Again Muruli had moved up in weight, and this time would be representing Uganda as a welterweight at the limit of 67 kg. In the preliminary round, on January 26 1974, Muruli ably disposed of Caleb Okech of Kenya by points. Similarly, in the quarter-finals, Muruli beat Carmen Rinke of Canada by majority points. Next came the semi-finals, and Muruli outpointed Scottish Steven Cooney. The finals saw Muruli outpointing Errol McKenzie of Wales; thus establishing Muruli as Uganda’s only 2-time Commonwealth Games’ Gold-medalist. This record, as well as Muruli’s stance as one of the toughest and most renowned of Uganda’s amateur boxers, has remained intact for decades!

The next major outing for Muruli was the World Amateur Boxing Championships held in Havana in the last two weeks of August 1974. Welterweight Muruli did not fare well in this prestigious event. In the preliminary first round Muruli was knocked out in the third round by Kalevi Kosunen of Finland. Counterparts Ayub Kalule (gold medal winner) and Joseph Nsubuga (bronze medal winner) were the Ugandan trophy winners in the tournament.

At the African amateur Championships held in Kampala in Uganda in November 1974, Muruli represented Uganda as a light-middleweight. Muruli proved his worth and in the finals, he knocked out Ndom of Cameroun. Additional gold medals won by Ugandans James Odwori, Ayub Kalule, Vitalis Bbege, and Mustapha Wasajja, overwhelmingly cemented Uganda as the African amateur king! Thereafter, Muruli boxed sporadically, even became a Uganda Army Boxing team coach. He is not listed in the team that was scheduled to represent Uganda at the Olympics of 1976 that were held in Montreal in Canada. Uganda and many other countries boycotted these Games, for political reasons. Muruli did not join the professional ranks, but many renowned or promising Uganda boxers such as John Baker Muwanga, Ayub Kalule, Mustapha Wasajja, Cornelius Bbosa (Boza-Edwards), Joseph Nsubuga moved to Europe to join the professional ranks. Some battled to become world champions! As Africans increasingly became professionals, and as boxing rules became increasingly more protective of amateurs, amateur boxing would never be the same again.

Nevertheless, Mohamed Muruli, one of the most skillful and most dreaded of African boxers, consistently proved his worth. Muruli won numerous gold medals in both local and international bouts. And his record as the only Ugandan to win two Commonwealth Games’ boxing gold medals, still stands!

Muruli’s son in London, Muhamad Muruli Jr., confirmd that the Uganda boxer died in 1995 in Fort Portal in Kabarole District.

Jonathan Musere

James Odwori (Oduori): Uganda’s Most Exciting and Most Decorated Amateur Boxer

May 4, 2009

James Odwori, born October 23 1951, is said to have been born in Kenya where later as a retired boxer Odwori became Kenya Prisons’ Boxing Team Coach and later became a Kenya National Boxing Team Coach. A relatively tall boxer for a light-flyweight, young Odwori established himself as an international boxing phenomenon by winning the Gold medal at the 1970 Commonwealth Games (held from July 17 to July 24 1970) in Edinburgh, Scotland. At the quarter-finals’ level, Odwori beat Anthony Kerr of Scotland, on points on July 20 1970. Odwori moved on to the semi-finals where he outpointed Mickey Abrams of England on July 22 1970. Finally, 20-year old Odwori moved on to the final bout. Here Odwori defeated Anthony Davies of Wales, winning by points on July 24 1970.

As a boxer in the tournaments between Kenya and Uganda, and in the East African and Central African Championships, Odwori would establish himself as a superb knock-out specialist. In June 1972 the African Boxing Championships were held in Nairobi, Kenya. Odwori won gold in the light-flyweight division, in the final defeating Saad of the Sudan. Uganda would take home five gold medals (won by Odwori, Peter Odhiambo, Mohamed Muruli, Martin Akuba, and Benson Masanda); and two silver medals (won by John Opio and George Mathias Ouma).

Odwori’s biggest challenge would be the Olympic Games of 1972, where, naturally James Odwori would be considered a major medal hope for Uganda. At 5’7″ (170 cm), young Odwori was quite tall for a light-flyweight. Both his height and long-reach were additional advantages. On August 28 1972, in his preliminary first bout, Odwori displayed his prowess by technically knocking out two-inches shorter Filipino Vicente Arsenal by second round stoppage by the referee in the second round. Next of his bouts came on September 2, and Odwori capably stopped 5′ 2″ Egyptian Said Ahmed El- Ashry in the second round. However, in the following quarter finals’ bout on September 7, Odwori was knocked out by 5′ 4″ Kim U-Gil of North Korea (who eventually won the silver medal), dropping Odwori out of medal contention, just allowing Odwori to settle for a respectable 5th place.

Relatively fresh from the Olympics, Odwori would next represent Uganda at the All-Africa Games held in 1973 in Lagos, Nigeria from January 7 to 18, again as a light-flyweight (48kg). In the preliminaries, Odwori eliminated Babak Fall of Senegal by second round knockout. At the quarter finals, Odwori hammered Tanzanian Bakari Salamani to a second-round technical knockout! Next, Samuel Eke of Nigeria succumbed to James Odwori by third-round technical knockout. And finally, in the bid for the gold medal, lanky Odwori disposed of Ghanaian Young Chucks by first-round technical knockout. Odwori had established himself as an international force to be reckoned with!

These were busy and productive years for Uganda boxing! The Commonwealth Games came around, and they were held in Christchurch, new Zealand from January 24 – February 2 1974. Moving on to the quarter-finals, James Odwori ably knocked out Bakari Selemani of Tanzania in round 2. In the semi finals, on January 31, Odwori outpointed Singaporean Syed Abdul Kadir. Of significance is that by winning the bronze medal, Kadir became the first person from Singapore to win his country a Commonwealth Games’ medal. To this day, Kadir remains the most celebrated boxer within Singapore. The next day, in then finals, 23 year-old Odwori would be outpointed by 17 year-old (at only 5’3″ tall) Stephen (Steve) Muchoki of Kenya. Odwori, standing at 5’7″ therefore had to settle for the silver medal, a medal level he was unaccustomed to. Odwori had hence failed to defend the Commonwealth Games’ title that he had won four years earlier. Significantly, Muchoki is by far the most decorated boxer in Kenyan history. Among Muchoki’s accomplishments was the additional gold medal won in the light-flyweight boxing division, at the next Commonwealth Games held in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada, 1978).

At the World Amateur Boxing Championships held in Havana, Cuba in 1974 (August 17 – 30), light-flyweight Muchoki was defeated in the finals by Cuban Jorge Hernandez and settled for silver medal. James Odwori, at flyweight, was at these championships. This was disappointing for Odwori, Odwori’s team-mates, and for Uganda as a whole. Odwori became one of a couple of boxers disqualified from competing because of exceeding the weight limit! Ironically, Odwori had only recently moved up in weight division, from light-flyweight where Steve Muchoki remained. Odwori’s disqualification enabled his would-be opponent Felipe Rojas of Argentina to smoothly advance to the next round. Skillful Kenyan Muchoki would go on to win light-flyweight gold in Belgrade, Yugoslavia where the next World Amateur Boxing Championships were held. And this time Muchoki outpointed Jorge Hernandez, the same opponent he had faced in the finals of the same tournament four years earlier! Muchoki was scheduled to fight at the 1976 Olympics held in Montreal, but Kenya withdrew from the Olympics for political reasons, leaving the first round as a walkover win for Alican Az of Turkey. Az was eliminated by Park Chan-Hee of Korea in the second round. Jorge Hernandez of Cuba would eliminate Park Chan-Hee in the next round, and eventually become the gold-medalist! The same Jorge Hernandez that would subsequently be Muchoki’s most remembered, and international rival!. Curiously, James Odwori is not listed as having been scheduled to represent Uganda. By 1976, the presiding Amin regime was declining in strength and was being heavily scrutinized and antagonized internationally. Governmental attention to sports had similarly waned, and many of Uganda’s leading boxers were missing from the team, had left the country, were preparing to turn professional, or had become disillusioned because of inadequate training or attention. The political and economic situation became unfavorable for national sports, as it did in other spheres. The Amin regime was toppled in 1979.

The next African Amateur Boxing Championships were held in November 1974 in Kampala, Uganda; a familiar home territory of countless enthusiasts of Odwori and fellow Ugandan competitors. This time Odwori had moved up to the next division in weight, the flyweight (51kg). The final bout witnessed Odwori outpointing Isaac Kuria Maina of Kenya. Again Uganda overwhelmingly displayed African dominance, gold medals in addition won by Ayub Kalule, Vitalis Bbege, Mohamed Muruli, and Mustapha Wasajja. Meanwhile Ugandans Ali Rojo and Jacob Odonga (who was months earlier in the preliminaries of the World Boxing Championships held in August, knocked out by Leon Spinks who would win Olympic Gold in 1976 in Montreal; two years later Leon Spinks defeated Mohammed Ali in vying for the World Heavyweight Crown) settled for silver medals.

Based on his national and international appearances and wins, given his skillfulness and style, James Odwori in the 1970s established an excellent amateur trial that has never been matched by any other Uganda boxer.

Jonathan Musere

Mustapha Wasajja: Uganda’s Mysterious Champion

May 4, 2009

Mustapha (Mustafa) Wasajja (Wassaja / Wassajja / Wasaja) was born on July 16, 1953 in Kampala, Uganda). As an amateur, Wasajja fought at welter-, light-middle-, and middle-weight. Wasajja, debilitated by weakness and shakiness for years, eventually succumbed to Parkinsonism on April 26 2009, near Kampala in Uganda

In the early 1970’s, Wasajja was under the tutelage of Uganda’s legendary and most famous coach Peter Grace Sseruwagi (Seruwagi) and national trainer Kesi Odongo (who at the 1962 Commonwealth Games held in Perth in Australia, won a a silver medal in the lightweight divison). As a light-welterweight, Sseruwagi represented Uganda at the 1960 Olympic Games held in Rome but was eliminated outside medal contention. Long-time Uganda sports official and ex-Uganda army commander Francis (Frank) Nyangweso, a light-middleweight contender at that time, was also eliminated in the earlier bouts at the same Games.

Wasajja’s first distinguished international accomplishment came in the African Amateur Championships held in his native Uganda, in Kampala in November 1974. Wasajja won gold in the middleweight division. Gold medal wins by fellow countrymen James Odwori (Oduori), Ayub Kalule, Vitalis Bbege, Mohamed Muruli; together with silver medal wins by Ali Rojo and Jacob Odongo, further established two-time (1970 and 1974) Commonwealth boxing overall champion Uganda as international ring master. Earlier on in January 1974 at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, Wasajja, as Uganda’s middleweight, was in the quarter finals knocked out in the first round by Les Rackley of New Zealand.

And at the World Boxing Championships held in August 1974, Wasajja was outpointed in the quarter-finals by Dragomir Vujkovic of Yugoslavia. An upcoming major outing for the glorious Ugandans would have been at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal in Canada. Many African countries, including Uganda, boycotted these Games. Notable Ugandan boxers such as Wasajja, Ayub Kalule, and Cornelius Bbosa (Boza-Edwards), would henceforth move into the growing field of professional boxing. These were the seeds of the 1980’s golden era of Uganda boxing during which Ugandans, notably Ayub Kalule, Cornelius Boza-Edwards, and John “the Beast” Mugabi became professional world champions.

Of note is that a tune up for the 1976 Olympic Games included the international Pre-Olympic Boxing Tournament held in Montreal from November 27 to December 1, 1975. Uganda was represented by Wasajja (middleweight), hard punching and dreaded knockout specialist and Africa Champion Vitalis Bbege (welterweight), and Jacob Odonga (light-heavyweight). Only Wasajja emerged winner, while his counterparts were defeated in their finals. In the quarter-finals, Wasajja thouroughly outpointed Pietro Contarini of Canada. This was followed by Wasajja beating Jacobus Schmidt of Holland on points. The finals involved Wasajja beating Bryan Gibson of Canada by 4:1. Vitalis Bbege was also scheduled to fight for Uganda at the upcoming but aborted Olympics. Bbege soon moved to West Germany (FDR) where he boxed as a club amateur and even represented Germany at a dual friendly with the United States. He is well settled in Germany with family and he is a fitness and boxing trainer in Flensburg.

Wasajja fought in 28 official fights as a professional boxer. These fights of Wasajja took place from March 1977 to March 1983, and Wasajja became a top-ten world contender as a light-heavyweight and cruiserweight from the late 1970’s to the mid-1980’s. Aside from his last three fights, his bouts essentially took place in Denmark and Norway. Of his only professional wins and one draw (25 bouts), 76% of them went the distance, Wasajja registering 24% as knocks-outs of his opponents. Wasajja stood out as a southpaw, a mostly agile, fast, and stamina endowed puncher who would endure all the rounds other than deliver as a power knockout pugilist.

On September 9, 1978 in Copenhagen, Wasajja technically knocked out legendary former world light-heavyweight Bob (Robert Lloyd) Foster with a retirement in the 5th round. The lanky 6’3″ tall Foster, considered one of the world’s all-time (light-heavyweights) greats had over the years been in many vicious battles with notable fighters, including epic heavyweights like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and Ernie Terrel. He is regarded as the best boxer to have hailed from the USA state of New Mexico. Foster achieved mixed results when fighting the heavyweight boxers. Foster had also retired several times and made comebacks. When Foster battled Wasajja , he was aged 40 and undoubtedly way past his prime. After one more fight thereafter (a rematch with Bob Hazelton in which Foster was knocked), Foster would retire for the last time. Wasajja was only 25 at that time. Foster lay his gloves down, ending with a marvelous 56 wins (46 by knockout) and 8 losses.

From his professional debut in March 1977 until February 13, 1982, Wasajja achieved a 100% winning streak. It was then that he battled legendary Michael Spinks (later to become World Heavyweight Champion) for the light-heavyweight crown, in the New Jersey Atlantic City in the USA. Wasajja’s crossing the Atlantic for a chance at the belt, spelled his demise. Prior to the fight with Spinks, Wasajja, regarded as a mystery man (whose names were difficult to spell) by the American fans and writers became the number one ranked contender for the WBA light-heavyweight crown. Previously, in 1980, Wasajja had become the 3rd-ranked WBA contender.

Subsequently, Wasajja was knocked out by Spinks in the sixth round, and therefore failed to capture the World Boxing Association (WBA) title. In July of the same year, Wasajja lost his next bout (which went the distance) to Tony Mundine in France, and thereafter in Lusaka (Zambia), Wasajja was knocked out by Zambian Lottie Mwale in only three rounds, and thus failing to capture the British Commonwealth Light-heavyweight title. At age 29 Wasajja had fought his last professional fight. Undoubtedly, the last three were bouts were Wasajja’s toughest and most significant; they were against game opponents. Sadly, it was in the three that Wasajja succumbed. These three significantly injured and exposed Wasajja’s weaknesses. Nevertheless, Wasajja established himself as one of the greatest Uganda boxers, and significantly as one of the greatest among the pioneering Uganda professional boxers.

Of note, Lottie Mwale, who was the same age as Wasajja, boxed professionally until 1994; he stands out as one of the greatest of African boxers. He participated in 53 professional bouts won most of them by knockout and was also an African Boxing Union (ABU) champion. The greatest Zambian boxer succumbed in 2005, at age 53, to Parkinsonism which is the same affliction that legendary Muhammad Ali endures. Zambians, with their love for boxing, apparently harbor an appreciably enduring memory of Mustapha Wasajja. And Zambians, have for decades been traditional boxing rivals of Ugandans. Charles Chisamba, the Zambian light-heavyweight champion, carries the nickname, “Wasajja” (“Wasaja”). On January 24, 2009 in Lusaka, Chisamba outpointed Tanzania’s Mbaruku Kheri in an African Boxing Union (ABU) light-heavyweight vacant title and thus became Africa champion. Wasajja has guided young and promising boxers at Mulago Yellow Boxing Club, some of whom have starred as professionals abroad…mainly in Europe, notably in the Scandinavian countries.

In an October 8 2005 article by Moses Mugalu in the Uganda newspaper “Daily Monitor,” Wasajja is said to talk about having invested in Kenya businesses (together with long-time boxing counterpart Ayub Kalule) after retirement from boxing, on until 1990. But Wasajja claimed to have eventually been duped by Kenyan business counterparts; a consequence of which he became a poverty-stricken slum dweller in Mulago in Kampala. His five children were similarly struggling, some young and not enrolled in school. Wasajja recounted his memorable amateur exhibition bout with his executive President, Idi Amin, soon after Wasajja won the Africa Championships title in the series held in Kampala in 1975. Wasajja was obligated to lose in that puppet bout. In the “Monitor” interviews, Wasajja is described as weakly, frail, shaky, and occasionally stammering,” but that both his memory and speech are quite focused and clear; and he maintains his pride and humor.

In the Uganda newspaper, “Bukedde,” dated July 28 2008, an ailing bedridden Wasajja mentions to Ibrahim Katongole that it is his children Rehemah Namuddu, Nakayiwa and Salif Abdul who tend to him. According to a former national boxer, Charles Lubulwa, some of Wasajja’s sufferings stemmed from disconnecting himself from the boxing bodies and persons that had employed him and supported him during his boxing career abroad. They had, largely, lost contact with him.

As regards the memorable fight with Michael Spinks in which he lost in 1982, Wasajja strongly suspects that food given to him prior to the fight (in Atlantic City, New Jersey) was tainted and consequently weakened and disabled him: he claimed that foul play was involved in his losing the fight. This was Wasajja’s most memorable and most prestigious fight. And who knew? Wasajja fought with the two Spinks brothers who became world heavyweight champions! One of the brothers beat Muhammad Ali, and the other was beaten by Mike Tyson, among other things! Also, notably, Wasajja fought during an era regarded as a golden one for light-heavyweights. These included Michael Spinks, Dwight Mohammed Qawi (formerly Dwight Braxton), Eddie Mustafa Muhammad (formerly Eddie Gregory), Marvin Johnson, and Mathew Saad Muhammad (formerly Mathew Franklin, and born Maxwell Antonio Loach).

Wasajja was a notable amateur Uganda boxing champion, but his wins were not as many or as striking as those of his counterparts such as Ayub Kalule and James Odwori. In the professional ranks he rose to prominent heights, but he did not win that coveted world title. Wasajja’s fame is intertwined with his being a mysterious Ugandan champion, one who had shots at both world title and the Africa professional title but came short of winning. Wasajja, Uganda’s mysterious champion became outstanding as one of Uganda’s pioneering professional boxers, one of those who had the audacity to challenge some of the best boxers on the globe.

Jonathan Musere