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How Kenya attracted top American boxers to add skills, give hope to locals

Friday July 03 2020
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Roy Jones Jnr (centre), the then World Boxing Association heavyweight champion, is welcomed at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport by Miss Tourism models when he visited Kenya carrying out a HIV/Aids awareness campaign in 2003. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By WAIGWA KIBOI

The current state of boxing in Kenya may be a major concern given the low number of boxers who qualify for regional, continental and international competitions.

Gone are the days when boxing fans used to jam halls to watch and cheer boxers. However, learning from the past should be a guide on how boxing can be refined to recapture the lost glory.

The current active boxers in the country are most likely not aware that Kenya attracted many former world boxing champions from the United States of America who came here to inspire and train our local boxers.

Luckily, new technology, through the internet, has made it easier for boxers and boxing fans to watch old fights and assess their performance. The first of the great former fighters to visit Kenya was Muhammad Ali, simply known as “the Greatest,” in 1980.

Moscow Olympic boycott

Although his mission was through the government of the United States to urge African states to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games to protest that country’s involvement in the Afghan war, Ali had time to demonstrate his boxing skills to his fans at Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) and Starehe Boys Centre.

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Muhammad Abdullah Kent, one of Kenya’s best heavy weight boxers, had an opportunity to box with the Greatest. Ali inspired many wherever he visited.

Ali, who died in June, 2016, aged 74, after suffering from Parkinsons Disease for 32 years, and who attracted worldwide attention beyond boxing, is the only boxer or athlete to be honored while alive with a world class center in his name – the Muhammad Ali Centre worth $100 million (about Sh10 billion) in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was born.

Floyd Patterson came to Kenya in 1983 at the invitation of Joe Aketch, the first chairman of Kenya Professional Boxing Commission (KPBC). He holds the record of being the youngest world heavyweight boxing champion at 22 years, and the first to regain his title after losing it.

According to Aketch, Patterson replaced Ken Norton, remembered as the man who broke Ali’s jaw in 1973, who could not make it to Kenya due to some pressing commitments in the United States.

Some of Kenya’s well known boxers under the umbrella of KPBC included Stephen Muchoki, Dick Tiger Murunga and Boniface Kahoro.

Through Aketch, Patterson helped in shaping KPBC in its initial stages through professional advice. His presence helped boxers understand how to cope with situations without necessarily giving up due to shortcomings.

Aketch was influential in many areas being sales and marketing manager for Kenya, then manager for East and Central Africa for Pan-Am, the American Airlines.

He later became the representative for Pan-Am workers in the whole of Africa through an association known as “Aware” representing the interests of Pan-Am in Africa.
Archie Moore, perhaps the greatest light heavyweight boxing champion of the world, came to Kenya in 1984.

Through Aketch, he was able to visit many boxing sites to demonstrate his boxing skills and offer advice to both older and upcoming boxers.

Both Patterson and Archie Moore had an opportunity to visit Bahati during their different visits where, among other things, they were able to interact with the ordinary wananchi and a paralyzed boxer.

Those are the kind of visits, Aketch says, inspire all classes of people given that Archie Moore and Patterson being blacks in the United States during their youth had gone through many challenges to become world class boxers.

For record purposes, the three visiting former world boxing champions had fought each other during their boxing careers with Ali, the youngest, beating both Moore and Patterson. Moore, the oldest had lost to Patterson as he tried the heavyweight division.

I had an opportunity to meet the three former world champions (all deceased) and learned the importance of patience and hard work. Our boxers too learned a lot.

Kenya was honoured, yet again, when the reigning world heavyweight boxing champion, Riddick Bowe, was on a two day visit to Kenya Somalia in 1992.

Aketch was among those who received the champion. Roy Jones Junior, another former world heavyweight champion from the United States, paid a visit to Kenya.

With such visits to Kenya by several world class boxers, the boxing fraternity has something to look back to, inspire our boxers and help in reclaiming our lost glory when our boxing team, the “Hit Squad” was in the league of boxing superpowers.

What are we not doing right?

According to Reuben Ndolo, the current chairman Kenya Professional Boxing Commission, boxing has changed these days where the amateurs are also fighting as professionals.

This, he says, will dilute the sweet science of the sport. It is a competition between themselves.

The problem started when boxing started going semi-professional.

Says Ndolo: “Let professionals be professional and amateurs remain amateurs. If they want to turn professionals, they should be told to do so when they are still young.’’

“We were going to have a Commonwealth title fight between May and June but this has not been possible due to the coronavirus pandemic that has affected the entire world.

This title fight last took place sixteen years ago,’’ says Ndolo. On the International scene, Ndolo says they are working very closely with the Floyd Mayweather team to come and start an academy in Kenya for the development of boxing.

Looking back at the history of boxing in Kenya and other countries that used to produce some of the best boxers in the world, be it in amateur or professional circles, it would appear certain forces in each country have affected boxers performances.

Kenya is yet to produce internationally recognised boxers like Philip Waruinge, Stephen Muchoki, Robert Wangila, Joseph Akhasamba and Ashira Oure, to mention but a few.

Internationally, countries like Cuba, the United States and Russia, much as they still produce some good boxers, no longer dominate as they used to.

Electronic scoring in boxing seem to have brought some confusion where a seemingly better boxer who appears to be winning ends up a loser.

Bias refereeing has also cost some boxers heavily. Some boxers train extremely hard to knock their opponents out as the only option to win a fight. All in all, a good fighter deserves to win clean without bias.

A good budget

By looking back to our boxing history, boxing bodies — both amateur and professional — boxers, coaches, boxing clubs and the government, through the relevant bodies, need to come together to shape this great sport to international standards.

This is possible when a good budget is allocated and accountability followed to the last coin.

Boxing became one of Kenya’s major sports as early as 1960s, gradually improving year after year and, by the 1980s, it had a fearsome boxing team that competed in and won many titles at major international competitions.

Those were the days when the country was renowned globally for boxing through the much feared national team, the “Hit Squad” which could match toe-to-toe with any other national team worldwide.

Kenya had enough talent to form a number of national teams at the same time if there was need for that. 

Kenya hosted the all Africa Games in 1987 where boxing was one of the sports in which the country did extremely well.

Signs of decline started showing after those continental games when funding in sports became a major problem.

Muchoki, the only Kenyan to win a world boxing title as an amateur, recalls the good, the bad and the ugly of boxing in the country.

“Well established boxing clubs like Dallas in Nairobi and Nakuru Amateur Boxing Club were a power to record with and repeatedly produced national and international champions,” he recalls.

“This gradually changed due to neglect, poor management and lack of funding and since then things have never been the same again.’’

As a member of Dallas Club, Muchoki experienced good competition from boxer employed by quasi- government bodies like the Kenya Ports Authority and Kenya Railways Corporation, and institutions like Kenya Breweries who funded their own boxing clubs.

Those were the days when good boxers easily got jobs from well-established boxing clubs.

However, things took a downward trend when the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) came along with structural adjustment programmes for free market economic policy reforms where the government-owned companies became privatised and forced to reduce their social expenditure.

Most state corporations had a boxing club and these were among the first to go, along with the boxers who had to be retrenched.

That was a major setback that affected boxers both mentally and physically.

The state of boxing degenerated to such low levels that Kenya could only send one boxer to the 2012 London Olympic Games!

During the 2016 Rio Olympics, Kenya was represented by three boxers — two more than the London Games.

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