The commentary was vintage Johnston Madonye. Our hulking heavyweight, Fred Sabat was in the ring against Uganda’s Ludovick Owiny.
This was the last bout of the 1975 second leg of the Brunner-Urafiki Cup between Kenya and Uganda at Nairobi’s City Hall.
Our national boxing team, then the reigning East and Central Africa and future Commonwealth Games champions, was not yet known as the “Hit Squad”.
That would come later in the early 1980s. And Uganda, as far as I know, never got a terrifying nickname like ours.
But that didn’t matter.
What did is that the two nations came together in a contest that was the talk of Nairobi’s underclass for weeks leading up to the big night.
On the day of the fight, kids in the marginalized, tough neighbourhoods of Nairobi’s east would say: “Leo kuna blow.” (Today is fight day.)
Incidentally, only slightly less in intensity was another annual two leg contest this time between Nairobi and Kampala.
It was known as the Inter-Cities Cup. You couldn’t miss any of those and call yourself a true boxing fan.
But if per chance you did, there was Johnston Madonye, KBC’s finest boxing radio commentator, to take you right by the ring.
Sabat, red corner, faced Owiny, blue corner. First round. Seconds out. Bell rang.
But what should have been a head-to-head, toe-to-toe and blow-for-blow duel between our best and theirs came a cropper.
Sabat lay flat on the canvas almost as soon as referee Mul Duffy motioned the boxers to start.
He was almost hoisted into the air by what Madonye said was a perfectly-timed upper cut. Sabat was down and heading for out.
As Duffy’s count inexorably made for 10, Madonye crowed into his microphone: “Msikilizaji, kama ungekua hapa, ungefikiria Sabat anangojea blanketi.” (Listener, if you had been here, you would have thought Sabat is waiting for a blanket.)
And scarcely concealing his amusement at the sudden turn of events, he pleaded with the downed fighter to give the contest one more shot.
He elongated Sabat’s name, making it sound as if he was calling him across a big valley the way villagers make casual conversation: “Sabaaaaaaaaat! Amka, bro!” (“Wake up, bro!”)
But Sabat did not beat the count and Duffy ended the contest by knockout. Still, Kenya beat Uganda – narrowly.
At break time the following Monday, the all-consuming topic was that Brunner-Urafiki contest. My classmate, Saulo Odhiambo was our school’s top boxer.
He would go on to become the national lightweight champion and make us immensely proud to have one of our own as a member of the Hit Squad.
I engaged Saulo about the Sabat bout. In between many bursts of laughter, I went on and on about how Sabat almost threw the tournament for us.
Mine was, of course, the ignorant and annoying loudness of a third party who hears a story but knows more about the event than the actual witness; I had only seen that bout through Madonye’s commentary. Saulo had personally been at City Hall while my claim to fame was by courtesy of KBC National Service Radio.
Saulo never joined me in laughing at Sabat.
He knew better. He waited for my sadistic entertainment to abate before telling me about the effect of a knockout. Wearing the look of a man transported into a boxing ringside and perceiving the distress of a defeated fighter in the manner Sabat had met his fate at the hands of Owiny, he told me matter-of-factly: “Wakati kama huo ata kuku anaweza piga wewe.” (“In such circumstances, even a chicken can beat you up.”) He knew it from experience.
Saulo Odhiambo. Such a nice guy. I wonder where he ended up after his boxing career.
Something also happened to Kenya and Uganda. The Brunner-Urafiki and Inter-Cities tournaments vanished. So did the East and Central African championships.
But before they did, both countries produced world champions. Out of Uganda emerged Ayub Kalule, one of Africa’s most successful professionals but who along the way was beaten by Eddie Musi’s boy, our own George Oduori. More about Musi later.
From Kenya came Philip Waruinge, Stephen Muchoki and our last great one, Robert Wangila.
After deciding that I didn’t belong to a ring canvas like Sabat, I joined Nairobi Judo College where after two years or so of hard work, I attained the rank of green belt in Shotokan karate.
We were graded by Japan’s famed master, Hirokazu Kanazawa.
But developers knocked down our dojo, which was housed in an old building at the place where the ICEA Building on Kenyatta Avenue now stands, and we were condemned to a nomadic life. Every movement to a new premises resulted in a loss of members and not long after, Nairobi Judo College breathed its last.
But the boxing club scene continued to thrive. Ofafa Maringo, Kaloleni, Mbotela and Kariokor were especially active. Dallas (Muthurwa), Pumwani and Kariobangi North, however, were in a class of their own.
Now well established as a reporter, it is at Kariobangi that I found one of the most likeable coaches I have ever met in sports.
George Oduori had given the great Philip Waruinge serious trouble in the run-up to the 1972 Munich Olympics and three years later defeated Kalule to take the East and Central African championship gold medal.
He was a disciplined young man, a stylish boxer – and well spoken, too. He was a pupil of Eddie Musi and I thought I should meet the master.
Papa, as they called him, welcomed me warmly and from then onwards, regaled me with stories of the South African freedom struggle of which he was a part, however fleetingly.
The story of Kenya boxing in the 1970s and 80s, which is also the story of its best years, has his fingerprints all over its pages.
Musi was a native of Orlando in Johannesburg, South Africa. One of the most beloved figures to walk the rough streets of the teeming Kariobangi North neighbourhood, Musi came to Kenya by accident. With sweaty youths in his run-down gym swirling around us, he told me:
NEVER RETURNED HOME
“When armed struggle against apartheid became inevitable in the 1950s, we young men were sent to various countries for military training.
“I was sent to Egypt. After training, we were taken to Tanzania and eagerly awaited our orders to return home and fight the minority regime.
“But our orders never came. We waited and waited and our cadres started gradually assimilating themselves in ordinary Tanzanian life. When I lost hope that I would return home to fight, I came to Kenya to look for my fortune. I have never returned home.”
At the time I met Musi, he was chief trainer of the national team. He worked under two men — one hard, the other gentle. Charles Anjimbi was the tough one and Peter Mwarangu was the other. Under these three, the Hit Squad won the 1978 and 1982 Commonwealth Games titles.
He was not just popular amongst his charges but revered as well. He could easily have been head coach but local politics dictated that it be a local guy and Mwarangu it was. You have to add that he fully merited it, though.
A passionate man who spoke with fists without landing them on your face, Musi oozed charisma. He experimented with tactics and his boxers loved his unorthodox ways. His tactics worked and his fighters had fun.
My first big assignment for Nation Sport was the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia.
His charges won five medals — three gold, one silver and one bronze. By that time, he had become something of a friend to me and I spent hours with him.
His passion about the boys he trained remained as intense as ever. His concern for their progress was exactly as that of a responsible father over his children, hence his apt nickname, ‘Papa.’
Many years later, he would tell Richard Mwangi, the late Nation Sport boxing and cricket correspondent, why he didn’t return to South Africa after the collapse of Apartheid in 1994 and chose to remain in Kenya: “How many people will remember me back home now? If I return, what work shall I do? Milking cows for Boers?
No. Everybody here knows me. I’m better off here. I can’t start all over again. This my home.”
Seeing his interactions with the locals, I got this notion that home could mean different places to different people.
For some, only one’s birthplace can be home. But for others, home is more a place in the mind than a physical residence.
To me, Musi looked perfectly at home and as he said, Kenyans were his people.
He may not have returned to his birthplace to fight for the political freedom that was his original mission but he gave dozen of our youngsters a start in life.
Most of those from his gym who excelled ended up with jobs from the numerous companies that were keen to promote their brand using successful sports stars. Quite a number joined the armed services – the army, the police and the prisons.
Eddie Musi died on September 8, 2011 and was buried in the Lang’ata public cemetery in Nairobi. He was 74.
And so back to the beginning. In a better world, the small but neat social halls we inherited from our colonial masters would by now have been expanded to cater for a growing population and a whole array of facilities added to them.
Johnstone Madonye would have multiplied himself 10 times over as young broadcasters brought us the action from our various sports television and radio channels.
Where my generation had the choice of only one radio channel, today’s fans would have a multiplicity of options on a 24-hour basis ranging in everything from badminton, table tennis, darts, racquet ball, boxing etc.
TALENT INTO WASTE MATERIAL
Why did we ever go to school if not to have these simple things done? Why was it easy – and even necessary - for people who didn’t like us to do it for us but not us for ourselves?
How many jobs can hundreds of social halls, not to mention stadiums, spread all over the country create?
Sports leaders in Kenya have largely been managers of a large factory that converts talent into waste material.
The poorly educated and severely deprived youngsters in our marginalized neighbourhoods have always tried to use sport as a way out of their dire circumstances.
Unfortunately, the great majority of sports leaders see them as a means to end – the end being money and power. And in the final analysis, the victims are blamed for their deprivation.
We are better than this.
Roy Gachuhi, a former Nation Media Group sports reporter, is a writer with The Content House.