In the judgement of his peers, the only man in Kenya to become world boxing champion had the fastest anticipation; he saw your punch coming before you unleashed it. And for this, he exacted a steep price, in the form of a combination of jabs delivered with dizzying speed.
Then he danced clear. In the technique of coordinating his hands with his feet to achieve the perfect balance, he was a coach’s dream charge. It seemed to come naturally to him. He was the best in the world, even when he was declared the losing finalist in the first World Amateur Boxing Championships in Havana, Cuba, in 1974.
“I’d beaten Hernandez, though closely,” he says with a conviction that has not weakened for 38 years. And some witnesses concur with him.
The little problem was that Jorge Hernandez was a Cuban, the first man in the ring for his passionate country in that memorable night of the finals. Fidel Castro, the mercurial Cuban revolutionary leader, had brought his overwhelming presence to the ring side. It was more than a little intimidating for the judges.
And Hernandez, a tough competitor with a big heart and warm smile, probably felt something amiss about the result for when next they met in the next final four years later in Belgrade.
It was his turn to lose but he carried the Kenyan champion around the ring; few losers are that generous.
Today, Muchoki’s small frame, wracked by decades of the strife of his trade, all of whose rewards somehow disappeared in thin air, the legendary champion walks or rides matatus in anonymous irrelevance amongst Nairobi’s teeming multitudes.
Clothes threadbare and shoe heels tilting in angles to the ground, the great warrior has met his match and lost the bout.
He has been beaten by time which somehow was lost in the beginning. There is no way of reversing the clock, to know then what he knows now – and act accordingly. Like so many of his peers, his wisdom has come when his body cannot follow through on it.
Throughout the 1970s, this is the man kings and presidents took time off their busy schedules to watch. This is the man at whose mention fans in all the cities stamped in his passports — from Algiers to Belgrade to Bangkok to Havana to Christchurch to Edmonton and many others paused to agree, admiringly or grudgingly: he is good. This was a country’s model young man.
As Kenya boxing, which always reaped medals second only to athletics in the Olympic Games but had two losing boxers in this year’s games in London, it is tempting to write the sport’s epitaph whose lament will read: there was and there will be only one Stephen Muchoki.
The conquering Kenya team to the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada returned home to a tumultuous welcome in Nairobi and was immediately whisked off to Mombasa to meet President Jomo Kenyatta to whom they would grandly return the national flag.
Stephen Muchoki, the reigning world amateur boxing champion, was among the gold medallists. At that time, his fame spread to the four corners of the earth.
With Muchoki in that team was Henry Rono whose four world athletics records – 3000 metres, 3000 metres steeplechase, 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres - had inspired a manager to describe him as being possessed of a mysterious talent.
President Kenyatta bestowed on these two eminent sons of Kenya the Order of the Burning Spear (OBS) – a first for any sportsmen in Kenya.
Muchoki remembers: “The President was a very gracious host to us. He entertained us to sumptuous lunch and spoke of how proud he was about the way we had represented Kenya.
He pinned the OBS medals on the jacket lapels of Henry Rono and me. It was an extraordinary moment. As members of the contingent filed away after the ceremony, he sent for the two of us.
“We stood in awe in front of him surrounded by ministers, senior civil servants and the Commonwealth team delegation chiefs. He took out his bakora and raised it in a mock fight with me, saying he wanted test just how good I was. I respectfully told him, ‘No, no, Mzee, I don’t fight like that.’
“Everybody laughed. The President appeared to be really enjoying himself. Then he turned to Mbiyu Koinange, the Minister of State and told him: ‘I want each of these two to get eight of the best grade cattle my Government has on its farms mara moja.’ (Immediately).
“Koinange acknowledged the order and shot a glance at Darius Mbela, then permanent secretary in the Ministry of Housing and Social Services, under which sports fell. Mbela nodded, making sure that Mzee saw that.
Everybody beamed in congratulations for us. As we started taking leave of him, ever so respectfully and he in such a jovial mood, he added: ‘And some goats should also be added to those cows.’ He didn’t specify how many but people nevertheless clapped loudly for us. Then we left.”
The following day, the team assembled at Gill House, then the headquarters of the Housing Ministry, to collect their allowances. As they did, Muchoki and Rono, superstars of the delegation, debated themselves about where the grade cows would be sourced.
They vaguely knew the Government owned some of the best farms and couldn’t wait to collect the finest from there, thanks to the President. They discussed animatedly about where to get suitable transport to move the prize herd.
After collecting their allowances, they requested – and were granted – an audience with PS Mbela. They asked him where they were going to collect the cows the President gave them the previous day.
As if it is happening all over again, Muchoki has difficulty describing the viciousness of the look that Mbela hurled at them, suffice to suggest it is the kind that could melt metal.
The suddenly enraged PS held them in that fiery gaze for a few seconds.
Then he snapped “Nyinyi sasa mmeanza kulete siasa! (You are complicating this matter!) For a brief moment, the pair of world champions felt as if dizzy.
In his world, the little genius of the ring knew how to anticipate blows – but clearly now, strictly only of the gloved kind. This verbal one caught him flat-footed, and he was literary down for the full count, never to recover.
Rono and Muchoki haltingly sought to remind Mr Mbela about yesterday, about the President’s gift of which he himself was a witness. He would hear none of it.
He dismissed them without ceremony. (Years later, Mbela quit the civil service and joined politics. He made the cabinet and was once a hard line chairman of the Taita Taveta Kanu Branch that at one time famously charged an MP with, among other transgressions, asking irrelevant questions in parliament. He has since died).
Countless questions swirled in Muchoki’s and Rono’s heads as they wearily trotted out of Mbela’s office. How could he disobey the President? Hadn’t he personally acknowledged that order?
They couldn’t go back to the President – now what? Who could be approached for help – remembering that not exactly everybody was happy for them?
Were the cows lost? At this thought, Muchoki felt pain. The source of this pain was the last image he had of the President. His decision to give them the cows was clearly out of a feeling that another medal on their lapels – the OBS – was clearly not enough, Muchoki thought. There was such a personal touch to it, made poignantly memorable by the ageing president’s playfulness. How then could this happen?
The following day, President Kenyatta died. “I couldn’t believe it,” Muchoki recalls. “I felt a certain paralysis because of shock. For more times than I could remember, I had had lunch with him at State House as a member of various Kenyan teams since 1974. There was nothing in his demeanour on the last day I saw him that gave him away. For me, as with other members of the team, it was a personal loss.”
After the mourning period, Muchoki and Rono separately pursued their gifts. “I once bumped into Uhuru Kenyatta at the Central Bank and told him about the cows.
He remembered of course, because he had been there when his father gave us the gift. He was shocked to hear about what had happened to us and told me he would see what he could do to help. He asked me to meet him at Cameo. (The entertainment facility still going strong along Kenyatta Avenue).
“Unfortunately, we didn’t get to meet. And with the hectic nature of life, things kept cropping on top of each other and nothing happened. But I still hope that, somehow, Rono and I will get out gift. It is ours, isn’t it?”
Hope indeed. There is something beautiful, in a surreal way, about undying human hope. When you look at his creased face, sad smile and uncertain gait and learn how difficult a battle he has fought with tuberculosis, when you learn that he now lives off the generosity of friends, your heart skips bits at what the hero became.
August’s chill makes it no easier for the feeling running down your back when in your mind’s eye, you see adoring crowds, blazing headlines and hear the voices of breathless radio commentators all ensnared by the exploits of the champion – and seeing him before you now, having difficulty raising airtime and bus fare, talking about his lost Presidential gift after services rendered to the nation.
Still, you see his hope. It is a hope of Olympian proportions befitting the greatest boxer we ever had who was denied Olympic gold in 1976 and 1980 by the vagaries of world politics. And you admire him.
You remember with gratitude Daniel Njuguna Gatei’s broadcasts over Voice of Kenya Radio from Christchurch, New Zealand, telling us how our sole remaining boxing finalist, 20 year-old schoolboy Stephen Muchoki, is poised to give us our only boxing gold.
London 2012 called when Kenya boxing was at its deathbed. But the successors of Henry Rono, Muchoki’s team mate didn’t bring some gold.
The stirring Olympic anthem makes a plea to the immortal spirit of antiquity to:
Throw fadeless flowers to the victors/In the race and in the strife.
In Henry Rono’s race and in Stephen Muchoki’s strife, Kenya has been less than generous.
Roy Gachuhi is a writer with The Content House. [email protected])