How boxing has survived and thrived in Uganda

From the ghetto's of Bwaise, Naguru and Kamwokya, boxing has long offered a way out for those willing to literally fight for a better future.

FEATURE How boxing has survived and thrived in Uganda

Shafic Kiyaga 07:57 - 27.08.2023

The journey of boxing in Uganda is a testament to collective dreams, and the undying spirit of a nation that has faced its fair share of challenges. With a new generation stepping into the ring, the future looks bright.

As the world gears up to celebrate World Boxing Day today, there's no better time to shine a spotlight on a nation that has defied the odds and produced some of the finest boxing talents despite numerous challenges.

Welcome to Uganda – a country where boxing is not just a sport but a lifeline, a dream, and a means of expression.

Perhaps the most famous moment about boxing in Uganda came in 1974, ahead of the World Championships in Cuba, when, then President Iddi Amin Dada offered advice that has since become ingrained in the ethos of Ugandan boxing.

He told his country's pugilists, "Don't aim for wins by points because you will be cheated. Knock out your opponents. This will leave the judges with no option but declare you..."

The Uganda Boxing team, The Bombers, return from the first World Amateur Boxing Championships held in Havana, Cuba in 1974 | Photo Credit: New Vision

This ethos -of unyielding resolve and the refusal to leave one's fate in anyone else's hands – has shaped the sport in Uganda, molding it into more than a pastime or even a profession.

It's a symbol of national pride and personal tenacity.

How boxing became Uganda's pride

Imagine the year 1956 in a makeshift gym tucked away in a nondescript corner of Kampala.

Young men sparred with passion, their bare knuckles making rhythmic sounds as they connected with their targets. Little did they know, they were laying the foundation for what would become the most successful and glorious sport in Ugandan history.

Uganda’s first boxing club was named "The Kampala Boxing Club," the cradle of champions, uniting aspirants from diverse backgrounds, initially unaware of the heights they would reach.

From there, boxing clubs like Lukanga Boxing Club, East Coast Boxing CLub sprung up to consolidate the small success, passing the heritage onto other gyms like the Zebra Boxing Club in Bwaise, Katabi Boxing Club and Sparks Boxing Club. 

The story of boxing in Uganda cannot be told without diving into the numbers, which are nothing short of extraordinary.

Over the years, the nation has amassed 35 Commonwealth medals, composed of eight Gold, 10 Silver, and 17 Bronze medals.

Even more impressively, boxing has also brought home four of Uganda’s 11 Olympic medals, a remarkable feat given the challenges the sport has faced domestically.

Leo Rwabogo (L) is Uganda's only boxer to date to win a medal at two Olympic games. He won bronze in 1968 in Mexico City, and silver at the 1972 Olympics in Munich | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The crowning jewel is the fact that Uganda's first-ever medal at the Olympics was also won by a boxer, putting the sport in a league of its own in the annals of Ugandan athletic achievement.

Fast forward to today, and the bombers were the pride of the nation when they returned home with seven medals from the 2023 Africa Boxing Championships.

The triumphs and trials of Ugandan boxing

The early days of boxing in Uganda were marked by passion and improvisation. Athletes trained in makeshift gyms, often without proper gear or adequate supervision.

Yet what they lacked in resources, they made up for in dedication and raw talent. It was a time of experiment, of learning by doing, of trial and error. But even in these nascent stages, Ugandan boxing showed promise.

The sport found its footing during the late 1960s, with Uganda participating in its fourth Olympic Games in 1968 in Mexico City.

It was the first time the nation showed its sporting prowess to the world when hard pugilists Leo Rwaboogo and Eridaadi Mukwanga won bronze and sivler respectively to win the nations first Olympic medals.

The 1970s heralded a period of unprecedented achievement, fuelled in part by then-President Iddi Amin Dada’s interest in the sport.

The watershed moment came during the 1974 World Championships. Following Amin's advice to go for knockouts rather than points, Uganda's boxers dominated their rivals, earning the country a reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the world of boxing.

Uganda's boxing legend Ayub Kalule is among the greatest boxers not only in Uganda but Africa as whole | Photo Credit: Courtesy Uganda's boxing legend Ayub Kalule is among the greatest boxers not only in Uganda but Africa as whole | Photo Credit: Courtesy

During this period, the sport received a significant boost in governmental support, with investments in training facilities and programs.

The 1980s and '90s were challenging due to political unrest and social upheaval. Funding dried up, and many skilled athletes and trainers left the country. However, the spirit of Ugandan boxing never waned.

The gyms that remained became crucibles of resilience, where legends like John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi remained beacons of the country’s boxing excellence.

Stars like Ayub Kalule, Justin Juuko were the stars of the 80s and 90s as boxing globally took its place as a top sport.

But Boxing could not yield from the fame of the 90s as funding dried up, and the Uganda Boxing Federation was constantly mismanaged leading the sport through its lowest ebbs at the start of the century and the 2010s.

The faces behind the gloves

The landscape of Ugandan boxing is dotted with extraordinary talents who have, in their own unique ways, contributed to the country's remarkable performance in the sport.

John "The Beast" Mugabi, with a fighting record of 42 wins, 7 losses, and 1 draw, became a household name after his monumental fight with Marvin Hagler in 1986.

John 'The Beast' Mugabi lands a shot during a fight against Ronni Ford in Köln in September, 1981 | Photo Credit: Imago

His aggressive style and incredible tenacity made him a symbol of Uganda's fighting spirit.

Joining him in the annals of Ugandan boxing history is Leo Rwabwogo, a two-time Olympic medalist in the flyweight category who claimed both bronze in the 1968 Mexico Olympics and silver in the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Justin Juuko, known for his agility and precision, had 45 wins to his name in the lightweight and super featherweight categories.

Ayub Kalule, another legend in Ugandan boxing, was the WBA light middleweight champion in 1979 and maintained a professional record of 36 wins and 2 losses.

Isaac Zebra Ssenyange, commonly known as 'Mando,' was a versatile boxer who served as both a competitor and mentor in the Ugandan boxing community.

Khassim Ouma, whose journey from child soldier to IBF light middleweight champion captured the world’s imagination, became a beacon of hope and resilience with his story of overcoming incredible adversity.

Yet, behind these illustrious names was a figure who provided the cornerstone for their successes – Peter Grace Sseruwagi.

Over a career spanning three decades, Sseruwagi became Uganda’s most successful coach ever, guiding the country to an unparalleled 95 gold, 75 silver, and 54 bronze medals across various international platforms.

In 1958, Peter Grace Sseruwagi handed former Uganda President Idi Amin Dada a crunching knockout during the National Open trials held at Nakawa | Photo Credit: Daily Monitor

His coaching philosophy, rooted in teamwork and intelligence, turned raw talent into disciplined athletes, ensuring that boxing in Uganda wasn’t just about the fighters in the ring, but also about the collective effort of a nation striving for recognition and respect.

How boxing is changing the face of Ugandan communities

In a country where socio-economic disparities often dictate the trajectory of lives, boxing emerges as a great equalizer.

Historically rooted in the lower, less privileged strata of Ugandan society, the sport has long offered a way out for those willing to literally fight for a better future.

Take the example of John "The Beast" Mugabi, who as a young man used to sneak into parties for lack of social clout.

By the time he was 26, he was commanding fight purses of a staggering USD 800,000—an incredible ascent that embodies the transformative power of the sport.

The underprivileged neighbourhoods of Uganda – particularly in areas like Bwaise and Naguru – have become fertile grounds for boxing talent, while the sport is also playing a role in helping rehabilitating former victims of the LRA war in Northern Uganda.

Coaches and mentors use boxing as a tool to instill discipline, resilience, and hope among the youth, many of whom have little to cling to but their aspirations of a better life.

Bwaise Welcomes Triumphant Bombers

19:39 - 09.08.2023

BOXING Bwaise Welcomes Triumphant Bombers

Two weeks ago, it was at Kyamys, Bwaise, where the Bombers were flagged off to showcase their talents in Cameroon. On Wednesday, the same venue buzzed with jubilation and pride as the team returned to celebrate their remarkable feat.

More than just a sport, boxing in these communities serves as a structured activity that keeps young people off the streets, away from crime and destructive behaviours.

In recent years, the narrative of boxing as a lifeline has gained traction, shaping the ghettos and their residents in more ways than one specifically through the Uganda Boxing Champions League organized under UBF.

Numerous youth have risen from these humble beginnings to become celebrated figures in society, their success stories serving as both an inspiration and a testament to the life-changing impact of the sport.

Punching Through Barriers: The New Era of Ugandan Boxing

Boxing in Uganda has been both a source of pride and a subject of many challenges. Limited funding from the government and private sectors, a general negative societal perception, and inadequate infrastructure have all contributed to a turbulent journey for this revered sport.

The Bombers having a stroll around Kawaala accompanied by the marching band

The scarcity of grassroots programs, lack of experienced technical staff, and challenges in international representation further exacerbate the situation.

At the same time, the sport has been vying for attention amidst the rise of other sporting disciplines and entertainment avenues in Uganda.

However, there have been significant strides since Moses Muhangi took the helm as the president of the Uganda Boxing Federation (UBF) in 2018.

Under his leadership, governance has improved and the sport has seen renewed focus on capacity building, and budgets have remarkably increased from under $30,000 to $850,000 per year.

Uganda Boxing Federation President Moses Muhangi shows off boxing equipment received as part of a donation from the International Boxing Federation | Photo Credit: Courtesy

This boost has been accompanied by stronger relations with government bodies and strategic partnerships with organizations like Next Media and UNAIDS.

The partnership with Next Media saw the creation of the Boxing Champions league which has revolutionized the image of boxing as a top of the mind sport, as it slowly continues to return its former glory.

Recent successes in Commonwealth and Africa Boxing Championship have reignited public interest, and land acquisitions for future boxing facilities indicate a promising trajectory for this resilient sport.

From local rings to global arenas

The past few years, proceeding the election of Muhangi, have signaled a new era for Ugandan boxing.

A outdoor make shift ring was installed in Kawaala as the locals got to the Bombers live

However, UBF knows that the road ahead is long and fraught with challenges. To navigate this, they have outlined a strategic plan targeting several key areas.

One of the primary goals is to increase local boxing content. The federation aims for a regular cycle of events that will not just entertain but serve as crucial training grounds for boxers, coaches, referees, and judges.

These events aim to raise the technical standards of all involved, creating a virtuous circle of development.

UBF also intends to increase the sport's fan base, recognizing that popularity among spectators directly correlates with sponsorship opportunities and media coverage. This dovetails into their broader goal of sport commercialization.

By improving the sport's image and branding, the federation aims to create a more lucrative environment that can directly benefit boxers and coaches.

As for the boxing industry, the plan includes two major sub-goals: improving infrastructure and creating a business model that benefits all stakeholders.

Infrastructure improvements would cover everything from high-quality training gyms to better medical facilities for athletes.

Muzamir Ssemudu (red) connects a punch on Zebra Ssenyange's chin during the UBF Boxing Champions League | Photo Credit Nbs Sport

UBF envisions a more integrated industry where suppliers, businesses, and the government can all benefit, including through the payment of taxes and other revenues generated by the sport.

Finally, the ultimate goal is international success, symbolized by winning medals at continental and world events.

UBF believes that the accomplishment of these strategic objectives will provide the necessary foundation for achieving this final ambitious target.

The journey of boxing in Uganda is a testament to human resilience, collective dreams, and the undying spirit of a nation that has faced its fair share of challenges. With a new generation stepping into the ring, the future looks bright.

As the young boxer Ronald Okello, who recently won a bronze at the African championship, puts it, "Our gloves might be worn, our rings might be rusty, but our spirits are unbreakable."