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Boxing: Uganda’s Other Great Sport

Megan Greve

Although football may be the glamour sport of Uganda, many in the Pearl of Africa have another love: boxing. Although it may not always be obvious, a look into the record books and into local gyms makes their love of the hard-hitting sport clear. One area where this love is particularly strong is the suburb of Naguru, where many acclaimed boxers find their roots and where some, like brothers Hassan and Hussein Khalil, hope to nurture the current and future champions of Uganda’s most-awarded sport.

Uganda has won four of its six Olympic medals in boxing, as well as countless others at the Commonwealth Games, World Championships, and other international contests. This is one of the reasons Ugandans can connect to this sport so well: unlike football, where there are few to no Ugandans at the top of the international stage, Ugandans boxers have gone to the highest levels and have brought home hardware to show for it. It also helps that boxing is an individual sport, allowing it to be the perfect outlet for that favourite sporting tale: rising up from rough surroundings with nothing but yourself and perhaps a little support, putting in your work and making something of yourself. It is a story that everyone knows and plenty Ugandan boxers have lived out.

The Naguru area in particular has had its fair share of champions, some of whom assist at East Coast Boxing Club. Charles Lobuulwa, a trainer at the gym, won gold at the 1985 and bronze at the 1987 Intercup in Germany and participated in the 1980, ’84, and ’88 Olympics as well as the 1986 World Championships. Adam Kassim, who is also active with the club, participated in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lampur. Head trainer Hussein Khalil participated in the 1983 boxing World Championships and even won gold at the Commonwealth Games that same year. He also speaks about how he grew up with and trained with arguably Uganda’s most well known boxer, John “The Beast” Mugabi. Mugabi, for those who don’t know, won silver at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, became World Junior Middleweight Champion and boasted a 42-7 record with 39 knockouts. But Uganda’s championship boxing days are not only in its past, not if trainers like the Khalil brothers have anything to say about it. One of the men who train at East Coast Boxing Club, 23-year-old Khamis Sekumana, has qualified for the Uganda national team (one of eight) and will be participating in the All Africa Games in Mozambique. Do well at these games, and fighters get a shot at the Olympics. The Khalils also hope to get 19-year-old Ugandan heavyweight champion Kenneth Odekuh qualified for the Olympics.

Apart from the international stage, East Coast Boxing Club also has fighters that Kampala boxing fans can watch in action in their own backyard. Herbert Mugarula, who has been boxing at their East Coast Boxing Club since it opened in 2004, just broke into Uganda’s professional boxing circuit. His first fight takes place July 22 at the Hotel Africana, and upon a visit to the gym one can see him working hard to prepare. The sound is almost deafening inside the gym as Mugarula works with the trainers. Every bam! Bam! Bam! of the gloves hitting the trainer’s pads is met with an almost-equally loud shout of encouragement and urging to keep pushing.

Hassan Khalil stresses that sending fighters to the Olympics and the professional ranks is not only good for the fighters themselves and the national pride, but also for the youth of Uganda, who can see boxing and sports in general as a way to channel their energy rather than resorting to crimes: in fact, this is why the brothers from Naguru decided to open East Coast Boxing Club. Hassan and Hussein believe so strongly in channeling the energy of the youth towards positive ends that they have even brought in police officers to lecture young fighters at the gym and have encouraged some to stay in school and others to find jobs.
“We try our best to keep them doing something,” Hassan says. According to them, it’s helped: they say the crime rate in Naguru has dropped considerably since they opened their gym.

But despite the help they offer those in the community, the Khalil brothers note that fighters get de-motivated when there’s nothing but training to offer them.
“You can’t box without the ring,” Hassan says. Both brothers agree they have tried to coordinate fights with other clubs across Kampala and Uganda and even as far away as Kenya and Tanzania, but cite transportation costs (sometimes as much as 2.3 million Uganda shillings for one fight in Kenya) and lack of facilities as major obstacles. It is especially difficult to get a fight for one of their fighters, Bashir Ramadan.

In 1995 Ramadan lost his sight, but despite this he decided to return to the sport he had always loved: boxing. Despite being featured on NTV and even Reuters, the Khalil brothers have said it is difficult to gather the funds to set up fights for him against other blind boxers. They as well as Ramadan are still hopeful however, and all three have dreams of him being a champion blind boxer and even participating in the Paralympics, hopefully adding Ramadan’s name to Uganda’s already long list of boxer’s who have beat the odds and made themselves their nation, and their sport proud on the international stage.

For more information, please contact:
East Coast Boxing Club
Kitale Hill, Naguru, Kampala
Mobile: +256 772 638608 / +256 772 550622
Email: eastcoast2004boxi@gmail.com