Remembering the days when Kenya’s ‘Hit Squad’ ruled the boxing world

PHOTO | SULEIMAN MBATIAH | FILE John Kariuki (L) trades punches with Ben Oluch at the Nakuru's Madison Square Garden on December 11, 2012.  NATION MEDIA GROUP

PHOTO | SULEIMAN MBATIAH | FILE John Kariuki (L) trades punches with Ben Oluch at the Nakuru’s Madison Square Garden on December 11, 2012. NATION MEDIA GROUP

The treat that was the Kenya Open boxing championships at the close of the 1970s lasted between 8 am when the weigh-in was done to 2am when the arm of the winning heavyweight was raised.

During all these hours, we forgot to get hungry. The boxing itself started at 2pm and the best venues were Nairobi City Hall, Desai Memorial Hall and Tusker Village, Ruaraka. Today, Tuskys Supermarket on Tom Mboya Street stands where Desai Memorial Hall used to be.

I loved the walk home. Leaving City Hall any time between 2am and 2.30am, I walked eastwards towards where the Coast Bus terminus is still located today. Then I crossed the river and walked home to the Railway quarters in Ngara where I lived.

The first hints of a polluted Nairobi River were beginning to get apparent to the nostrils but the night breeze was still refreshing. The journey home at that time of the night was totally safe.

There was, of course, the option of a bus ride on Kenya Bus Services Route No 58. It was scathingly – and a bit inaccurately – known as the “bus of the drunks” because who else could be commuting at that time? Star struck kids like me, of course. But its charge of one shilling, if I remember correctly, was a tad too dear for me.

This was the time when boxing was in big hands. The officials were living legends as were the charges they sent to the world. Referees and judges like Trevor Hill, Mull Duffy and Harrison Kilonzo ruled the ring. Officials like Marsden Madoka and Cornelius Monteiro ran boxing as a successful enterprise, attracting sponsorships from big names and giving boxers jobs in the companies they worked for. You wanted to see the officials as much as the boxers themselves.

In the fullness of time, I graduated from a school boy fan to a sports journalist. I moved from the back rows to the ringside and watched Kenya boxing reach its highest point before hitting the canvas for a long and dazed stare at the overhead lights.

MUHAMMAD ALI

I knew it as the exit route from the most deprived circumstances to a life of dignity. From hopelessness to a career in the Kenya Defence Forces, the Police, the Prisons – and corporates like Kenya Breweries.

I saw rough hewn young men rise from tough neighbourhoods to become good boys. They became fighters to condition their lives as sportsmen worthy of the world’s adulation rather than become gang members; they fought the good fight and Kenya rose in great applause.

This transformation had a sublime quality about it. The praise words of trainer Drew Bundini Brown about his charge, Muhammad Ali, unfolded before your disbelieving eyes: “This is God’s act and you are a part of it. From the root to the fruit, that’s where everything started at. This is no Hollywood set; this is real. We get up in the morning feeling tired, sometimes feeling good, sometimes bad but we go through it with feeling.”

The pre-dawn eight-kilometre road works, the morning and afternoon work-outs and sparring sessions in sparingly equipped gyms, the simple diets were hard and many fell by the wayside; but they were part of a divine schedule.

A naval officer at the KDF once told me of the saying by which they welcomed new young men into the service: “Join the navy, and see the world.” In the 70s and early 80s, Kenya boxers saw the world and conquered it. In the 1978 season, the Hit Squad was Commonwealth, All-Africa and East and Central Africa champions in addition to a string of other international successes.

There were many people who were elated with Benson Gicharu’s solitary bronze at the just completed Commonwealth Games. That’s fine. But I want to share with them what I have witnessed before. I want them to look into my archives and then compare then and now.

35 YEARS

This week’s column marks 35 years since the finest season I covered in the history of Kenya boxing and I take the liberty of re-running an abridged version of the reportage I did then.

I wrote: “The events of 1979 make it an obligation to rate Kenya as a very tough threat to the world’s top three boxing nations – Cuba, the USSR and the US. A list of Kenya’s national boxers puts to three the number of national teams Kenya can raise at any given time.

“These teams are endowed with the capacity to take on the best opposition the world can offer. 1979 brought to the fore a number of talented boxers who could get far given the necessary tuition. If I were asked to give my find of the most promising boxer of the year, I would cast my vote for Isaiah Ikhoni, formerly of Nakuru ABC and now with Kenya Breweries.

“He impresses me as a born combatant. Like (Stephen) Muchoki – who he once beat – Ikhoni has both tact and endurance. For his weight, he punches hard. He does not wilt; his beginning is identical to his ending. He does not, when in a critical moment, result to the irritating habits that are the bane of most good boxers – holds and wild punches.

“His head is always upright and his capacity to absorb punishment and reciprocate rather than wilt under it is a quality that could get him far. He won a gold medal in the East and Central African championship in great style.

“Kenya had a team in Tripoli, competing in the Seventh All-Africa boxing championships and another one in Nairobi, vying for the East and Central African crown. The country emphatically took the All Africa title with four gold medals.

“1979 did give us many more boxers. Stunned fans who could not comprehend why Muchoki had suddenly decided to turn professional last October, are now wallowing in distress. Before he left, Muchoki addressed himself to a question I put forward to him about his successor.

“There is no doubt about that,” he said. “There are good boxers and there will be better ones in future. For now, maybe when I leave, there will be a gap. But that will be only for a short time. There will always be good boxers.

“Being the modest man he is. Muchoki was unlikely to say there would not be other boxers when he left. And yet he was right. His expected replacement, David Wacheru, developed a problem at the scales which meant that the light-fly weight berth was still vacant. But come November’s Kenya Open championships and Frank Ndegwa was born.

“Nobody was sure what to make out of him, this tiny, bubbling boxer whose lean, fIeshless arms astonish spectators by the fluency and effortlessness they carry the gloves at their ends. Ndegwa’s first international assignment was on Jamhuri Day and he started off on what should be a great career by whipping his English opponent.

CHARLES ODUOR

“Another boxer who has impressed me in the year is Charles Oduor. “Dixie Kidi” as his fans call him, should get far for two simple reasons – talent and age. His limbs pack a lot of power and his every punch is potentially destructive. He has a unique way of punching; the blows, thrusting out with unexpected suddenness, usually come from above. “Dixie” is about the only boxer I have seen this year who possesses a terribly lethal right punch. And he is only 19 years old.

“Kenya’s performance in the year add much hope to the one already prevailing that her boxers will be the ones to watch in July next year at the Moscow Olympic Games. On September 1, Nairobi City dispatched London City 7-4. Both teams were parading at least four boxers from their national sides and thus the result was a reliable indication of what the actual national teams can do. On December 12, Kenya beat England by a similar margin thus emphasizing Kenya’s supremacy over British teams.”

This then is the record that we once flaunted. For the last one year and still counting, I’ve been working on a boxing project. One of the critical differences I note between now and 35 years ago is the mood of the boxers. At that time, it was hopeful, it was optimistic and young men believed they had a future.

Today, it is depressed. It is one of disenchantment. Few boxers will want their children to follow in their footsteps. The sport also seems to have developed “owners”, in true Kenyan tradition.

LITANY OF COMPLAINS

Boxers from the armed services, Kenya Police, KDF and Kenya Prisons, seem to attract the judges’ favours when their bouts with those from self supporting clubs are closely contested.

Boxers from these clubs will offer you a litany of complaints that they will never win for as long as their opponents are from the armed services, short of a knockout, of course. For their apparent inability to beat them and not for not doing it right, they now crave for careers in the forces. Well, if can’t beat them as they say, join them!

After many years, the Amateur Boxing Association’s successor, BAK, is going through placid times. There aren’t the debilitating wrangles that characterized it for the length of a boxer’s entire career.

At the same time, AIBA, the world body that runs boxing, is introducing a payment regime that will see amateur boxers earn money. This is what transformed world athletics and it is what might just turn around amateur boxing.

The Val Baker Trophy won by Philip Waruinge as the best boxer of the 1968 Olympics, the gold medal won by Stephen Muchoki in the 1978 world championships and the gold medal won by Robert Wangila in the 1988 Olympic Games are now but mythical events for the current generation of Kenya boxing fans.

But they show the stuff of which the country was made. Philip Waruinge and Stephen Muchoki were all speed and style. They didn’t pack a punch, and rarely won by knockout, but they danced and weaved around their opponents and they were absolutely enchanting to watch.

Robert Wangila was a heavy hitter. He was the most patient of predators and bid his time until there was a gap in the guard. And then the sledge hammer came.

He was a tragic figure and his death in the ring and its grim aftermath captured the attention of the nation. It’s a story for another day.