BOXING promoters like calling every showdown “The Fight of the Century”, to rack up ticket sales, TV subscriptions and, of course, profits. But the highly anticipated May 2 between American Floyd Mayweather and Filipino pugilist Manny Pacquiao is probably the biggest fight this century so far; both boxers are the best pound-for-pound fighters in the game at the moment.
Regardless of who wins, Mayweather is guaranteed of $120million and Pacquiao $80 million, and the fight has already succeeded in giving a much-needed breath of life to the sport.
It’s been years since a boxing fight garnered this much attention, so much so that even being a former contester against Mayweather is something to hype, like this Ugandan website has done. Mayweather met Ugandan Justin Juuko in 1999 for the World Boxing Council featherweight title. Juuko lost, and Mayweather has been unbeaten throughout his career.
The last big era was the late 1980s to early 1990s, when Mike Tyson reigned supreme as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
Though bright, he burned out quickly, like a supernova extinguishing on its own energy – he would be convicted of rape in 1992, and jailed for three years; his attempt at a comeback was disastrous, most infamously with his biting off Evander Holyfield’s right ear in 1997.
Of course, the 1960s and 70s belonged to Muhammad Ali, The Greatest, who needs no elaboration. Legendary does not even begin to describe him.
But that was also the time of Africa’s golden age of boxing. Uganda was Africa’s champion in the 1970s, at one point even ranked third in the world after the US and Cuba, raking in dozens of medals at the Commonwealth Games, Olympics and most of the major international meets.
LAS VEGAS - MARCH 10,1986: John Mugabi (L) lands a punch against Marvin Hagler during the fight at Caesars Palace, Outdoor Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo/The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)
It also helped that Uganda’s president, Idi Amin, was a former heavyweight champion himself. He famously used to advise his country’s boxers: “Always aim at killing your opponents and see if any biased referee can reverse the results.”
There was also a vibrant scene in countries like Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana; and the country then known as Zaire hosted one of the most dramatic big fights of all time.
We take a look at ten of Africa’s legendary boxers, matches, and the little-known facts about boxing in Africa:
1. Dick Tiger
Born Richard Ihetu in Nigeria, Dick Tiger was a world middleweight and light heavyweight champion in the 1960s. He began his professional career in Nigeria before moving to England in 1955, and three years later he knocked out Pat McAteer to become the British Commonwealth middleweight champion.
CIRCA 1950: Dick Tiger (Richard Ihetu) lifts Luis Melendez during a training session.(Photo/The Ring Magazine/Getty Images).
In 1959 he began boxing in the US, and won the World Boxing Association (WBA) middleweight title over American Gene Fullmner in 1962. Fullmer would challenge him two more times, but Tiger retained the title on both occasions. In 1966 he moved up in weight class where he would win the light heavyweight title.
As the Biafran War broke out in 1967, Tiger served in the Biafran army as a public relations officer. But he lost his property and money in the war and announced his retirement from boxing in 1971. He returned to New York, where he was employed as a security guard at a museum, and later returned to Nigeria where he died from cancer.
Tiger was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.
2. Azumah Nelson
Ghanaian boxer Azumah Nelson had a stellar amateur career in the 1970s, winning gold for the featherweight class at the 1978 Commonwealth Games. Nicknamed “The Professor” for the “lessons” he would teach his opponents in the ring, he made his professional debut in 1979, and went on to be undefeated in the next 13 fights, making him a legend in Ghana.
But he was virtually unknown outside Africa when he challenged WBC featherweight champion Salvador Sanchez at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1982.
Though he lost by knockout in the 15th round, he returned home a hero. Two years later, he won the title by knocking out Wilfredo Gomez, and would hold on to the title for three years, decisively winning six fights against challengers for the belt. The most famous one was when he knocked out Briton Pat Cowdell in 1985, in what became highlight film material: Cowdell was left frozen on the canvas by Nelson’s knockout punch.
3. Rumble in the Jungle
In 1974, a little-known boxing promoter with a shock of hair called Don King wanted to pit the two biggest names in boxing at the time against each other – world heavyweight champion George Foreman, and former champion Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his title in 1967 for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.
The two only agreed to fight for a $5 million prize purse, but there was one problem: King didn’t have the money. But he found someone who did: Mobutu Sese Seko, president of Zaire who, apart from plundering his country, was eager for some international publicity. In return for staging the fight in Zaire, Mobutu guaranteed the enormous purse.
Mobutu put up signs in the capital Kinshasa that read: “A fight between two blacks, in a black nation, organised by blacks and seen by the whole world; that is a victory for Mobutism.”
The match was held in Kinshasa on 30th October, 1974, before 60,000 fans. By employing an unexpected strategy in which Ali took Foreman’s punches until Foreman had tired himself out, against the odds Ali won by knockout in the eighth round, regaining the title against a younger and stronger Foreman.
Events before and during the fight were immortalised by the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings.
4. Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala
Standing just 4’10”, Baby Jake Matlala has often been described as the little big man, South Africa’s smallest boxing giant, or the small fighter with the big heart.
Boxing great Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala presents Maurice Odumbe of Kenya with the “man of the match” award during the ICC Cricket World Cup Pool B match between Kenya and Bangladesh held on March 1, 2003 at The Wanderers in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo/Michael Steele/Getty Images).
His professional career began in Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape, in February 1980 and, by the time he retired in March 2002, his record stood at more than 50 victories in the flyweight class. He was the only South African boxer to have won four world titles and, at 147cm, he was the shortest man to have been a world champion.
Matlala said in an interview in 2003 that he had stopped boxing because there were no big names left for him to fight.
5. John Mugabi
Born in Kampala, Uganda, John Mugabi began his professional career in 1980. After winning eight fights in Europe he moved to the US, and fought both in the junior middleweight and middleweight divisions.
His highest-profile fight was against Marvin Hagler in 1986. The fight would end up dragging on for 11 rounds, which Mugabi was unaccustomed to as he was used to winning in quick, early-round knockouts. Hagler eventually won, but boxing analysts have said that it was the toughest fight of Hagler’s career.
Discouraged, Mugabi returned to Uganda, but would win the light middleweight title in 1989 against Rene Jacquot.
6. Lottie Mwale
As an amateur in the 1970s, Zambian Lottie Mwale was middleweight champion in East and Central Africa and was appointed captain of the Zambia national boxing team in 1973. In 1974, he won gold in the light middleweight division at the Commonwealth Games.
Mwale turned professional in April 1977, and by then, the charismatic Mwale had a huge fan base in Zambia and abroad. He went by the nickname “Gunduzani” which means ‘shake them’ in his native language, and boasted a punch he called the NPPP, which stood for ‘Nuclear Power-Packed Punch.’
After a 6-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, Mwale died on October 18, 2005 in Lusaka.
7. Kassim “The Dream” Ouma
In 1984, at the age of six, Kassim Ouma was kidnapped by rebel fighters of the National Resistance Army in Uganda, and forced to be a child soldier. When the rebels, led by Yoweri Museveni, took over the government, Kassim became an official soldier and joined the Army boxing team.
On a Ugandan national amateur trip to the US, Kassim “disappeared” into America and navigated homelessness and culture shock to become Junior Middleweight world champion.
At 5ft 8in and just over 160lb, he is not a big man, but he is an aggressive fighter, throws a high volume of punches, and wins his fights by setting a relentless pace in the ring, circling and moving constantly.
A documentary chronicling his improbable life titled Kassim the Dream was released in 2008; it was an official selection at several international film festivals.
8. Ike Quartey
Ghanaian Ike Quartey is a former WBA welterweight champion, who turned professional in 1988, a day short of his nineteenth birthday. He started his boxing career under the guidance of Yoofi Boham, who had trained many boxing champions in Ghana, including Azumah Nelson.
He reigned as welterweight champion between 1994 and 1998, successfully defending his title seven times.
9. Conjestina Achieng
Kenya has had its share of legendary boxing heroes, such as Philip Waruinge and Robert Wangila, but no one captured the imagination of Kenyans like female boxer Conjestina Achieng in the 2000s: remarkable as women’s boxing doesn’t get half as much attention as male boxing does.
“Conje” was unstoppable in her heyday, ranked fifth in the world and becoming the first African woman to hold a professional boxing title when she floored Ugandan Fiona Tugume in 2004.
She would go on to win four world titles under different weight categories, registering 17 wins and four draws and became a crowd darling who christened her “Hands of Stone”.
But tragically, in 2011 she began to behave erratically and was admitted in a hospital for people with mental illness. Since then, she is a shadow of her former self as her mental disorder persists.
An honorary mention must be made of dambe, a brutal form of traditional boxing practised by the Hausa in northern Nigeria.
The gloves are well and truly off here - instead, the contestants’ stronger hands are wrapped in hard rope - which in the old days could even be dipped in resin and shards of broken glass.
That practice is now illegal, but the sport is dangerous enough without it - the aim is to strike your opponent with kicks and punches, trying to make them fall to the floor.