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John Baker Muwanga and Oscar Joseph Nsubuga: Uganda Sibling Boxing Champions
Considered one of Uganda’s greatest boxing champions, John Baker Muwanga was born on 2 April 1956 in the suburbs of Kampala, growing up in Nsambya. Joseph Nsubuga, another famous Ugandan former boxer, was Muwanga’s older half-brother.
Equally unique and fascinating is how Muwanga started boxing, how he progressed and why and how he built his gloves. Born in Kenya in the early 1950s, his half-brother Nsubuga started his path to boxing when he showed up at the family home in Nsambya in 1963 with his sister and mother. The children’s father was employed by the East African Railways and Harbors operating in Kenya. Muwanga was happy to have a big brother around. Nubuga excelled in boxing. Soon, Muwanga would accompany Nsubuga to the Police Boxing Club in Nsambya a few times. But Muwanga had little interest in the game. Also, Muwanga’s mother will soon leave home, taking Muwanga and one of his sisters to live elsewhere. He soon became a student at Mugwanya Preparatory School (Kabojja), a boarding school; And then he transferred to a sister school, St. Savio Primary School on Entebbe Road.
In Savio in 1969, Muwanga fought a bully who was the son of a politically prominent figure. As a result, Muwanga was expelled from school. His father was very angry, and assured him that he would never do anything. Meanwhile brother Nsubuga was making steady progress in boxing, Muwanga’s focus was simply on being a brother–though he was comparatively weaker and not as tough as his boxing brother. It was here that Muwanga decided to try boxing. He was matched with opponents of the game, was badly beaten and laughed at. Northern Ugandans were known to be good fighters, and Muwanga was discouraged from continuing to box because such boxers would “kill you for nothing.” But the taunts made Muwanga more determined to disprove the skeptics.
Muwanga dared to register at the National Junior Championships held at the Nsambya Police Shed. He was to represent Nsambya Boxing Club. In that place and time, in those days, medical tests were not standardized and were not taken seriously. Muwanga was allowed to box. He was matched with Tillima of the Naguru Boxing Club. Muwanga did not prove himself in the fight; His opponent who was much better than him did his best not to humiliate him. Even though she was not hit, Tilima pretended to be knocked down. Muwanga writes (personal communication, 10 June 2014):
“What a show!!! This guy tried his best not to insult me but failed and laughed until tears came down his cheeks. The guy pretended to knock me down with a punch that was 10 inches away from him. He got a warning for that. I lost and the crowd laughed.”
Muwanga’s colleagues laughed at him because of that quarrel. This forced him to work harder to become a good boxer. Early Sunday morning he decided to go to the Kampala Boxing Club in Nakivubo. Muwanga writes, “I went to KBC in Nakivubo, determined to learn how to box or die” (personal communication, 10 June 2014). The club was closed.
Muwanga returned to KBC the next morning. There, a colleague, James Bond Okware, made fun of the way Muwanga boxed. National coach Arias Gabirali was quick to reprimand Okware. Muwanga started training there because he got to know some of the national boxers who came out. These included Ayub Kalule, Cornelius Babosa Boza-Edwards, Mustafa Wasazza, Ben Ochan, Alex Odhiambo, Okodomuge and David Jackson. Muwanga’s brother Nsubuga will also move in. Muwanga writes (personal communication, 10 June 2014):
“One day I was shocked to hear that my brother was going to Scotland [Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, 1970] To represent Uganda. I couldn’t believe it, not only that, other urchins from the ‘village’ were also going, Katwe Kinyoro from the neighboring slum, John Opio’s favorite boys were also in the team!!! Honest sweat, hard work and discipline paid off… the rest is history.
At the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh on 18 July 1970, 16-year-old Joseph Oscar Nsubuga (lightweight) was defeated by Zambian Olympian Kenneth Mwansa by points decision in the preliminary round.
At the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, the 20-year-old Nsubuga defeated Philip Sapak of Papua New Guinea at light-welterweight. This happened in the preliminary first round on January 27 when the referee stopped the fight early after Nsubuga quickly overpowered his opponent. However, in the quarter-finals two days later, Scotland’s James Douglas defeated Nsubuga by points, ending Nsubuga’s pursuit of a medal.
A few months later, in August 1974, Nsubuga, fighting as a middleweight, would win a bronze medal at the inaugural World Amateur Boxing Championships in Havana. Nsubuga moved up to the middleweight division.
The TSC tournament was held from October 3–7, 1974 at the Dynamo-Sporthalle in Berlin. In the quarterfinals, Nsubuga defeated Zaprianov (Bulgaria) by points, fighting as a middleweight. But in the semi-finals, he was defeated by points by Peter Tiepold of the German Democratic Republic. He had to settle for a bronze medal. Here Uganda produced notable performances: James Odwori (flyweight) and Ayub Kalule (light-welterweight) won gold; Vitalish Bege (Welterweight) won the silver medal.
Nsubuga would make his professional debut in May 1975 which saw him travel to Finland and then Norway; He mainly fought in Europe. Nubuga stopped competing in 1981 after being knocked out by the famous future world champion Davy Moore. Nsubuga’s most notable fight was his spirited gladiator fight (non-title bout) with the legendary Panamanian Roberto Duran on January 13, 1980 in Las Vegas. The Panamanian looked tired, but Joseph “Stoneface” Nsubuga was knocked out at the end of the fourth round. He retired from boxing in 1981 with an impressive record of 18 wins and 3 losses. Nsubuga died in Helsinki on 4 May 2013 at the age of 59.
While at Namsagali College in Uganda’s Kamuli District in the 1970s, Muwanga showed himself to be a skilled, fearsome and popular boxer. At the amateur national level, he is said to have beaten legendary future world champion and fellow Ugandan Cornelius Boza-Edwards (Bibosa) twice. In April 1973, the annual Golden Belt Tournament took place in Bucharest. Most of the winners and silver medalists were Cuban and Romanian. It was here that at the age of 17, Muwanga participated in his first international competition. Here Muwanga, along with his Ugandan teammates – Ayub Kalule, Vitaleesh Bege and James Odwori – all won bronze medals in Romania. Later in the same 1973, Muwanga featured twice for Uganda in two Urafiki (Kenya vs Uganda) tournaments; He was victorious. Muwanga was soon overwhelmed when Ugandan boxing legend Alex Odhiambo, who had earlier criticized the young boxer, then gave him a nod and a thumbs up!
At the local level and during training, Muwanga sparred several times against Odwori and another famous Ugandan boxer “Kabaka” Nasego, but did not win. Among the Ugandans he defeated were Vincent Byerugaba and many others. Muwanga’s stint as a national amateur boxer was from 1973 to 1977 when he was a student at Namasagli College; He then enrolled at the University of Oslo and fought as a professional. Muwanga recalls that at the training camp, where the behavioral approach differed from boxer to boxer, Kushal Odwori was particularly vocal as an admirable example, while Ayub Kalule preferred action to words (personal communication, 29 October 2015):
“…guys like Ayub Kalule…preferred action to talk, a phenomenon in my opinion. James Odouri talked a mile a minute but, he had the rare ability to follow through on what he said. A very rare quality. We called him .’Kasuku’ [parrot] behind his back.”
John Muwanga represented Uganda as a light-flyweight at the inaugural World Amateur Championships in Havana in August 1974. Interestingly, Kalule and Nsubuga won gold and bronze medals respectively. Muwanga was eliminated in the preliminary round by a points decision in favor of Bezan Fuchedziyev (Bulgaria). The big six from the Ugandan contingent in Havana studied at Namsagali – one of the few schools in Uganda that embraced boxing. Apart from Muwanga, boxers who attended the Namasagali included Nsubuga, Odwori, John Byaruhanga, Vincent Byarugaba and Shadrack Odhiambo.
Muwanga’s national stature continued to rise and at the age of 20 he was selected to represent Uganda at the Summer Olympics in Montreal. The 1976 Montreal Olympic Games were boycotted by most African countries when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to ban Olympic countries from participating in the Games in apartheid South Africa. Then the New Zealand rugby team was on a tour of South Africa. China, Iraq, Guyana also withdrew; Although with China it was primarily concerned with the problem of political name recognition – the lack of recognition of “Republic of China” versus “People’s Republic of China”.
Ugandan boxers who withdrew from participation due to the boycott included Baker Muwanga (bantamweight) along with Venostos Ochira (light-flyweight), Adroni Butambeki (flyweight), Cornelius Boza-Edwards (Bosa) (featherweight), David Senyonjo (lightweight), O Jones. (light-welterweight), Vitalish Begay (welterweight), and John Odhiambo (light-middleweight). None of these athletes represented Uganda at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. In 1974, Vitaleesh Bege won the gold medal at the Africa Boxing Championship held in Kampala.
Muwanga began his professional career in Norway in April 1978 and ended in October 1982. He mainly boxed as a lightweight. All of his fights took place in Norway except for the final two in Finland. He didn’t lose a fight but he would have liked to face more intense competition and box in the West where there are more contenders and champions. One reason was the ban on professional boxing in Norway, which was officially effective from early 1981.
Muwanga remains undefeated as a professional boxer with 15 wins, 0 losses, 6 knockouts (Boxrec.com). He regrets to some extent that he did not flourish as a boxer as he would have liked, but at the same time he is grateful that boxing has taken him to many places and opened up many advantages for him. He writes, “… my boxing career, I think, was not as exciting as I would have liked, but I do not complain that it opened many doors for me and took me to places I never thought I would see. . . .” (personal communication , 10 June 2014).
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