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John Baker Muwanga and Oscar Joseph Nsubuga: Uganda Sibling Boxing Champions
John Baker Muwanga, one of Uganda’s most respected boxing champions, was born on April 2, 1956 in the vicinity of Kampala, raised in Nsambia. Joseph Nsubuga, another of Uganda’s famous former boxers, was Muwanga’s older half-brother.
Equally unique and fascinating is how Muwanga started boxing, how he progressed, why and how he hung up his gloves. His journey to boxing began when his half-brother Nsubuga, who was born in Kenya in the early 1950s, turned up in 1963 at the family home in Nsambia accompanied by his sister and mother. The children’s father was employed in East African railways and ports where he worked in Kenya. Muwanga was delighted to have his older brother around. Nsubuga was involved in boxing. Soon, Muwanga would accompany Nsubuga to the police boxing club in Nsambia, several times. But Muwanga was not impressed with the sport. Also, Muwanga’s mother would soon leave the house, taking Muwanga and one of his sisters with her to live elsewhere. He soon finished as a student of Mugvanja (Kabojja) preparatory school, a boarding school; and after that he was transferred to the sister school of St. Savio Primary School on Entebbe Road.
In Savio in 1969, Muwanga ended up fighting a bully who was the son of a political figure. Muwanga was expelled from school because of this. His father was very angry and assured him that he would never achieve anything. Meanwhile, Nsubuga’s brother made steady progress in boxing, Muwanga gaining attention for his accidental brotherhood – although he was disparaged as relatively weak and not as tough as his boxer brother. Here, Muwanga decided to try his hand at boxing. They matched him with opponents in the game, beat him badly and laughed at him. The people of northern Uganda were reputed to be good fighters, and Muwanga was discouraged from continuing boxing on the grounds that such boxers would “kill you for nothing”. But the mockery just made Muwanga more determined to disprove the skeptics.
Muwanga dared to enter the national junior championship which was held at the Nsambia police shed. He would represent the Nsambia Boxing Club. In that place and time, in those days, medical examinations were not up to par and were not taken seriously. Muwangi is allowed to box. He was paired with opponent Thilim from the Naguru Boxing Club. In battle, Muwanga did not prove himself; his opponent who was much better than him was doing his best not to humiliate him. Tillima even pretended to be shot down, even when he wasn’t hit. Muwanga writes (Personal communication, June 10, 2014):
“What a show!!! This guy tried his best not to humiliate me, but they failed to make people laugh until tears rolled down their cheeks. The guy even pretended to be knocked down by a punch I swung about 10 centimeters from him. For that got a warning. I lost and the crowd laughed.”
Muwanga’s associates would laugh at him for that fight. This made him work harder to become a good boxer. Early on Sunday he decided to go to the Kampala Boxing Club in Nakivubu. Muwanga writes, “I went to the KBC in Nakivubu, determined to learn how to box or die” (Personal communication, June 10, 2014). The club is closed.
Muwanga returned to KBC early the next morning. There, James Bond friend Okwara made fun of Muwanga’s boxing. National coach Erias Gabiraali was quick to rebuke Okwar. Muwanga started training there after meeting some of the emerging national boxers. Among them were Ayub Kalule, Cornelius Bbosa Bosa-Edwards, Mustafa Wasaya, Ben Ochan, Alex Odhiambo, Ohodomuge and David Jackson. Even Muwanga’s brother Nsubuga would stop by. In his concluding remarks, Muwanga writes (Personal communication, June 10, 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 were the other urchins from the ‘village’ going, to make the pie sweeter for the boys from the slum that was Katwe Kinioro, the team included John Opio!!! There was justice in honest sweat, hard work and discipline… the rest is history”.
At the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games on 18 July 1970, 16-year-old Joseph Oscar Nsubuga (lightweight) was defeated by Olympian Kenneth Mwansa of Zambia in the preliminary round by points decision.
At the 1974 Commonwealth Games held in Christchurch, the 20-year-old Nsubuga, now a light heavyweight, defeated Philip Sapak of Papua New Guinea. 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 held two days later, Scotland’s James Douglas defeated Nsubuga on points to end Nsubuga’s pursuit of a medal.
A few months later, in August 1974, Nsubuga, fighting as a middleweight, won a bronze medal at the inaugural World Amateur Boxing Championships in Havana. Nsubuga moved up to middleweight.
The TSC tournament was held at the Dynamo-Sporthalle in Berlin from October 3 to 7, 1974. In the quarterfinals, Nsubuga defeated Zaprianov (Bulgaria) on points in the middleweight division. But in the semi-finals, he was beaten on points by Peter Tippold from the German Democratic Republic. He settled for a bronze medal. here the Ugandans performed exceptionally well: James Odwori (flyweight) and Ayoub Kalule (half welterweight) won gold; Vitalis Bbege (welterweight) won the silver medal.
Nsubuga would make his professional debut in May 1975, moving to Finland and then Norway; he would mostly fight in Europe. Nsubuga stopped competing in 1981 after being knocked out by the famous future world champion Davy Moore. Nsubuga’s most famous fight was his lively gladiatorial battle (non-title fight) with the famous Panamanian Roberto Duran on January 13, 1980 in Las Vegas. The Panamanian appeared to be struggling, 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 May 4, 2013 at the age of 59.
In the 1970s, while at Namasagali College in Kamuli District, Uganda, Muwanga proved to be a skilled, intimidating and popular boxer. At the amateur national level, he is said to have beaten renowned future world champion and fellow Ugandan Cornelius Bosa-Edwards (Bbosa) twice. In April 1973, the annual Golden Belt tournament was held in Bucharest. It turned out that the most winners and silver medals were Cubans and Romanians. It was there that Muwanga, at the age of 17, participated in an international competition for the first time. It was here that Muwanga, along with his Ugandan teammates – Ayub Kalule, Vitalis Bbega and James Odwori – won bronze medals in Romania. Later, in the same year 1973, Muwanga fought twice for Uganda in two Urafiki tournaments (Kenya vs. Uganda); he was the winner. Muwanga was soon delighted when veteran Ugandan boxing legend Alex Odhiambo, who had so far been so critical of the younger boxer, gave him a nod and a thumbs up afterwards!
At the local level and during training, Muwanga did fight several times with Odwori and another famous Ugandan boxer “Kabaka” Nasega, but did not win. Among the Ugandans he defeated were Vincent Byarugaba and several others. Muwanga was a national amateur boxer from 1973 to 1977 when he was also a student at Namasagali College; after that he attended the University of Oslo while fighting as a professional. Muwanga recalls that at the training camp, where the attitude of behavior differed from boxer to boxer, as an example to admire skill Odwori was particularly talkative, while Ayub Kalule preferred action to words (Personal communication, 29 October 2015):
“…guys like Ayub Kalule…liked action more than talking, which is a phenomenon in my opinion. James Odury talked a mile a minute, but he had the rare ability to back up whatever he said. Very rare quality. We called him ‘Kasuku’ [parrot] behind his back”.
John Muwanga, as a flyweight, represented Uganda at the first world amateur championship held in Havana in August 1974. Especially Kalule and Nsubuga won gold and bronze here. Muwanga was eliminated in the preliminary round by points decision in favor of Beihan Fuchedzhiev (Bulgaria). It is quite a notable aspect that a whopping six members of the Ugandan contingent in Havana studied at Namasagali – one of the few schools in Uganda that accepted boxing. Besides Muwanga, those boxers who attended Namasagala were Nsubuga, Odwori, John Byaruhanga, Vincent Byarugaba and Shadrack Odhiambo.
Muwanga’s national status continued to rise and at the age of 20 he was selected to represent Uganda at the Summer Olympics in Montreal. A majority of African countries, twenty-eight of them, boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to bar entry to the Olympic countries from athletes participating in sporting events in apartheid South Africa. The New Zealand rugby team was touring South Africa at the time. Countries like China, Iraq and Guyana have also pulled out; although in China it primarily related to the issue of recognition of the political name – the non-recognition of the “Republic of China” versus the “People’s Republic of China”.
Among the Ugandan boxers who were withdrawn from participation due to the boycott were Baker Muwanga (featherweight) alongside Venostos Ochira (featherweight), Adroni Butambeki (flyweight), Cornelius Bosa-Edwards (Bbosa) (featherweight), David Senyonjo (lightweight), Jones Okota . (half welterweight), Vitalis Bbege (welterweight) and John Odhiambo (half middleweight). None of these fighters represented Uganda at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Vitalis Bbege won gold at the African Boxing Championships held in Kampala in 1974.
Muwanga began his professional career in Norway in April 1978 and ended in October 1982. He mainly boxed as a lightweight. All of his matches took place in Norway, except for the two finals which took place in Finland. He hasn’t lost a single fight but would probably like to be exposed to more intense competition and also box in western countries where there are more top contenders and champions. A factor was the ban on professional boxing in Norway, which had been officially in force since early 1981.
Muwanga finished undefeated as a professional boxer with 15 wins, 0 losses, and 6 knockouts (Bokrec.com). He is somewhat sorry that he did not flourish as a boxer as much as he would have liked, but at the same time he is grateful that boxing has taken him places and opened up many advantages for him. He writes: “…my boxing career, in my opinion, has not been as exciting as I wanted it to be, but I am not complaining that it has opened many doors for me and taken me to places I never thought I would see. ..” (Personal communication, June 10, 2014).
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