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Pugilism in Africa: Thinking Outside the Box

By Eoin Redahan

Scan boxing’s International Hall of Fame and you will find the sport’s dapper pioneers, the gnarled glares of its early practitioners, and the disconcerting smiles of its modern greats. There is the Panamanian with the hands of stone, the Louisville lip, the raging bull, and even a Thai Tyson. Surprisingly, however, only three African boxers grace this list: Nigeria’s Dick Tiger, South Africa’s Brian Mitchell, and Ghana’s Azumah Nelson.  

The relative dearth of stellar African boxers is hard to believe. After all, how many extraordinary athletes do African countries produce every year? How many Hall of Fame boxers owe their ancestry to West Africa alone? Boxing is one of very few sports with a global reach, and it is not expensive; so, why have so few world-renowned boxers emerged from the continent?
Adeyinka Makinde, boxing historian and author of the book, Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal, explained why he felt there are so many African-American boxers, yet so few African boxers, in the Hall of Fame:

“It’s likely down to the nurturing they receive at the early stages of their careers. Many African athletes do not have proper or adequate facilities in their home countries. Some go further to postulate genetic improvement. The forebears of those sold into slavery were often times captured warriors. Then only the strong survived the horrors of the middle passage. Maybe there’s an inkling of truth there, but I think it is more a case of having an environment within which training and nurturing expertise marries with latent talent and ambition.” 

Sometimes, a paucity of wealth doesn’t affect a country’s ability to produce world class-athletes. Countries such as Argentina and Brazil are renowned for producing a glut of professional football players from impoverished areas; however, Mr. Makinde explained why this has not been the case with African boxing:

 “Although poverty and desperation borne out of the membership of an available underclass would appear to place Africa – among the continents – in something of a vanguard of the potential breeding ground for fighters, there is simply no infrastructure in most African countries to produce…a thriving scene of active fighters.”

Former IBF Australasian Super Middleweight Champion Sakio Bika grew up in Cameroon before moving to Australia to pursue a professional career after the Sydney Olympics. He said that while some African countries have decent systems in place for amateur boxing, it is very difficult to sustain a professional career from most African countries:

“The government, the business people; they help the amateurs a lot in Cameroon….[But], it’s impossible to become a professional in Cameroon. If you want to become a professional, just get your luggage and fly off and go to some country. Maybe go to Europe or America.”  

Statistics would appear to compound Mr. Bika’s point. According to the boxing website Boxrec.com, the top 10 Nigerian boxers in its pound-for-pound rankings are all based outside the country; only two of Uganda’s, and one of Cameroon’s best boxers are based at home, while North African countries (with such close proximity to Europe) such as Tunisia and Morocco are seeing most of their best boxers ply their trade elsewhere. Even Ghana, which has such a strong boxing tradition, has only four domestic-based boxers in its top 10 in the pound-for-pound rankings.

Mr. Bika identified the lack of financial support for professional African boxers and the difficulty in obtaining visas to fight in different countries as the main reasons why many African professional boxers choose to live in the U.S. or Europe. He said he intends to return to Cameroon when he has retires in order to help the next generation of Cameroonian boxers. He said he will, “try to give young people the opportunity to achieve their goals…. I can pay back what I learned when I was younger in Cameroon.”  

Unlike Bika, however, many professional boxers will not return home to live in their native countries. This starves many countries of valuable expertise, experience, and the constant presence of role models for aspiring professionals. South Africa is a notable exception. According to Boxrec, its top 20 boxers in the current pound-for-pound listing are all living in South Africa. Loyiso Mtya, the South African Boxing Association’s Director of Operations, said that much of this is attributable to economics and infrastructure:

“It goes back to the capabilities to facilitate and promote. Our boxers do not have to leave the country in order to earn the opportunities to contest for the biggest sanctioning bodies. That has the effect of encouraging youngsters, as their international star or role models are within sight…. Imagine any teenager that has Oscar De La Hoya or Floyd Mayweather living next door? They cannot wait to try their hand at boxing.”

Having a quality infrastructure not only fosters tradition, it strengthens existing boxing bloodlines. Mr. Makinde mentioned the Ga ethnic group in Ghana’s capital Accra as an example of how tradition can nurture a long line of boxers; this dynasty has included Roy Ankrah, David “Poison” Kotey, Hall of Fame member Azumah Nelson, Ike Quartey, and now world title challenger Joshua Clottey.

When these traditions are nurtured, it further strengthens the sport in the country. According to Mr. Mtya, there is a historic boxing tradition that forms part of the culture or religion in parts of South Africa, such as the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and Limpopo. He said that, “you will find youngsters in a rural area, where they still cannot afford gloves, boxing in the streets using milk cans or anything else that can cover their hands. A lot of boys, and lately the girls, therefore are born into the tradition of boxing. It flows in their veins.”

While Ghana and South Africa have taken advantage of the boxing traditions in their countries, they have also enjoyed relative political stability in recent years. Mr. Makinde emphasized the importance of this: “Tradition is predicated on stability and continuity, which given the recent bouts of political and social chaos on the African continent, has not been possible.” As part of the administrative system in South African boxing, Mr. Mtya echoed these sentiments: “Political stability is immeasurable in all sorts of life. Just look at the other African countries…. The instability has paralyzed not only boxing, but life in general.”

He mentioned that boxing has struggled in South Africa in the past two years due to a lack of sponsorship and funding; however, it has received government support when it needed it the most: “The Boxing SA office could only keep the fire burning from only the provincial governments. Ninety-six percent of those tournaments were funded by the provincial governments. Without that kind of assistance, boxing would have been a thing of the past. If this country was unstable like other African countries and the rest of the world, where would we be?”

Unfortunately, not all administrations are as concerned with the health of their country’s sports. Mr. Adeyinka felt that poor infrastructure and “the nearsightedness of administrators” have hindered progress. He cited the example of a friend of his who asked for advice about promoting fights in Nigeria:

“I told him that the tried and trusted way was to get as much of your capital from businesses and also from television. He replied that when he contacted a Nigerian television station, they insisted that the norm was for a promoter to pay the TV company for the privilege of broadcasting the bouts.”

Also, ostentatious events organized by despotic regimes, such as the “Rumble in the Jungle” between Ali and Foreman in the Democratic of Congo (then Zaire) in 1974, may appear impressive to the watching world, but actually do little to stimulate the development of a sport in the country. As Mr. Makinde said, the sponsor of that fight – the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko – was more interested in filling his boots than actually using “an event of such magnitude as the stimulus for opening boxing and other sporting academies.”

However, even if the administration and infrastructure improve considerably and professional boxers are given better opportunities, the sport still faces a grim future on the continent. This is due to the seemingly innocuous, yet irrepressible, rise of football. 

With European football’s sprawling popularity, huge wealth, and extensive scouting networks, boxing simply cannot compete. Barcelona’s line up for final of last season’s premier world club football competition, The Champions’ League, encapsulates the challenge facing boxing in Africa. The winning side featured three African players: Seydou Keita from Mali, Samuel Eto’o from Cameroon, and Yaya Touré from Côte d’Ivoire.

Somewhere between 100 and 200 million people from around the world watched this match alone; thus, it is no surprise that youngsters are choosing to play a sport where they can earn millions of dollars and achieve global renown, as opposed to a niche sport where they get punched in the head for a living for a more modest fee.

Unfortunately for Africa’s boxing fraternity, they are “thinking outside the box.”

For the full transcript of the interview with Adeyinka Makinde

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