23 December 2012

Uganda: Wasajja - the Forgotten Boxing Legend


When one thinks of Uganda's golden era of boxing, names that often come up include John 'The Beast' Mugabi, Ayub Kalule, Cornelius Bbosa 'Boza' Edwards, Leo Rwabogo and Eridad Mukwanga among others.

However, one name notably left off this list is that of late Mustafa Wasajja. It seems as though time has quietly forgotten this once proud sporting ambassador of Uganda. It is three decades since Wasajja reached the peak of his professional boxing career; defeating notable fighters like Bob Foster and Avenamar Peralta before losing the world title fight to legendary Michael Spinks.

Even after retirement in 1983, he remained one of the most well-known boxers out of Africa but back at home, Wasajja somehow became a forgotten man.

He succumbed to Parkinson's disease in 2009 aged 57 but a saddening sign of how far his legacy has faded occurred to me a few months ago when I went for the burial of a close friend - who happened to be his daughter - and bumped into a makeshift grave without appearing to realise it contains Wasajja's remains.

Rags to riches:

Born in 1952, Wasajja grew up at Makerere-Kivulu on the outskirts of Kampala. However, lack of fees forced him to drop out of school while still in primary school. Thereafter, he took on some odd jobs like fetching water for a small token. It's around the same time that he started boxing after boxing trainer David Jenkins being identified him as a prospect.

Jenkins later introduced Wasajja to Kampala Boxing Club (KBC) coach Elias Gagiraari and from there on his career kicked off. "His height and hard punches helped him to rise to the top so easily," recalls legendary boxer Ayub Kalule, one of Wasajja's contemporaries and also a former WBA welterweight champion.

A natural left-hander [southpaw], Wasajja's stance troubled his mainly right-handed opponents. "It was me, Wasajja and Cornelius Bbosa 'Boza Edwards' who were southpaws at the time...that's why he managed to join the national team early," Kalule adds.

Gagiraari recalls Wasajja as a great boxer who mastered game in just a short time. "Unlike Kalule and Bbosa who started boxing at a tender age of 14, Wasajja started a bit late when he was 17 or 18. But he surprised me when he quickly made it to the national team."

He joined KBC as a welterweight boxer but by 1973, he had stepped up to middleweight and established himself as the country's best in that division.

Wasajja's moment:

The national boxing team under the tutelage of Grace Seruwagi dominated world amateur boxing in the 70s. Wasajja's first international outing was the 1974 Commonwealth Games but while Uganda walked away with most medals, Wasajja missed out when he lost in the quarters.

He redeemed himself with a gold medal at the 1974 Africa Amateur Boxing Championships held in Kampala. He followed it up with gold at the Berlin Invitational Championship in 1975. Another gold medal in the pre-Olympic trials set the tone for Wasajja to shine at the biggest stage.

However, Wasajja and other Ugandan boxers missed the Montreal Olympic Games following the boycott of African countries protesting against apartheid in South Africa. Wasajja's outstanding performance that year was complimented by his crowning of 'Boxer of the year' by Uganda Sports Press Association (Uspa).

Professional career:

In 1977, Wasajja joined the paid ranks courtesy of Kalule, who had moved to Denmark a year before.

"I was in the need of a sparring partner and most of the whites feared my hard punches. That's the time I asked Wasajja to join me in Denmark," Kalule says.

By now a light heavyweight, Wasajja seized the chance and won nine straight fights before he 'fed' to former undisputed light heavyweight champion Bob Foster. Foster was firm favourite to win and had previously fought legendary boxers like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. However, Wasajja turned tables and upset the odds with a fifth round stoppage.

After this stunning win against an elite opponent, Wasajja got international recognition. By 1982, he had piled up 24 straight wins before he challenged Michael Spinks for the WBA World light heavyweight title. It was a make-or-break moment for Wasajja, who at the time was only behind Spinks in the world rankings.

Unfortunately, Spinks won the fight via a sixth round TKO. Wasajja never recovered and his career was also shattered. He temporarily quit the sport and settled in Nairobi, Kenya. Things didn't go well there and he got involved in fatal accident that killed some people. Thereafter, he relocated back to Denmark and resumed boxing but it was clear he was a spent force.

In his only comeback fight for the Commonwealth light heavyweight title, Zambian Lottie Mwale knocked him out in three rounds. He retired for good.

Parkinson's and death:

Wasajja returned to Uganda in 1985 and settled at Kalerwe, where he opened a gym and started training upcoming boxers. Life seemed fine for Wasajja until around 2000 when he got diagonised with Parkinson's disease. That's when many of his close associates abandoned him to the extent of mistaking him to be mad.

"When he fell sick, no one came to his rescue, including those whom he helped in the profession but he managed to cope until he passed away," laments Wasajja's daughter Aisha Namukwaya.

Wasajja died on April 27, 2009. It's only in September that the sorry state of Wasajja's grave captured my attention during the burial of his daughter Rehema Nansasi.

"It's due to financial hardships that his [Wasajja] grave is in a poor state," his brother Charles Lumunye said then.

I mobilised sports lovers to lend a hand and give the great man a fitting sendoff. Thankfully, we finished the first phrase and the final phrase is planned for January 2013. I specially thank the following individuals and organisations; Ennyanda, Simon Senkakya (Hardware World), Observer Media Ltd, CBS FM (Kalisoliso), Ernest Matovu, Jeff Serunjogi, David Lumu, Hassan Zungu, Geoffrey Musoke, Richard Lule, Henry Nsereko, Jackson Mujasi and Wasajja's family.

The author is Director Marketing & Promotions of The Observer Media Ltd.

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