Kenya: Boxing Ref Ndung'u Eyes Big Stage, At the Olympics

11 October 2020

As he takes a look at the roof at the dilapidated Ndenderu Boxing Hall in Kiambu County, Steve Ndung'u may be mistaken for a carpenter contracted to fix the leaking roof.

But he is not here to replace, repair, or to install a roof on the building at the heart of the bustling Ndenderu Trading Centre, some 16km away from Nairobi. He is here on a different mission. He picks a pair of gloves from a dusty cupboard containing boxing equipment such as a mouthpiece, protective cup and hand wrap, wears it and throws several punches in the air.

"This is how I used to do it in my heyday," Ndung'u says of his two decades in the ring during which he officiated many dramatic and blood-spattered bouts in the Kenya Novices, Intermediate, Kenya Open and National Boxing League competitions at the once-popular ring that used to nurture top talent in Mt Kenya region.

The ring has produced a galaxy of boxing stars who have represented Kenya in championships abroad, among them Fredrick Munga (light welterweight) who competed in 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and also claimed bronze medal in the 1999 All Africa Games (now renamed African Games) in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Light flyweight Nicholas Karanja who represented Kenya in the 2011 World Youth Championships in Kazakhstan started his career at Ndenderu Boxing Hall, which has been a hunting ground for Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and Kenya Police "Chafua Chafua" and Kenya Prisons Service boxing teams. Others are John Gitau (fly weight), former junior and national champion William Kamau (bantam), and John Njenga (welterweight) from KDF.

The dilapidated Ndenderu Hall is owned by Peter Mwarangu, the ailing former head coach of national team "Hit Squad."

It is here that Ndung'u witnessed big fights, often leaning over stricken boxers to count them out after they had kissing the canvas.

Referee Ndung'u, 49, saw dreams go up in flames and champions crowned.

"Sometimes fights turned out to be bloody contests and I would only realise that my white shirt had been stained with boxers' blood after stepping down from the ring," he said.

Olympic dream

But he has no regrets. Officiating such tough bouts has not been in vain as it has cemented his reputation as a cool referee who is destined to become an esteemed figure in the world of boxing.

"My dream is one day to officiate in Commonwealth and Olympics Games," he says.

His journey to becoming a top boxing referee has started. Last year, he was recognised by the Boxing Federation of Kenya (BFK) when he was named the top referee. He has became the first referee in Kenya to be honoured in the ring.

Ndung'u has officiated hundreds of amateur fights over two decades, some of them among the most thrilling in Kenya's boxing history, propelling him to be the first coach to win the Referee and Judge of the Year award and in the process earning a place in Kenya's Boxing Hall of Fame.

"Boxing is a wonderful career for both boxers, referees and judges," he says, adding, "Everything is with humility, and I thank God for this great honour. It is unforgettable. I feel happy to be recognised as the man in the middle of the ring."

"It's a great legacy to my family, particularly to my wife Joyce Wanjiru who has supported me 100 percent. It's a proud moment for the boxing referees and judges who are the unsung heroes and heroines. They play a big role in the development of this great sport that has put Kenya on the world map in Olympics, Commonwealth and other international competitions," said Ndung'u.

"I applaud the Boxing Federation of Kenya (BFK) President Anthony 'Jamal' Ombok for launching this award. It will motivate referees and judges, and attract more youngsters to the sport, particularly women," said Ndung'u.

Kenya has about 20 boxing referees, mostly men. The female referees include Leila Said (Mombasa), Mercy Ndenderu and Florence Wambui (both from Kiambu), and Norah Achieng' and Rebecca Wambui who are both from Nairobi.

Ndung'u rose from humble beginnings, learning his trade at the Nakuru Amateur Boxing Club, popularly known as 'Madison Square Garden.' The club is considered the cradle of boxing in Kenya, and Ndung'u joined at the age of seven in 1978 under veteran coach Peter Morris. He then shifted to Ndenderu in 1983.

Ndung'u had a fascination and admiration for boxing at a tender age. "I got involved in boxing because of bullying in schools. I wanted to acquire skills to defend myself and that's where my interest started. From then on, I have never looked back," he recalls.

But it is at Ndenderu that his career in refereeing took off in company of Kenya's boxing greats under coach Mwarangu. He competed in bantamweight category but stopped active boxing in 1995 to join Mwarangu as assistant coach.

The highlight of his boxing career was in 1990 during the Commonwealth Games trials at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani.

"I met Issa Nasir of Kenya Railways in the bantam and lost the fight. It was painful as I missed an opportunity to represent Kenya in the 14th edition of the Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand," says Ndung'u who is a projector manager at Kiambaa Constituency Development Fund.

In the hundreds of bouts he has officiated, Ndung'u, who is a Three Star judge, says he has seen many outstanding champions but singles out Benson Gicharu, Rayton Okwiri and KDF's Abednego Kyalo as some of the great boxers that he has handled in the ring.

Corporal Gicharu, a retired Kenya Police boxer, claimed silver in flyweight category at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, and a bronze in bantamweight category in 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Okwiri is the African Boxing Union middleweight champion.

"I have been in the ring with rookies, and boxers whose dreams in the ring far outweigh their ability. But the truth is, I have admired them equally. Both have taught me a lesson or two on how to become a good referee in the ring."

Ndung'u says the role of the referee is to be "neutral and impartial to the two fighters. It takes great courage for the boxers to climb the ring and its unforgivable sin to be biased."

"You have to let the fans enjoy the bout and never dominate the fight by making bad calls. The hallmark of a good referee is to know the regulations and how to apply them in a split seconds. You also have to monitor the health of the boxers in the ring and you need to know when to stop a fight. Some injuries may look bad but in truth are superficial. You must be hawk-eyed in the ring to notice when a fight gets dangerous so as to stop it," he says.

Ndung'u has refereed some explosive fights at times, even ducking hooks and jabs himself.

He picks out a 2012 national league bout between Nick Abaka and David Opiyo as the most thrilling of his career.

"The middleweight bout between Abaka and Opiyo in Mombasa is still fresh in my mind. I enjoyed the fight. The two stylish boxers were hard hitters with no foul blows or stoppages. I only looked out for injuries. Nick won on split point decision in a close fight," says Ndung'u who picks out American Kenny Bayless as one of the most professional boxing referees. Bayless officiated the professional fight between American Floyd Mayweather and Filipino Manny Pacquiao on May 2, 2015.

Any instances of controversy after a fight?

"I decide with honesty and integrity so that I don't get caught up in the aftermath. But there is a bout in which I disqualified a boxer but it was overturned. That was a rare a ring catastrophe that I have never repeated," he says, adding: "While the focus is on the powerful punches each competitor throws, it's the third person in the ring who calls the shots."

"You have to be in good state of the mind and spirit to understand the importance of the bout and both fighters to give a fair judgement that would not attract boos and jeers from the crowd and condemnation from boxers."

Ndung'u has refereed matches all over the country and says computer scoring system is not yet applicable in Kenya due to change of rules at world boxing body AIBA. He has stepped in the ring with some of the finest fighters and has been a part of some of the most exciting moments in the ring.

"When you start out in the career, you want to be noticed," Ndung'u says. "As you develop, you just want to get in and get out, knowing you've done the right job."

'Humbling activity'

Climbing the ring all suited up and ready to go, Ndung'u performs his job for as long as the boxers can fight. "Some high octane fights require a high level of concentration, confidence and skill. All eyes are on the calls you make. During the contest, you can issue warnings, end a fight and take away points. You must adhere to the rules, and keep a close eye on each boxer's health," he adds.

He says a good referee should allow the pugilists to fight. "During a bout, a referee can make or break a fight and that is when his or her responsibility in the ring is closely monitored and put on the litmus test."

"Refereeing is a very humbling activity. You're only as good as your last fight," he explains.

Refereeing has its share of challenges. "Some boxers don't listen to referees and in some instances, if a referee is tensed, he or she is likely to make unfair decisions."

He says the secret to success in refereeing is to listen to the bosses, and to keep up with changes in boxing rules.

"One of the lessons I have learnt is that boxing brings people together and bonds them as one family."

He advises budding boxing referees to start early instead of waiting to do so after retiring in another profession.

With his vast experience, he says he knows the difference between a polished and skillful boxer fighting a rookie and knowing when it's time to step in because a pugilist can land on the canvas with a big thud and can no longer defend himself or herself.

"Last year during a national league match in Busia, a coach threw in a towel to save his boxers but apparently, the fans were not amused. They threw chairs and empty bottles in the ring."

Popularly known in the local boxing ring by his nickname "MCA", Ndung'u, who is a great admirer of British professional boxer Anthony Joshua, says the top referee award caught him by surprise.

"If you had told me when I started boxing in the mid-80s that I would end up as a referee and judge boxing, I would have dismissed you, " he said.

A typical day for Ndung'u begins at 6am when he goes for a jog on the steep hills in Ndenderu.

"After morning road work, I take light breakfast and I am back at the CDF office. Workouts help me prepare for upcoming matches."

Thrilling journey

He says it's important for referees to have a clear head, eat well and drink a lot of water because boxing refereeing drains the body and needs a lot of concentration.

The father of two - one boy and a girl - has fond memories of watching matches with his late father Stanley Mathu, at Madison Square Garden.

Ndung'u first trained as a judge in 2003 and in 2005, he qualified as a referee. He has continued officiating matches at the amateur level. He devotes most of his time to his passion at Ndenderu Boxing Hall.

"It's been a thrilling journey and I am enjoying every time I enter the ring. I'm a referee and I will always remain a referee. It's in my blood. It's my passion."

"Coronavirus pandemic has put brakes on sports and spoiled the atmosphere. It has kept me away from a job I love doing passionately," he concludes.

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