“They told me ‘shut up’. Then they showed me how to shoot a gun in case anything happened so you could shoot a bad guy. “(And) Once I started being in the war, I was like “this is my side. If you’re on that side I’m shooting.”
Professional boxer Kassim Ouma was detailing his early days as a rebel soldier captured by then National Resistance Army (NRA) at six years old to UK’s Guardian newspaper in 2007.
“This is my side. If you’re on that side I’m shooting” was one of several virtues he carried on from his bush days into the boxing ring several years later. The same virtue is evident in his 27 wins of the 32 professional fights to date, 16 of which KOs.
Ouma may not have dominated the trade as Ayub Kalule did in the 70s but the 33-year-old did it his way, too, to world standards. A fast-paced fighter who loves to throw punches at those ‘not on his side,’ Ouma ranks up there alongside Kalule, John ‘the Beast’ Mugabi, and Cornelius Boza Edwards having joined the trio as only the fourth Ugandan world champion.
Ouma eked his name on the elite list when he beat American Verno Phillips to take IBF Light Middleweight title in 2004.
The same Phillips had handed former lightweight Gold winner at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, Godfrey Nyakana, an 11th round knockout in 1998. “Ouma is a very talented boxer,” assured Nyakana, “He is very agile, fast and had a lot of potential. He beat Verno Phillips after I had lost to him in 1998 despite leading in the first nine rounds.”
Heading into that fight with Phillips, Ouma, whose patriotic self has never been doubted - the picture of him entering the ring with the Ugandan excitedly emblazoned around his shoulders, was vintage in the pre-match hype.
“I was young when I beat Phillips, but he gave the excuse that he only had 10 days of training,” puffed Ouma. “But I’ve grown, too. So whatever he wants, I am bringing it. First time I fought him, I got vengeance for Godfrey Nyakana and for Uganda. “Godfrey was lifting the Ugandan flag and then Phillips beat him so that was disrespectful to Uganda for him to do that.”
Fight day, October 2, 2004, and Ouma was out to back his words with punches with a vacant IBF title was at stake at the Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada, US.
It was only the second time that Ouma, who survived death in a 2002 drive-by shooting in Florida – the incident ironic given that he was never shot while in the army back home in Uganda - was featuring on Showtime Championship Boxing. His first was against Juan Carlos Candelo.
Ouma went on outwit, outwork, outpunch, and outpoint Phillips over 12 rounds, with the judges’ ratings reading 114-113, 117-110 and 114-113 in favour of the East African. Uganda had registered the fourth world boxing champion. But it was a bloody tough fight as Ouma himself confessed at the end. “I tried so much to take Phillips out as I had promised, but Verno is the toughest fighter I have ever faced”.
The former child soldier successfully defended his championship with a 12 round unanimous decision against Kofi Jantuah of Ghana. Hard times were setting in for Ouma, whose flamboyance and hyper life outside the ring was slowly competing for attention.
He later lost his title in a unanimous decision to Roman Karmazin, a bout in which Ouma was put to the canvas twice, for only the second defeat of his career.
Ouma remained active in the Light Middleweight division, beating Marco Antonio Rubio by split decision despite being knocked down in the first round and impressively beating undefeated fellow southpaw Sechew Powell in August 2006. But the Ugandan lost the middleweight title shot against Jermain Taylor three months later where Taylor’s powerful punches restrained a usually busy Ouma from throwing as many jabs.
The defeat to Taylor saw Ouma lose back to back close decisions to Saul Roman in October 2007 and Cornelius Bundrage in March 2008. Ouma did return on September 25, 2010 to stop Joey Gilbert in the 6th round of their 10-round bout for the vacant NABA middleweight title but no major fight has come the Ugandan’s way lately.
And Nyakana ruefully believes Ouma never exhausted his potential, especially now that he is in the evening of his career. “He had a lot of potential,” said Nyakana, “But he didn’t exhaust it. I blame his managers who have messed him up of late. They could have done better with organizing known names and better deals for money.”
Born in the year the Ugandan national football team – the Cranes – made it to the Africa Nations Cup (1978), Ouma deserted the army in mid 90s and started boxing, amassing an amateur record of 62 wins and three losses. He made the Ugandan national boxing team and was selected to fight at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, but did not attend due to financial difficulties.
Kassim The Dream
But having been granted a visa to travel to a military boxing tournament to the United States in 1998, Ouma never returned home, opting to undertake a career as a professional boxer. The rest as they say is history.
A documentary entitled “Kassim the Dream” – Ouma’s alias - was made in 2008 detailing his journey from poverty to a boxing champion. A true story from a young boy’s nightmare from poverty reins in Gulu village to the Palm Beaches in Florida – living his Dream. “Remember I used to carry guns. Now I carry gloves.”