Thursday morning at the MTN Arena-Lugogo was a reunion, a get-together of sorts for Ugandan boxers, especially those of the golden generation that spanned from the early ‘70s to the early ‘90s.
A three-time Olympian here, an African champion there, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist coming in, smiling with passion to hug a Kings Cup hero.
It was a send-off of a national hero, Uganda’s most successful boxing coach Peter Grace Sseruwagi.
In front of a wooden casket carrying his body, with gold-plated decor, a framed portrait of a smiling Sseruwagi, sporting a sky-blue checkered shirt, a thin layer of grey hair, with his two stone-hard fists raised, almost summed up his legendary story that touched every corner of boxing across the globe.
Sseruwagi was strong, likeable, stylish, even in his latter days, before he finally surrendered to diabetes at 87. Sseruwagi’s memory was as solid as his right fist; he could anytime fly you into the Via Flaminia Olympic Village, where Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) sparred with Team Uganda before winning light heavyweight gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics. And how US Olympic coach Angelo Dundee linked Clay’s success to Uganda.
Or his 1958 furious knockout of Idi Amin, a man who later became a no-nonsense president.
The low turn-up to Sseruwagi’s public viewing betrayed the gigantic status of a coach who gathered the country 95 gold medals, 75 silver and 54 bronze from several tournaments.
“If Sseruwagi was a motor rally icon, this space wouldn’t be enough for us,” a friend told me as his and my eyes panned across the few mourners who couldn’t fill even half a side of the Arena.
Sseruwagi, who enhanced his coaching credentials in USA, Australia, Scotland, Wales, et al, was one of a kind.
Crowds would throng this national facility to marvel at the likes of Ayub Kalule, John Mugabi, Mathias Ouma, Mustafa Wasajja, James Odwori, among the numerous students of Sseruwagi, most of whom went on to scale global heights.
Even Sseruwagi’s training sessions at Nsamizi Institute, in the countryside would attract a bigger viewing.
But the low turn-up shows how Ugandan boxing misses unifying hands like Sseruwagi’s. Or how divisions and wrangles have beaten this once golden sport down the canvas, no wonder, midway into the memorial, the two factions fighting for boxing leadership left to attend a court session.
Luckily, the few mourners represented a wider spectrum of our sporting family. Administrators and former sprinters, cyclists, tae kwondo players, cricketers, footballers, most with a connection to Sseruwagi, graced the occasion. As Sseruwagi’s bones rest in Ssese, a far-flung island on Lake Victoria, that knows nothing about boxing, his golden legacy will forever be amidst us; a benchmark.
WHAT OTHERS SAID
Vicky Byarugaba (former Olympian, African champion) I can say a lot about Mzee Sseruwagi (retells the tedious training regime) but that rigorous training regime is what made us great. He was very sociable, we liked him a lot. He is a hero.
Boza Edwards (former world champion). I have learned of the sad news of the passing of our great boxing coach Grace Peter Sseruwagi. He has been a great pillar to boxing in Uganda. His achievements have been felt worldwide through the boxers he trained, including myself. He was a true champion and out of the ring. May His Soul Rest in Eternal Peace.
Christopher Ssejjemba (son)
Mzee loved all people irrespective of their tribe. That’s how he gave Dick (Odokpira) Katende, an Acholi a Kiganda name Katende to save him from the soldiers who raided the boxing camp hunting for Acholis. (Katende was a the greatest coach after Sseruwagi).
Davis Lusimbo (1992 Olympian)
It’s very sad that Mzee Sseruwagi has died. But we are lucky to have worked with such a committed, skilled man. Mzee wished everyone success, and gave everyone an opportunity to try.
Fox Kiwanuka (former boxer 1975-86)
Mzee Sseruwagi was a father and a coach. He improved everyone, and chose everyone on merit. To him your record didn’t matter, but your performance. No one was exempted from his rigorous training. But also joked and chatted with us. We loved him.
Josephine Namwanje (granddaughter)
Thank you all…It’s a hard time that our best friend is leaving us but thank you very much.