Towards the end of 2001 we were selected for the Commonwealth Games. By then I was the most formidable middleweight in Uganda.
Dick Katende and Musa Kent (both deceased) were the national coaches under Vicky Byarugaba’s federation.
I joined boxing with a dream to board a plane and representing my country. So when this opportunity finally came, I had to put in all I could to impress.
By then Godfrey Nyakana and Justin Juuko were the last ones to have won Commonwealth medals in boxing. I felt the duty to emulate them.
At the National Open, I had defeated most of David Basajjamivule, Sam Kabugo, Wejuli and Osman Katende.
Only Tyson Malaba beat me in the final but he was unlucky to fall sick and missed the trials at Kisomlai Pub in Mukono, and in Jinja.
But I didn’t have a passport. I struggled, I didn’t have the money, and my fellow boxer Zebra [Isaac Ssenyange] helped me with the money to secure the passport.
At the flag-off, we dined with the President [Museveni] at his home in Nakasero. He handed the flag to our captain Muhammad Kayongo.
What I will never forget, though was the president’s promise. He promised to give us houses if we won medals.
Dream nearly collapsed
Because it was my first time on a plane, I was very excited; I ate everything on offer. Cakes, candy, burgers, etc. Reaching Manchester I was overweight. The weather was itself very different. I felt cold and confused. ‘How do I shed these extra four kilos in two days?’ I wondered. Even training time and space was limited in the Games village. After a hectic workout, I was still overweight by a kilo and feeling exhausted. Coach Dick was very bitter with me. He told me ‘Lubega it’s over, there’s no other way about it.’ I felt sad, guilty and confused. My dream was nearly collapsing.
Then out of desperation, I begged the coach to convince the officials to allow me box in light heavyweight. He told me it’s impossible. That I just I couldn’t manage those guys in the (light heavy) weight.
I cried [I promised Ugandans a medal, how do they hear that I didn’t even fight!]. Coach pleaded with the officials and finally, I was allowed into the new weight.
Dream alive, again
The first time I went to the arena, I was overwhelmed by such a big crowd. That being my first I didn’t know what to expect. I was a little timid. But I looked at my opponent and thought ‘We are both foreigners here, whoever does best will win over the crowd.’ So it was. I beat the guy and the crowd started singing my name ‘Joseph, Joseph, Joseph,’
Coach Dick told me, ‘This is your future, your life. Heed what I have taught you, I believe in you. Don’t get punished in there, guard and feint’.
Ironically, Coach Dick was a boxer but he was too emotional. During the pep talk, he could even cry. He told me: ‘Please save my name, Uganda will question me if you don’t win.
Anyway he liked me so much, and he would remind me every time we met.
My first opponent (Gavin Clersaint) was from (Antigua & Barbuda—Lubega mixes some facts. He said Australian).
I don’t remember his name. He was huge and tall. But I was speedier, and I could easily dodge danger and my guards were always timely. I knocked him the second round (actually it was first round). Coach Dick lifted me, so happy. He told me he was scared the man was so big for me but ‘thank God, you did really well.’
Confident, I reassured him that ‘I’m gonna beat them all.’
(Lubega’s memory skips but his second fight was on the semi. He defeated Australian Ben McEachran (RIP) when the referee stopped the contest in the second round).
The coach couldn’t believe me. On the final, though, I was disappointed. My Nigerian opponent (Albert Jegbefumer) was awkward. He was huge. His punches weren’t good or tough, but he was just awkward and hard-to-get. I lost on points and got a silver medal, though my goal was gold (like Nyakana and Juuko).
Kayongo (light welterweight) also got silver. (Martin Mubiru and Denis Mwanje lost in the quarterfinals).
Museveni’s unfulfilled promise
It was a tough road, but I was happy I had fulfilled my medal promise. But President Museveni never fulfilled his promise of giving us houses. We tried very much to meet him again, minister Oryem Okello but we were frustrated several times.
More frustrating were the gifts the federation gave us in appreciation: they were beautifully wrapped and we were eager. But reaching home, I was disappointed to see bathing towels. It was never worth it…towels cost Shs3000. I still seek that one chance to meet the President and remind him of his pledge. I believe anyone who represents the country and achieves on any international level deserves a hero’s treatment and reward. I did my part, I’m waiting for the presidential reward. Otherwise I’m still disappointed.
The Games experience gave me confidence, especially against non-African boxers. Make no mistake, Commonwealth Games is as competitive as any other tournament. You meet tough opponents from countries like Great Britain, Nigeria, Pakistan, and others.
We should be doing better but federation wrangles and little government support are dragging boxing back. I wish boxing could have a special budget from government.
To the aspiring Commonwealth boxer: know your goal, stay focused. Train hard, eat well, rest enough. And if possible wait before you engage in marital responsibilities.