Catching up with Patricia Apolot for an interview demands the patience of the Biblical Job. She will answer your calls, but she will also be busy with this or the other; at a mall fixing her gadget, at a press conference, persuading a potential sponsor or at the gym training for her coming fight. Fortunately, the chase is worth every while.
At Lugogo Fitness Centre Gym on a Friday afternoon, I’m finally chatting with this beautiful, eloquent, young sports woman. Her athletic upper body in a sleeveless top is well toned.
After over an hour with Apolot, all I see is the Ugandan version of Laila Ali—a focused, multi-talented, visionary, and committed woman with a lion’s heart.
Forget Ali’s status as a former world boxing champion and daughter of boxing’s colossus Mohammad Ali. And remember that, world over, women in combat sports such as boxing, kickboxing, martial arts, et al, face similar hurdles. To thrive, talent alone is not enough. Many talented but unlucky or faint-hearted girls have quit. The bravery and audacity to carry on, sailing through the tide, is what puts American Ali and Ugandan Apolot in a befitting comparison.
Apolot is the first of five children -three girls and two boys - born to Josephine Aujo and Emmanuel Mukula. Her mother conceived her when she was still a teenager at school. Immediately after giving birth, on November 6, 1990, she resumed studies, leaving baby Apolot under the care of her great grandmother in Ngora.
Later, Apolot lived with her father, stepmother and her other siblings, which she says helped the family to bond. She only visited her mother, who had relocated to Kampala, during holidays.
She attended St Aloysius Primary School from 1996 to 2002, and Teso Integrated, completing her O-Level in 2006.
Black Pearl, as she is referred to in the sports circles, never had any dreams of being a ring warrior. She was a victim of bullying from boys, unable to defend herself. In 2006, Apolot left Ngora to settle with her mother in Kampala, who insisted she should further her studies. The ambitious juvenile had other ideas though, and tried several avocations; from police training to a futile attempt at football with Proline Football Academy for nearly two years.
Picking up the gloves
During a military training in Kajjansi in 2009, her friend Simon Wandera, who was also a trainee and cousin of world boxing champion Kassim Ouma, was amazed by Apolot’s physique. “He told me ‘you have a very good physique. You can really make a good boxer. Try it you might benefit a lot’,” she recounts.
In 2009, Apolot put on gloves, a decision which was to shape her future. At first, her parents discouraged her, fearing she would get “mad”. “But she convinced us that not every boxer gets mad,” narrates her mother. “Then, we asked her, ‘can’t you do something else apart from fighting?’ But she insisted fighting was all she wanted.”
Her mother is now her number one fan and their love is unceasing. On the hills of Naguru in sub-urban Kampala sits East Coast Boxing Club where she started boxing. Her coach, Hassan Khalil, praises her immense punching power and determination.
In a recent training session, at the University of Pain Gym in Luzira, Apolot, with humour, imitates how unskilfully she boxed, pushing both her fists to the punching bag at ago. But sooner, “…she mastered the ring craft,” Coach Khalil recalls. There were no girls at the gym and Apolot had only boys to spar with. “Patricia had the power like boys and she feared no one, no wonder she is rising fast.”
She won her first bout in 2010, against Barbara Nakalema (who died last year) in Kakira. She then lost to sisters Diana Turyanabo, in Kisubi and Hellen Baleke in Kalerwe.
Her ruthlessness almost deterred her progress. Her coach adds that girls were afraid of facing her. Lacking opponents in her lightweight (60kg) category was demotivating and when a kickboxing opportunity came Apolot never hesitated.
Months later as East Coast were preparing for a tournament in Tanzania, Moses Golola attended some sessions and the attraction of a hard punching lady was too glaring to ignore.
“He told me he was impressed by my firm stance, determination and power,” she recollects. “He said I only needed a few adjustments to make it in kickboxing.” And soon in 2013, she was throwing kicks and punches in equal measure.
Apolot lost her first kickboxing bout to one Brenda Masindi at Hotel Africana. After a few amateur tests, she turned professional. To date, Diana Atwiine, Apolot’s first pro victim, claims she was the better fighter but for injustice. “Well, she was better at kicking but I was better at boxing,” Atwiine says citing bias for her loss. But that is normal in boxing circles.
The multitasking Apolot wanted to juggle boxing and kickboxing but the “ignorant” federations barred her. She wonders, “Other countries allow people to do all games concurrently but here it is illegal,” Apolot insists she knows all the rules in boxing; in Taekwondo and the dynamics of various kickboxing styles, “…and I have never made any mistakes, out of confusing the sports.”
She now plays kickboxing and occasionally Taekwondo, where she has won numerous medals and certificates.
In seven victories and one loss, Apolot is the national champion after knocking out Jackie Nassimbwa last year. She also won a World Kickboxing Federation International title by stopping Serbian Ivana Mirkov, in Dunaujvaros, Hungary June 27. She became the first female Ugandan fighter to win outside Africa.
But Apolot, like others, confesses that the battle of trading punches and kicks on the canvas is easier than life outside the ring.
Laila Ali tells part of the story: “There are always going to be critics of women’s boxing. We’ve been taught that women should be protected. A lot of people don’t like women fighting, and I can understand that. But it isn’t going to stop the show.”
It is evident females get far less attention than their male counterparts. Although Irene Sserunkuma and Mariam Nalukwago (RIP) won gold at the inaugural Africa Women Boxing Championships in Cairo 2001, all they got was shs2500 for transport to their respective homes. They vanished from the scene.
Thirteen years on, when Turyanabo, Baleke, Atwiine and Moureen Ajambo returned from the 2014 Women’s World Boxing Championships in Jeju-Korea, the federation could not pick them from the airport. “And it is very hard for a female fighter to convince sponsors; they just do not take us serious; they want to be associated with something popular,” Apolot bemoans. Some want to help you on condition you pay them back sexually.”
Yet girls deserve kid-glove treatment. The menstruation cycles are another opponent. Apolot says that some come unexpectedly; some make you weak while others are so painful that you cannot even train. “By all means, a lady’s life is more fragile than a man’s but who cares?”
Government’s little love for sports makes matters worse. Subsequently, women have shunned the taxing combat sports and the few who persist must endure training with boys. “I tell you, it is hellish training at the pace of boys; but what do you do when you are the only girl in the gym?” she reasons.
Apolot also told us of her manager who, after striking a good deal, disappeared with all the money.
Her coach Istvan Rozman says Ugandans must learn to appreciate and support female talents, like Europeans, if this situation is to change.
Amid all the frustrations, what keeps one going? “Passion; if you love something you sometimes forget the losses,” Apolot shares. Believing in God also inspires her a lot. She neither subscribes to a specific church nor pastor but she is an active born-again Christian. “I love my God and He loves me back. Even before I go to the ring, I pray, asking Him to use me the way He wants’, then when I am home facing the mirror, I ask myself ‘How did I make it?’ A voice answers ‘you asked God to direct you so he has done as you asked’.”
Behind her progress are two men. These two praise her as much as she praises them. Coach Rozman has made her a better kickboxer, enhancing her skills and getting her fighting opportunities.
But the Hungarian, who is in and out of Uganda for Apolot’s preps, reserves credit for Khalil, her boxing coach, “She has immense punching power almost like boys and she is getting better at kicking.
“She had very good coaches in boxing and Taekwondo and I will not change her style,” Rozman explained. “We only have to work on the few mistakes to make her better.”
After winning the national title last year, Gordon Wavamunno, proprietor of WBS Television committed to support Apolot’s future fights. The channel has given her enough publicity, and other support. Mt. Zion Hotel also granted her free access to their gym, water and meals. To make ends meet, Apolot does not wait for a juicy job. She tries several. Mokhi, a South African lady recruited her and others to teach Monkeynastix—a fun and challenging fitness movement education program developing physical literacy in children of ages one to eight years—mostly, in international schools.
Even after the end of the contract, she sells the service on a personal basis. She also worked as store manager at a quarry called Stone Base in Jomayi Nalumunye Estates, near her mother’s home. Apolot is into movie acting, too.
We asked her what she would be doing if she had not taken on fighting. She told us her dream was: study hard, get a well-paying job, and establish an orphanage. “But even without money, I do charity and the orphanage dream is still alive.”
Juggling relationship and sports is tricky. “You need a man who understands the demands involved,” she says. So for now, she is still “married” to her sport.
Five years since heeding Wandera’s advice, Apolot relishes the fame of ever fighting in front of international audiences. She is proud of making her country proud. Victory against Egyptian national champion Fathia Mustafa, for the African title due August 14, will shoot her star to stellar heights.
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it…,” Laila Ali boldly believes. And Apolot cannot agree more. She wants more ladies to keep their gloves on and turn the tables, because “impossible is nothing.”
What others say
“Since I knew her in 2012, I see a very aggressive and focused woman, who will stop at nothing to she what she wants. In her, Uganda has hope for more glory. She just needs a little more support,” Shakey Mubiru, kickboxer.
“Patricia is a good girl who heeds advice, especially in training. She is dedicated to what she does and if she carries on with this determination, her future is promising,” Musa Batantu, kickboxer/boxer.
“Patricia is a very strong character and fighter, be it in training or in the ring. She has won vital accolades in Taekwondo and kickboxing,”
Ronald Odoch, Kickboxer/Taekwondo.
“Patricia grew up as a God-fearing, lively and a very lovely child. She loves everyone in the family. Though I preferred she concentrates on studies, she chose talent and still I am so proud of her,“ Josephine Aujo, mother.
Born: November 6, 1990 (age 24)
Nickname: Black Pearl
Hobbies: swimming and football.
Role models: Mother and father
1. Gold medallist - Mt. Gorilla Taekwondo Open.
2. Gold medallist - 2013 East Africa Inter-club Boxing Championships.
3. 2014 national kickboxing title.
4. WKF International title.