Since his professional debut on April 8, 1976, Ayub Kalule went unbeaten in 30 fights but his Danish manager Mogens Palle had to first sue the World Boxing Association to get a title shot.
When the opportunity finally came October 24, 1979, Kalule flew 8,303km to dethrone three-time champion Masashi Kudo by unanimous decision in his own homeland in Akita City, Japan to clinch the WBA World Super Welterweight Title, becoming the first African to win a world professional boxing title.
Kalule would defend his title four times; all in Denmark, before surrendering it to American Sugar Ray Leonard on June 25, 1981. It will be exactly 39 nine years tomorrow. We look back to that epic battle inside the Astrodome, Houston-Texas.
A week to the fight, Leonard’s camp engaged in fierce verbal battles as Top Rank promoter Bob Arum accused Leonard’s attorney Mike Trainer for insisting on an “idiotic fight,” which would hurt Leonard’s chances of fighting Thomas Hearns if he lost to Kalule. “I don’t want to take the blame when Leonard loses this fight,” Arum said. “The match wasn’t my idea.”
“Trainer came to me and said get us Kalule, Ray wants another title.” Trainer retaliated: “Bob Arum quite often does things that don’t make much sense.” He added: “I am Ray’s business manager, but I don’t make boxing decisions. When they make a decision on opponents, I don’t even get a vote.”
Arum added that he told Palle, Kalule’s manager, that Leonard would get US$2.5m but when he asked for Kalule’s expected price, Palle said “whatever you want to give us.” Arum said, that when he jokingly suggested US$150,000, Palle took it as long as they are allowed to put their sponsor’s name on the trunks and on the ring posts.
“Why do you think they would take such a big fight for just 150,000? Because it’s an easy fight. “Leonard is in trouble with Kalule, and I mean it.” Promoters do anything to hype an event. According to Boxrec, Arum brought Ben Mugimba, a Ugandan witchdoctor.
Pulling a human skull out of a bag, Mugimba told commentator Ferdie Pacheco, “This helps sending away the evil spirits…” He added: “I have come here to make sure Kalule wins, to cheer him up as my fellow countryman.” Mugimba boasted: “I used my powers to evoke fright and emotions by Leonard; He had talked too much about beating Kalule, so I threw some of my rich water around him. I am calling on good fortunes for my countryman.”
Mugimba had even proposed to draw blood from Kalule’s forearm before the fight and inject his medicinal concoction.
But Kalule disowned him, saying “I am embarrassed; why do they do this to me, like I am a fool? I didn’t just come out of the jungle. Take him away.” Leonard reportedly sent an aide to the local library to research on Ugandan witchdoctors. The aide reported that they fear the black colour and snakes. Hence Leonard, who entered the ring first, wore black trunks with a yellow cobra head on the left leg. Seems it worked because Kalule lost his title to Leonard.
Like the commentator, many believed that Kalule and Leonard were likely to meet at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada had Africa not boycotted the Games.
But actually, Kalule had already relocated to Denmark and had his first pro fight in April 1976, months before the Games boycott.
Leonard won Light welterweight gold in Montreal. At the Olympics, Kalule would have been the favourite, the commentator said, but here Leonard is. The American was boasting the WBC Welterweight Title, which he had lost and recouped against arch-rival Roberto Duran in 1980. But Leonard had to adjust to fighting a division higher against a quick lefthander, who was undefeated in 36.
His seven-year old son Sugar Ray Jr, who had come with her mother Juanita, predicted “I think he will knock him in the 10th round.” Leonard had said he respected Ayub as a champion but sees him as an “advanced amateur.” But when bell went, he found out otherwise.
He had to dig deep to convince the two judges in the first four rounds as Kalule duly deployed his jab and a few shots to Leonard’s body. Kalule found his feet in the fifth round. The challenger regained control in the six but the champion’s best response came in the seventh round. Kalule unleashed a torrent of stingy jabs, hooks and uppercuts, the best of which being that right to the head that staggered Leonard halfway into the round that scared those looking forward to the Hearns duel in September.
Surprised, Leonard sought refuge on the ropes due to Kalule’s endless aggression. When Leonard tried to counter, Kalule upped his venom and volume. Kalule was not a hard puncher but this is how he subdued his 46 victims. Only that Leonard was a ruthless warrior with even bigger ambitions. Unfortunately, when Kalule was expected to pile more pressure, his powers waned. Leonard’s rose, again, chopping Kalule towards the end of the eighth round.
The decisive moment
As if this was the last round, both sluggers treated the spectator to an action-packed round with fierce exchanges. No clinching, no hiding. Blow after blow.
Then Leonard’s left set up a thunderous right that wobbled Kalule’s stands. “If I saw blood, I went at you like Dracula,” Leonard would years later describe his killer instinct. And just right here in Houston, we witnessed it. When Kalule tried to clinch him, he unleashed a right on his jaw that sent him to the corner, a left and another right, that sent Kalule crashing to the canvas - the first time in his career.
Kalule beat the count of six, but the referee stopped the fight. Leonard somersaulted in celebration as Kalule reached for a congratulatory hug. July 6, 1981, Sports Illustrated reported that Kalule’s camp later protested that their man had not understood Carlos Berrocal, who spoke only Spanish, which was not one of Kalule’s four languages. Kalule would tell us the same in 2015.
But he had told New York sportscaster Bill Mazer, who was doing the closed-circuit broadcast, “I told the referee to stop it. I didn’t want to be (unconscious) like Leon Spinks.” Kalule had conceded: the first knockdown, first knockout and first loss but Leonard, donning two world belts, immediately declared him a very tough and durable champion, “I’d like to eat my words when I called him an advanced [amateur]. The guy is truly a worthy champion.”