In the late 80s, a boy from virtually nowhere stormed the boxing scene and was lucky enough to represent Uganda at international events, without going through the ordinary pipeline of novices, intermediates and national open tournaments.
The boy, gifted with pace and power, silenced doubting fans by winning gold at in the light-flyweight division at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland. That boy was Justin Juuko, who would later be called the ‘Ugandan Destroyer.’
Such a lightning rise to the top could easily tempt any sober mind to predict that this was the beginning of great boxers emerging from Masaka to the national arena. But nearly 30 years on that prediction looks way off the mark.
No boxer, even half Juuko’s calibre, has ever risen from that end since. But hope is still alive and the struggle continues.
Boxing for solidarity
On a sunny Friday, a group of eight boxers is seen sparring at Hill Road playground located on Bwala Hill in the suburbs of Masaka Town. The pitch is totally in a sorry state but the boxers are soldiering on with verve on the murram pitch surrounded by mango trees and Bwala Primary School.
“We still love to watch a boxing contest here,” says Solo Kakooza, 47, whose amateur boxing spanned from 1993 to 1999.
“We are lucky that we once produced a talented boxer in Justin Juuko. Born in Ssenyange 'Zaire' and he started boxing in Kako Secondary School before becoming a celebrated boxer in Europe.”
Boxing started as a community sport with different competitions organised on sub-county level in Masaka Town since 1990.
Kakooza recalls that residents and leaders would help in organising these events.
“Boxers used to come from villages within Masaka. At Bwavu Mpologoma in Ssenyange village, boxers used to collect coffee and later got the money to buy training gear,” he shares.
Ssenyange Education Centre was the venue for finals which used to attract hundreds of fans. Ssenyange was a renowned hub of boxers although schools like Kako Secondary School and Masaka Secondary School were the key boxing talent academies.
“The purpose of the community tournaments was to unite people and inculcate discipline among youths,” Kakooza adds.
It was during the peak season of the year that thousands of people would trek from far villages like Bukoyoro, Kirumba, Nakayiba and Kitovu to come to Ssenyange ‘Zaire’ to watch the finals.
When Luke Ssekamwa founded Masaka Boxing Club in 1998, the sport spread even to urban areas.
A year before, Ssekamwa had organised inter-district competitions at Patel-Shamji Hotel which attracted 25 districts from Uganda.
The hosts finished fourth in an event that had the crowds on the edge of their seats.
Salongo Mugerwa from Kyabakuza village supported boxers financially through their Masaka Boxing Club but when he died, no one took over the mantle.
The absence of financial support is largely why recently the Uganda Boxing Federation announced Masaka among the 24 defunct clubs.
Reviving the spirit
John Johns Kisekka is the vice chairperson of Masaka Boxing Club. He started boxing at Masaka Secondary School in 1997 under the guidance of Shamulan Mafusi, aka Mukyotara.
“I used to admire my brother Yusuf Kamulegeya who used to play boxing and when I listened to his advice, I managed to learn the game too,” he shares.
In 2000, Kisekka, participated in the National Juniors’, his first chance to face Kampala-based boxers, which motivated him more. The mini-flyweight boxer also participated in National Novices’ and Intermediates’ Championship before his teeth were cracked in the ring.
Back home, “We went to identify areas to participate in community boxing although the money we used to get was insufficient. Anyway we were driven by passion,” adds Kisekka, 34, who currently works as a personal assistant for Masaka Mayor Godfrey Kayemba.
In 2011, serving as the councillor for Katwe-Butego Divsion, Kisekka rallied some support and started organising boxing events by himself.
“I took Rogers Nyanzi, Hassan Lubega and Robert Bukenya to face some talented boxers in Kampala,” he recollects.
Ironically since then, boxing in Masaka fell to the canvas due to lack of financial support.
It is the new leadership of club chairperson David Ssenyonjo, 39, that shows faint signs that Masaka Boxing Club can breathe a new life in the sport in the central Uganda district.
To hit that goal, owever, Ssenyonjo, a businessman in Masaka Town, first hired professional coaches Robert Kimbowa and Vincent Mugerwa. In a nutshell, they have 25 boxers led by lightweight Robert Kayemba, lightfly Rogers Nyanzi, and bantamweight Junior Rwamucha.
Boxers aside, Ssenyonjo is rallying for financial support to buy new punching bags to replace the worn-out one they currently have, boxing gloves and headgear. But most importantly, he must get a training ground for the club because municipal authorities hired out Masaka Recreation Grounds, where they had been training from, to a born-again Christian church.
“We are also trying to secure a permanent place where we can camp every day and do our trainings,” Erias Haruna, the club’s publicist says. And that is a major requirement if the club is to regain its affiliation with the national boxing federation.
Back to schools?
“The talents are available. At my home, all my three sons love boxing and I see a talent in them but because of inadequate funding, I can’t direct them into following my footsteps,” Kakooza says.
Kakooza is not the only one who witnessed Juuko’s rise to grace. Rehoboam Kakinda, 82, who spent 38 years teaching English and Literature as well as training tennis players at Kako SS, also shares vivid memories.
“He [Juuko] was so focused and composed. At school, we had all games including tennis but Juuko chose boxing. He was my student in Senior Five in 1990 and my advice helped him achieve his dream.”
In 2017, Juuko intimated about opening his own boxing club in Masaka but it is still a plan. But as Masaka strives to rise to the canvas again, it might need to look at schools as an easier source talent factory.
As a teenage student in the early 80s, Charles Lubulwa introduced boxing to St Charles Lwanga Kasasa SS in Masaka. From there, Lubulwa represented Uganda at three Olympics and captained the national team. Where clubs struggle for funds and facilities, schools can thrive.
Masaka Boxing Club leadership
Chairman: David Ssenyonjo
Vice chairman: John Kisekka
Vice Technical: Stephen Kasozi
Treasurer: Robert Kyambadde & Sulaiman Mayanja
Secretary: E.B Bukenya
Coaches: Robert Kimbowa & Vincent Mugerwa
Patron: Luke Ssekamwa
Publicist: Erias Haruna
Boxers in camp
Robert Kayemba (Lightweight), Rogers Nyanzi (Lght Fly), Rashid Bukenya (Light-middleweight) and others.
Founder of Masaka Boxing Club
Luke Ssekwamwa (1990)
Renowned boxer to come from Masaka