Kampala Boxing Club (KBC), due to its proximity to downtown Kampala and its history as Uganda’s oldest boxing club, is home to many boxers. You do not need to be a member there to: meet, sometimes dine and wine with your boxing friends. Even pressmen find it easy doing their job at the club located on the fringes of Nakivubo Stadium, along Kafumbe Mukasa Road.
In May last year, I visited KBC to fix an interview with Joe ‘Vegas’ Lubega. The light heavyweight boxer was racing against time for his next professional fight in Russia.
As I admired the 2002 Commonwealth bronze winner taking turns to hit the bag and shadow-boxing, I started a conversation with Mustafa Katende, who was also slated to fight in Russia.
Seated in the right corner of the gym, Katende took me through his boxing profile. Then in came this dirty, mean-looking, emaciated man. His breath reeked of petrol, sweeping straight into my nostrils. I was disgusted, and uncomfortable, I wanted to leave as fast as I could. I guess the look on my face betrayed me, because he quickly asked Lubega who was the ring, “Oh Vegas, bampeeyo olwasa nfune kyendya,” he said, begging for Shs1,000 for something to eat. Lubega paused, then asked Katende to give him the money but cautioned him, “If you use that money to buy drugs, we shall fight.”
“Thanks master,” is all the dirty beggar muttered as he dashed out.
It was then that I sensed the chap was not an ordinary beggar. Curious, I asked, “Who is this man?”
Lubega and Katende replied in unison, “That is a former Olympian; you mean you do not know Jolly Katongole?” they wondered.
The man was not his usual jolly self; his eyes redder than a fire coal; a total opposite of his old image. He was not the Katongole I read about from my high school library during his heyday.
But what went wrong?
“It is a long story,” Katende tells me. A long story which points to: adolescent swag, drugs, women and sorcery derailing an exceptional talent.
Fast forward, exactly a year after that KBC moment, the ecstatic boxer died of tetanus at Mulago Hospital on May 14. He had suffered huge wounds on his right leg and on the back, from a fight.
Fiona Nassolo, his elder sister, says Katongole was the third born in a family of five; two girls and three boys. He was born on December 15, 1985 at Mulago Hospital to the Late Charles Ntale Katongole and Edith Nampiima. Jolly, as she prefers calling him, was a disciplined boy loved by family and friends. He was obedient and calm.
He attended primary schools at Namulonge, near their home in Kanyanya along Gayaza Road and Mutungo, in suburban Kampala. His boxing talent won him a bursary at Kampala Citizens’ High School along Namirembe Road where he studied for four years.
The turning point
In 2002, when Atanas Mugerwa beat Katongole in the schools tournament, Katongole went to Mahmood Kajoba downcast. He was never used to defeat and he made a stern promise.
The next time I meet Mugerwa, I must beat him. That moment came three weeks later at the Juniors tournament and Katongole, true to his word, poured all manner of punches to avenge the previous loss.
In 2003, he won the Juniors, the Novices, the Intermediates and the National Open, where at the finals, he defeated Migadde, whom the crowds taunted as old enough to be Katongole’s father. The precocious Katongole was drafted into the national team at 16.
This was Katongole’s turning point. He had grown in stature, graduating from mosquito weight (33kgs) to a light flyweight (48kgs). “I was seeing a young man stopping others at Lugogo in fantastic style,” Dick Katende, who coached Katongole on the national team, shares. He won bronze at the 2003 All-Africa Games in Abuja. He would have reached the final but, “His Ethiopian opponent was awkward; he kept running around the ring when his coach told him he was two points ahead,” coach Katende recalls.
Lubega says he will forever remember Kantongole for that moment. “I will never forget the spectacle of a young man chasing an opponent with the zeal to make his country proud. He really wanted to win a better medal.”
The 2003 Inaugural Afro-Asian Games was another adventure for the exuberant Katongole but there was little success for most African boxers in Hyderabad- India, perhaps, due to fatigue. The tournament came just a week after the All-Africa Games. Only Lubega managed a bronze medal for Uganda.
Katongole’s star was rising and his ways gradually changed. “He started feeling the champion in him and youthful swag swept in. Everyone was praising him.” It was then that he got patent rights to the title ‘lightfly’ (his weight division), which was used interchangeably with his name.
Featuring at the Olympics is every athletes dream. At the Olympics qualifiers in Casablanca, Morocco, Katongole’s fights were a joy to watch but he saved the best for last. At the finals, he faced Moroccan Redouane Bouchtouk, 28.
Coach Katende recalls, “He was behind by six points in the second round and I yelled at him ‘Jolly fanya style yetu’,” meaning use our usual style. Katongole launched a ceaseless attack on the Moroccan and finally, he beat him by six points. His Olympic dream had come at just 17.
Out of the six boxers who travelled to Athens, only Sam Rukundo (60kgs) reached the quarterfinals. Katongole and others lost.
Jolly goes AWOL
After his loss to Turk Atagün Yalçınkaya, Katongole went missing from the Games village. Attempts to find him were futile and Team Uganda returned with one man less. This disappearing act would later cost him a place at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Katongole found life hard in Greece because he didn’t know Greek. He was later deported.
On return, Kajoba advised Katongole to buy a plot of land at Lugala, worth Shs1.5m. He also shifted from Kajoba’s house in Nakulabye and rented at nearby Kikandwa Zone.
How it all began
Hamza Ssempewo, now a professional boxer, is the one who introduced Katongole to boxing. “I met Katongole when he was a small boy living with his sister, in the late ‘90s. My relationship with Fiona, his sister, brought me even closer to the boy.” Ssempewo recounts. “He saw us boxing at Kololo and when he joined us, flashes of huge talent showed; he was swift and he could throw uncountable punches— an amazing young boy.”
Whenever Katongole started boxing, everyone would stop and watch a gem in the making. “Jolly was clever, his movements showed a boy with a promising future in boxing,” John Munduga, the first coach to handle Katongole at Kololo Boxing Club remembers. “I liked him instantly; at about 11 years, he exuded a natural talent.”
Hitting it big
Then Munduga made a prophecy telling the other boys at the gym: “You see this boy? Soon he will be boxing at the Olympics,” a prophecy which came to pass in 2004 when Katongole represented Uganda at the Athens Olympics. “He had a big heart and was fearless when fighting. Little wonder that when he chose ‘Warrior’ as his ring name, no one objected. So fearless that he had no respect for even older boxers in the ring.
A very stylish southpaw (left-handed), Munduga likened him to former world champion Ayub Kalule.
Munduga and Katongole became like father and son. Even when the coach opted to ply his trade in Rwanda, he went with the budding talent. He just wanted to keep tabs on Katongole. They would train together with the Rwandan boxing national team, which Munduga handled for some good years.
As fate would dictate, when Munduga returned in 1999 or thereabouts, he never went back with Katongole to Rwanda. Soon, clubs came calling. Finally, he was lured by Isaac Ssentamu, popularly known as Sam Rukundo, to Lukanga Boxing Club, where his career blossomed.
At that time, he was in secondary school, where he met Mahmood Kajoba, an active boxer, who also coached Kampala Citizens’ High School boxing team. Kajoba stayed with Katongole from 2000 till he breathed his last.
He shares, “Warrior is the most fantastic boxer I have ever seen in Uganda. Speed, skill, zeal, he had it all and it is absurd he died the way he did.”
Sorcery or drugs?
Katongole is survived by a son, 10 year-old Joram Katongole, now in Primary Four. Kajoba says the boy is a replica of his father. However, this gem might have been the cause of his father’s misery and death.
It is a maze. The mother to Katongole’s son was once married to Katongole’s 2004 Athens Olympics teammate. It is alleged that the teammate was involved in an extramarital affair.
His spouse wanted to avenge this infidelity in equal measure, hence dating Katongole.
However, the affair that rubbed Katongole’s teammate the wrong way. He swore never to forgive Katongole for ‘stealing’ his wife and many suspect he could have bewitched him. The two became archenemies and as Katongole’s woes continued, his former friend cared less.
Katongole’s mental faculties deteriorated as he got intoxicated in a cocktail of drugs. Marijuana, cocaine, brown sugar, ‘thina’ and all. He sold the land he had bought and the money ended in the coffers of nearby bars.
At one point, he allegedly told Kajoba that he was going to kill his son to regain his freedom.” Kajoba then advised Katongole’s wife to shift for their own safety.
Attempts to find a cure for him were futile. Katongole had lost contact with almost every important person in his life.
During his tenure as the boxing federation president, Rogers Dungu lured Katongole to train other boxers at Lugogo as a means of rehabilitating him. He, however, slipped into addiction.
Katongole lost the love he had for the sport he adored since childhood. His mother attempted on several occasions to find a solution from medics and traditional healers but this was in vain as Katongole would disappear.
Hide-and-seek became his new sport that unfortunately sent him to an early grave.
But could we have saved such an irreplaceable talent from going to waste? Or avoid a recurrence of such? Maybe, if we could give budding boxers moral and career guidance, Achilles Ssemogerere, a professional boxer advises.
Good boy gone bad
When former world boxing champ Mike Tyson confessed to having used marijuana and cocaine in his career, not many were surprised. After all, he had been exposed to such drugs as an 11-year-old, in Brooklyn.
But for many who knew Katongole, it is hard to imagine how a good boy fell from sublime to ridiculous. Munduga, his first coach, says he always told the boys that, talent aside, discipline is the master key to success. “I just do not know what went wrong,” he frowns. “I really do not know.” Munduga partly attributes Katongole’s woes to lack of guidance, since the two parted company. At a different club, he learnt other styles and habits.
Name: Jolly Katongole
Nicknames: Warrior, Lightfly
Born: December 15, 1985
Died: May 14, 2015 (age 29)
Lived: Kanyanya, Mutungo, Kalerwe, Nakulabye
Schools: Attended neighbourhood schools in Namulonge, Mutungo and later Kampala Citizens’ High School.
Breaking out: Late ‘90s at Kololo Boxing Club
Joined: Lukanga Boxing Club
Weight: Lightfly (48kgs)
Champion: Juniors; Novices; Intermediates; Open in 2003
National team debut: 2003
Won: Bronze at 2003 All-Africa Games, Abuja- Nigeria. 2003 Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad, India
Won: Gold at the 2004 AIBA Africa Olympics Qualifiers in Casablanca, Morocco
Olympics debut: 2004 Athens Olympics
Won: Gold at the 2005 Africa Zone V, Kenya
2015: Suffered drug addiction, alleged sorcery and died of tetanus at Mulago Hospital.
Survived by: Son (10-year-old Joram Katongole).