Mugabi is back to build the game that made him

John ‘The Beast’, abandoned school at an early age to try out his talent in the boxing ring

Thirty-five years ago, a young energetic boy from the shanty township of Kiswa, Nakawa Division, Kampala shocked the world with scintillating performances at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Even when his older teammates had bowed out, he exuded verve, skill and zeal to hoist the Ugandan flag up. He got better with every fight en route to a prestigious Silver Medal. That boy is John Mugabi, who later became “The Beast” because of his ruthless fighting approach.
Mugabi reminisces the Moscow days with fervour. “Look, I was the last man standing on Team Uganda after all of them (as he points in the direction of Vicky Byarugaba, who was on the team) had lost,” he boasts. In the finals, Mugabi insists he defeated Andrés Aldama although the Cuban was declared the victor. “They just robbed me of that victory because Aldama was Cuban. I knocked him down twice and everyone was singing my name but he stole my gold.”
In fact, John Munduga, Mugabi’s friend, who was on the team, says immediately after the fight, Aldama was rushed to hospital. When Bombers’s coach Peter Grace Sseruwagi suggested that they visit Aldama, Mugabi’s response was “Hell no!” To date, he rues that “robbery”.
The year 1980 means a lot to the young man who later grew into a knockout king, and nine years later conquered the boxing world. It was in 1980 when Mugabi met three important Britons:-renowned agent Jack Edwards, who helped him flee war-hit Uganda for England; legendary match-maker Mickey Duff and trainer George Francis, a man Mugabi revered as a father. Thanks to them, other Ugandans like Cornelius Bbosa and Munduga launched their professional careers as did Mugabi.

Why The Beast?
I have read quite a lot about John ‘The Beast’ but always asked myself: ‘of all nicknames, why did this handsome boy (of course before age and frustration took their toll) prefer ‘The Beast’?! He explains, “It was George Francis’ making. Whenever he saw me work out, he saw my ruthlessness. Young as I was, I was very powerful and tireless, knocking out guys even older in training.” “During fights, I was even tougher and George used to say, ‘Jesus, this guy is a real beast!’” Hence the name, which nearly became a world brand.
Mugabi’s boxing days began in the 1970s. Like many boxers, he recounts that as a young boy, he used to pick fights with fellow slumdogs either in offence or defence. “We were a group of bad boys who would either hunt or be hunted,” Mugabi says. His boyhood friend Munduga, adds that when they played football, fights were a common occurrence. “Mugabi could punch even older boys to bleeding…” In an interview in 2013, he told Live Fight Forum, that he even fought his teachers…which got him expelled from school.
Being caned at school, especially for late coming, would make Mugabi go crazy and soon, he quit school at the age of 10. His life could have gone to the dogs, but his Fred Genza gave him a new lease of life. He was a coach at KCC, a boxing club just a stone’s throw away from Mugabi’s home. Genza had spotted talent in Mugabi and took a gamble to turn it into treasure despite the boy’s arrogance.
Mugabi’s mother did not like it though. “When I told her I wanted to box, she said ‘no son, they will kill you…’” Mugabi responded “No, it’s me who will kill them.” However his first fight nearly knocked him out. He recollects, “The boy beat me badly, and when I went home bleeding and frowning, my mother’s comment was tinkugambire? (Runyoro for ‘Didn’t I warn you?)”
After this match, Mugabi’s mother thought he would quit but this was a beast in the making. Mugabi’s allegiance lay with Genza. Although he had dropped out of school, Genza introduced him to different schools’ boxing clubs. Mugabi, then a spider weight (the first weight for children aged 10-14 (below 45kg) played for Kamuli College, Namasagali College and others, growing with talent. It wasn’t long before Mugabi was participating in different tournaments like the Juniors, Novices, Intermediates and the Opens.
After the Opens, (he is not certain which year) Mugabi made it to the national team. Genza’s dream of making Mugabi a star was nearing reality and his mother, was now a loyal fan. Joining the Bombers, Mugabi met coach Peter Grace Sseruwagi. “Sseruwagi is the strongest man I have ever seen. He could handle pads for us all day, without tiring, oh my!”
You would think that was a swift ascent but anyone would tell you Mugabi earned his place on the team. Remember this was Uganda’s golden era, which had the likes of: James Odwori, Mustafa Wasajja, Vitalish Bbege, Dick Katende, John Siryakibbe, Hussein Khaleel, Muhamad Muruuli, et al. One had to be extremely talented and committed to brave the competition. “Maybe God created me to box; you know, not everyone can box and many guys could be dropped,” he says as Byarugaba his 1980 teammate nods in the affirmative.
Mugabi quickly engages me into the zenith of his amateur career— the 1980 Olympics. Byarugaba says that the build-up began with the 1978 All-Africa Games in Algiers, Algeria. He says he was only 18 at the time but he put a good show and won bronze. He got better with time and Moscow found him just ready. The rest is history.

When Marvellous feasted on the Beast
A Mugabi story without Marvin ‘Marvellous’ Hagler is incomplete. Mugabi Vs Hagler in 1986 was a match made in heaven, one can say. Mugabi had 25- knockouts in 25 fights and was ranked the number one contender for the world middleweight title while Hagler was a seasoned fighter.
Staged at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, this was the first match to be broadcast by Showtime TV Network. It was the longest Mugabi ever stood in a ring before he was stopped in the eleventh round of a brutal encounter. It was his first professional loss. He talks about it with regret— he lost his first shot at a world title, a dream shattered.
In 2013, Hagler told On the Ropes Boxing Radio: I have so much respect for John Mugabi…he tried to knock my head off, I mean this guy was awkward. He was a big puncher…but I said, you know what? ‘You have never been in the ring with the Marvellous One and I tell you what, I will feast on ‘The Beast’.”
Tough times
Mugabi did not only lose a fight. He admits he had a good purse, but a lot changed after that. Some figures in USA, the ones he refers to as mafias, in boxing, exploited his illiteracy and swindled his hard-earned money. He fell out with his promoter Mickey Duff and friends. Back home, he trusted some people with money to help him construct a home in vain. “They kept telling me ‘send more money, work is in progress.’” Three years later, he found nothing. Frustrated, he sold the plot at Muyenga and used up the money.
In 1989, Mugabi finally won the World Boxing Council (WBC) world title after knocking out Frenchman Rene Jacqout in the first round. He admits his happy-go-lucky life made matters worse. He had the money; drove expensive cars; bought watches made of gold, drunk like a fish and smoked like a chimney.
He told us that on one such occasion, he almost shot his friend Munduga. “I had taken him to celebrate with me in Florida. While drinking at home, I started playing with my gun, (I had bought it to stop anyone who interrupted my happiness) accidentally bullets escaped and my friend Munduga survived narrowly. I threw the gun in the water in panic.”
In the boxing ring, Mugabi’s first attempt to defend the world title was horrible. He was battered by Terry Norris in the first round. At this time, his star was falling. Paranoid, he started doubting almost everyone close to him and angry at the same time that the WBC hadn’t recognised him as a world champion. Even his long-time trainer ditched him and decided to train Mugabi’s opponents. He was a shadow of a top-class fighter— too broke and started hating the sport.
From Florida, he returned to London but life was tough and he almost became homeless. He, however managed to emigrate to Australia, where he resumed fighting for survival before he retired in January 1999. He says great boxers like Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali have gone through similar episodes but quickly adds that he is gradually picking up the pieces and is dedicated to nurturing talent. He currently works with Police Youth Club as a trainer.

Back for a mission
Mugabi bemoans the poor standards of boxing in Uganda. He reiterates that government should get involved in reviving the sport. “We must revive Uganda’s boxing; this is what I am going to tell President Museveni when I meet him— it is his duty to help us return Uganda where we belong, as a boxing powerhouse as it was the case in the 1970s. It is the reason I am back.”
“I am ready to build the sport that built me; I have the skills and the passion; and the boys are willing; we are only lacking government’s blessing.”

Love life and family
Mugabi’s father Temiteo, a Mutooro, died when he was young while his mother, a Munyoro, died in the 1980s, while he was still in the US. He only knows them by one name.
Mugabi believes he has five children in total. Two daughters: Mildred Prudence Mugabi who lives in Tampa, Florida and Mourine Kabasemera Mugabi who is in Uganda. He believes he has son (whose names he does not know) and the other two whose mothers he never revealed. His other relation is his nephew whom he recently met.
He says he is not a womaniser but he is searching for a genuine Ugandan girl to marry.
In addition to his parents, Mugabi has lost the most important people in his life: his coach Genza was shot dead in the 1980s; his trainer George Francis committed suicide in 2002, after both his wife and son died in a short period. Duff, his promoter passed on last year.
He cannot trace his childhood neighbourhood because the area has since been razed down.