What you need to know:
- To date, it seems Mario D’Agata, who fought in the 1950s, is the only deaf boxer with a reputable career
In conventional boxing, during the break, only one seconder enters the ring to attend to a boxer in either the red or blue corner.
But Ashraf Musanje needed an extra man in his red corner, in the form of a sign language interpreter, to help his seconder communicate the tactics required for the next round.
Meanwhile, his opponent, Huzaifa Mukiibi was sorted because he was seconded by Arnold Kalema Kayondo, a coach well conversant with sign language.
Both boxers are deaf and May 21, the Week 13 of the Uganda Boxing Champions League at the MTN Arena-Lugogo, marked a historic moment as the first time a deaf boxer participated in an official boxing event in Uganda.
After three rounds, the friendly bout was scored 2:1:2, a draw – although it was obvious Musanje, 20, was the better fighter.
“The draw was fine because we are like brothers but against another opponent, I would have gone for victory,” Musanje told SCORE in sign language via his coach Kayondo.
Where it all started
Kayondo is the brain behind this history. “These boys are like me. I was also born with speech and hearing difficulty,” Kayondo says with laboured speech while my questions are amplified to him by a female assistant.
He explains how he found Musanje about five years ago when he was playing football. “But even his parents never knew sign language. So they had difficulty speaking with him,” Kayondo recalls.
“So I stopped by, watched him and got interested in him. I befriended him and started spending time with him. Soon he began coming to our gym.”
Kayondo persuaded Musanje into learning boxing, limiting his time in football, the only sport he was comfortable playing with minimum limitation considering his impairment.
“I told him boxing is an interesting sport and that he could become a champion.”
Kayondo also trains a number of nondisabled boxers in Nabulagala, near Nakulabye in Rubaga Division. The coach initiated the rookie with light training in 2017 and roadwork with the other boxers who have no hearing difficulty.
Just about a year into the sport Musanje won his first fight in Nansana, Wakiso, against a nondisabled opponent.
Then Kayondo tasked him to get another deaf boy to join the club. That’s how Mukiibi, 17, came in.
“This one [Mukiibi] joined in 2019 but I have been training him morning and evening…so he has grasped a little faster. But Musanje is more experienced because he’s done it a little longer,” Kayondo says.
Yet at some point, other clubs wanted to poach Musanje away from his founding coach.
“I warned the boy that other coaches couldn’t manage him because they don’t know sign language.” Musanje listened. And stayed. And the coach-boxer bond strengthened.
“He loves me like a brother because we have been together longer and our villages – Makerere and Nabulagala – are close to each other.
But Mukiibi stays in Kawempe, a bit far, and sometimes comes to training late.
Wycliffe Bukenya, a sign language interpreter who graduated from Kyambogo University, was the one who volunteered for Musanje’s seconder during the intervals and for the referee during bout. Whenever the ringside timekeeper hit the bell to start or stop, Bukenya could signal to the boxers.
During the bout, Bukenya stayed in the ring keeping an eye on the ref and the boxers, to amplify the ref’s verbal message to the fighters or interprete the fighters’ nonverbal message to the ref.
And during the breaks, as Kayondo communicated instructions and words of encouragement direct to Mukiibi in the blue corner, Bukenya acted as the transmitter between Musanje and his seconder in the red corner.
That’s a job Bukenya does for deaf prisoners, patients, who cannot communicate with wardens, judges, lawyers, medics and caretakers, but it was also his first assignment in a boxing arena.
“I knew Ashraf and Huzaifa as well behaved boys in deaf circles but Sanyuka TV approached me to be their interpreter,” Bukenya told us after the historic bout.
“I thank Uganda Boxing Federation and Sanyuka TV for giving this opportunity to the deaf boxers. This was an eye-opener to the public that the deaf can also box and deserve their chance.”
Bukenya adds that a deaf boxer has no disadvantage against a nondisabled opponent. “You just need to have your eyes on the opponent; the rest is square.”
Kayondo, their trainer, agrees. “Yes Mukiibi spars with the nondisabled boxers and beats them thoroughly. He has the basic skills and the power.”
Musanje and Mukiibi hope this was just the beginning, not the end, of their appearance in big boxing events.
“We need to become champions in the world,” they say.
Kayondo, who also plays football and athletics, has his own dream of joining professional boxing. But that’s not the major barrier to his trainees’ aspirations. Rather, it’s the poor heritage of the limited progress of deaf boxers across the world.
To date, it seems Mario D’Agata, who fought in the 1950s, is the only deaf boxer with a reputable career. Having joined boxing at 18, the Italian had over hundred fights as an amateur in six years, before turning professional in 1950.
The Italian Boxing Federation rejected the request because D’Agata, like Musanje and Mukiibi, couldn’t hear the bell at the beginning and end of each round. Backed by famous politicians, his petition eventually succeeded and the Tuscany-born boxer launched a 12-year pro career that yielded an enviable 67 fights, 54 wins, [22 Kos], 10 losses and three draws.
He won the national bantamweight title on September 26, 1953, beating Gianni Zuddas, a silver medallist at the 1948 London Olympics.
D’Agata’s fourth loss was against Robert Cohen in Tunisia in 1954, but a second meeting with the Frenchman in 1956 earned D’Agata the world bantamweight title by knocking out Cohen in the seventh of 15 rounds.
That record at Olympic Stadium in Rome still stands as no other deaf boxer has ever won a world title.
Yet that happened after doctors had ruled out that D’Agata could box again after removing bullets from his lungs when he was shot at as he struggled to save his parents from a gunman.
Sixty years later, Raymond Merrill II, a deaf boxer from California, US, made his pro debut in 2016. Despite being trained by Jeff Mayweather, uncle of Floyd Mayweather Jr, who likened him to former world champion Tommy Hearns, Merrill’s dream of becoming the first black deaf world champion hit a snag. Little is known about him since then.
Same with Reece Cattermole, who was by 2018, UK’s only deaf professional boxer, did not go further than his first fight, a victory moreover.
It’s not known why all these promising talents don’t progress. Even from amateur settings the opportunities are limited. The Deaflimpics, the Olympic version of athletes with hearing impairment, have no room for boxing.
So how far can Musanje and Mukiibi go remains to be seen.