African woes at Olympic boxing: Are coaches guilty?

Shadir Musa Bwogi in training. PHOTO/JOHN BATANUDDE 

What you need to know:

The factors may vary from poor preparations to biased officiating, among others. But one bold boxer pointed the finger at the men in the corner—the coaches.

An entire East African region is on the verge of missing Olympic boxing at Paris 2024. This follows another dismal performance at the last Olympic qualifier in Bangkok, Thailand last week.

It was the third and last attempt after the continental qualifier in September 2023 in Dakar, Senegal and the first world qualifier in Busto Arsizio, Italy.

Granted, the African qualifier offered a paltry 18 slots, the least Africa has ever been allotted in decades. But Africa’s failure to scoop even a single slot in Busto Arsizio partly vindicated the International Olympic Committee’s decision to limit the continent’s presence at the Games.

Now the entire continent is guaranteed just 20 boxers at Paris 2024; but East Africa: Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, is hoping against hope that at least one of the nine universality slots goes to an East African boxer. So how did countries that produced Olympic medalists get here?

Technical and tactical blunders?

The factors may vary from poor preparations to biased officiating, among others. But one bold boxer pointed the finger at the men in the corner—the coaches.

After losing his featherweight Round of 64 bout to North Korea's Tae Bom in Bangkok, Tryagain Ndevelo told the press that African boxers are losing some fights through wrong instructions from their corner and lacking the art of scoring points, using a lot of unnecessary force. 

According to AFBC, the Namibian started the fight well, dominating the first round but the Korean changed his tactics in the following rounds.

"In the first round I would let my opponent come to me then I would score from his mistakes," said Ndevelo, who also lost to Uganda's Kassim Murungi in the Round of 16 of the inaugural Mandela Cup in April.

"I was scoring very well on the retreat as he attacks and I capitalised. But in the second round he started going backwards, now I had to chase him. That's when he waited for me to make a mistake and collect his points. I should have realised that early. He was orthodox but sometimes changed to a southpaw like me."

"I should have maintained my first round style of allowing him to follow me, I won the first round 5-0, I would have won the fight but I realized later I'm fighting to his advantage, he tricked me."

So, no one in Ndevelo's corner told him that he should be less aggressive and instead wait on the counter? 

If so, then his concern is genuine, because beyond forging a tactical blueprint prior to the match, the next task of a boxer's cornerman is to study the opponent's approach and game plan and devise means of countering it. 

What the cornerman tells his boxer, especially during the one-minute break, may be the slim line between defeat and triumph; between joy and heartbreak. 

Like Ndevelo said, he is not the only victim. It's an African problem. A Ugandan boxer was leading on the scorecards after round one of his third bout at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. 

He had used his slim reach advantage to keep his opponent at bay, jabbing and hooking at just the right time and frequency, with good movement. He even knocked down the opponent, if I remember well. 

But tables turned in the second round when the white opponent started fighting close, hitting the Ugandan with unbelievable precision. The Ugandan had no answers, not even in the third round. He lost 4-1. But everyone was wondering: why didn't he stick to his game in round one? Didn't his cornermen appreciate his strong points to consolidate them? 

"In some fights, you will see a boxer win the first round and give away the rest," says Ndevelo, and adds: "Now as a coach what did you see the other opponent improve on from what they were not doing in the first round, and what did you tell your boxer to do to counter the new strategy being employed by his opponent in the ensuing rounds?" Ndevelo said.

"Coach told me: attack, attack even when I was being punished," the boxer said in a chat many months later. 
Losing to familiar foes

Since 2022, some Ugandan boxers have lost to the same opponents in different tournaments. Isaac Zebra Ssenyange Jr lost to Lesotho's Michael Pakela at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and at the African Olympic Boxing Qualifier in Dakar last September. 

Mozambique's Armando Sigauque has defeated Jonah Kyobe at the 2022 African Championship in Yaounde, Cameroon and at the continental qualifier in Dakar last year. The Mozambican has also defeated Kyobe's local opponent Kasim Murungi on three occasions. 

Cape Verde's Ivanusa Morreira has defeated Emily Nakalema in three meetings, since Nakalema won their first encounter in Dakar 2020. 

Mauritian Richarno Colin has defeated Joshua Tukamuhebwa four times in different tournaments since their first meeting at the 2019 African Games in Rabat, Morocco. Is that acceptable? 

Can we simply credit the serial winners for mastering their opponents without asking why the serial losers cannot improve? Which drags the coaches into the dock. What do the Ugandan coaches learn from the first loss to avoid the second or third? What do they tell their fighters before and during those fights? If Ugandan coaches cannot study African opponents, whom they meet regularly, can they study strangers from Tajikistan, Georgia, Canada, Hungary etc? 

How do we score?

Ndevelo also decried the absence of African ring officials at international events, which further denies the coaches the opportunity to know what is required of a boxer to score points.
"African coaches don't understand the scoring criteria. The boxer will work hard but not give what the judges want to see but rather display what the coach instructs them to do."

"If you don't get the scoring right, no matter how hard you go in the three rounds it's not enough, most African boxers are using a lot of force but not scoring well.

"The boxer must box, not fight his opponent. That's how it works in these tournaments but if it's a tournament in Africa or officiated by African RJs, the boxer must fight and work extra hard to win.

"Lack of refs and judges from Africa here disadvantages the boxers from getting it right on what needs to be done to win fights.

"Africans know how to work hard but are not smart, and only a few will get it right through displaying the proper skills and the art of boxing needed to win fights.

Actually, Cape Verde's flyweight David Pina, who fought with style and precision, was one of only two Africans who got the Olympic ticket in Bangkok after defeating an Iranian. The other, DR Congo's Brigitte Mbata, defeated fellow African Morreira of Cape Verde. 

"We just don't know how to do our maths well when in the ring with some of our boxers just just throwing punches at random for the sake of it without any calculation in mind.

"With our endurance and hard work African boxers go through in training, we now need to get it right on scoring points, playing smart in the ring and be crafty also. If we master all this, African boxers will be unstoppable."

Few active African boxers or athletes in general have the audacity to say such things on record. Many fear being reprimanded by the coaches and administrators. But Ndevelo's views cannot be overstated.