Boxing legend: Tom Kawere. PHOTO/FILE/ISMAIL KEZAALA

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Boxing grandfather Kawere goes to rest

What you need to know:

  • Life Of Highs. Kawere captained Namilyango College from 1945-49 before joining the Bombers team he led between 1951-1958.
  • He won a silver medal at Welter Weight category during the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Wales

In his heyday, Tom Kawere’s hands could knock out any opponent. But in his last years on earth, he couldn’t even clench a fist. He was such a gifted dancer. 

But he couldn’t move his waist without pain. That pain, according to her daughter Olivier, since he got involved in a boda-boda accident in 2017, has defined the final moments of the man revered as the grandfather of boxing in Uganda. He passed away Sunday night.

July 22, 1958, Kawere became the first East African boxer to win a medal at an international event. Ironically, that was his last event as a boxer, but sharing his sports and leadership skills would build him a legacy that will live for eternity.

In fact, profiling Ugandan boxing without Kawere’s name is like profiling the Vatican without mentioning the Pope.

Having coached the national boxing team and some of the biggest schools, his products included world champions Ayub Kalule, John ‘the Beast’ Mugabi and Cornelius Boza Edwards. Maj. Gen. Francis Nyangweso, former president Idi Amin and Peter Grace Sseruwagi, Uganda’s most decorated national boxing coach. 

‘Royal’ blood
Unlike most boxers, born and bred in humble backgrounds, Kawere was the grandson of Stanislas Mugwanya, the renowned Buganda chief and regent. His father Anthony Ndidde was a member of the Buganda Lukiiko.

At Mugwanya’s home in Bukerere, Kawere’s playmate was Kabaka Daudi Chwa’s son, Edward Muteesa, who would later become Kabaka of Buganda and Uganda’s first president.
Kawere said he and the prince Muteesa mostly enjoyed football and boxing.

When he joined Namilyango College in 1945, Kawere was spoilt for choice as he also played cricket and athletics. But he quit cricket the day a ball injured his nose. And surprisingly, he chose boxing, though he knew it was more dangerous than cricket.

Destiny was calling. Soon, he was appointed the school boxing captain until 1949, when he left. He also returned to coach the boys, which made Namilyango, the hub of Uganda’s boxing.

When I joined the media, Kawere had already retired into his country home in Bubuule, on Masaka Road. But I got the honour to meet him twice: at his Kampala home in Rubaga in 2014 and during the Fighter Awards at Hotel Africa in early 2015. On both occasions, he never missed a chance to tell how his dancing skills made him a better boxer. He and the late Christopher Kato were the best on the floor and that artistry improved him on the canvas.

“Dancing was my secret weapon in boxing, and other sports. My movement was sharp, and I could surprise opponents,” he said in a wobbly voice, with a stubborn smile. “Actually all sportsmen need some dancing skills…they make your body and mind more flexible, and unpredictable.”

You can’t doubt a man who represented Uganda as a sprinter and a footballer.

Defeat he never conceded
Unless Kawere finally changed his mind, he died a Commonwealth gold medallist, not a silver medallist as records show.

He always said he never lost any bout in East Africa, though records show in 1946 he lost to police constable Hassan Mukasa at Namilyango, though he was rewarded as “best loser.”

No Joking Matter. Kawere (R) in a mock bout with Godfrey Nyakana (L) during the Fighters Awards in 2015. PHOTO/ISMAIL KEZAALA

Kawere also refused to admit that he lost to South Africa’s Joseph Greyling in the welterweight final of the 1958 Empire Games (now the Commonwealth Games) in Cardiff. Kawere entered action a day after his teammates had been ejected. I.K.Obita had been knocked out by England’s Joe Jacobs and Francis Nyangweso had lost to Australia’s Kevin Hogarth on points.

Kawere, lanky and strong, bragged that most of his opponents could not last the distance. And in his first bout, he stopped Nigeria’s Uzubu, in the third round. That victory sent him to the semi-final, guaranteed for at least a bronze—the first medal by any East African boxer at an international event.

Probably, Kawere had golden ambitions. And in the semis he outboxed Scotland’s Robert Scott to storm the final. “I went to the final very determined to win,” Kawere told us. But he left the Sophia Gardens Pavilion, an inconsolably bitter man. Greyling was declared the winner.  “I convincingly defeated my opponent,” he often claimed. “And all the judges ruled in my favour but to everyone’s surprise, the referee declared my opponent the victor.” But how could such a bizarre thing happen? Was it a conspiracy with imperialistic intent?

Kawere added that most British papers condemned that “broad-day robbery” and the referee would later be suspended and denied the permit to officiate at the 1960 Olympics. (Over the years, I have scoured the internet but I have failed to verify Kawere’s claims).

Kawere was also not the only East African to win a medal at the 1958 Games, as some reports say. Kenyans Bartonjo Rotich and Arere Anentia won bronze in the 440m hurdles and the six-mile race respectively.

You would think that there were not many opportunities for Ugandan boxers to turn professional. But Kawere said he turned down many offers from promoters from America and Europe: “That moment made me quit boxing, I knew the imperialists were in control of the sport and I didn’t want to give them more chances to frustrate me.”

Training with Ali
Kawere went to the 1960 Olympics Games in Rome, as coach for Uganda’s boxing team. He welcomed a certain Cassius Clay, then 18, to have sparring rounds with Grace Peter Sseruwagi, George Oywello and Peter Odhiambo.

“Ali came to our camp, requesting to train with us in order to gauge the capability of African boxers,” Kawere would retell in several interviews.

This being Uganda’s first time to send a boxing team to the Olympics, Kawere said, it was equally a privilege for his team to train with the highly skilled American.

None of the six Ugandans won a single bout in Rome but Clay won his four fights, all against Europeans, with ease and bagged the light heavyweight gold medal, after which he became a Muslim called Muhammad Ali, unanimously the world’s greatest sportsman ever.

Sseruwagi would tell us that Clay’s coach, Angelo Dundee, praised the Ugandans for helping him to the Olympic victory. 

Building KBC
In the mid-50s, Kawere, a chief clerk in the Public Relations and Social Welfare office, and others, lobbied for the construction of Mengo Social Centre, a complex for local chiefs because they could not share hotels with their White masters.  Later, the growing number of sportsmen led to the construction of Nakivubo War Memorial Stadium—with facilities for soccer, athletics, rugby, netball, boxing, etc—in 1954.

There, Kawere established Kampala Boxing Club (KBC), which had been founded by CWK Potts and would become home of boxers, who birthed Uganda’s golden generation between the late 60s and the late 80s.
Among his KBC trainees was one bulging soldier, Idi Amin. 

“Amin used to train from KBC when still a lower-rank soldier,” Kawere told us in 2014, describing Amin as a powerful, passionate, determined heavyweight boxer. “He was also a quick learner.”

When KBC was facing eviction from Nakivubo Stadium, in 2014 Kawere was heartbroken. “I wonder where your children will play from,” he told us. “It is a big shame the government is neither interested in establishing new sports facilities nor preserving the existing ones.”

Nakivubo was eventually demolished in 2017, and since then KBC has wandered to three rooftops on not-so-fancy buildings in the city.

Friends with Amin
The Amin-Kawere rapport would continue even when the soldier became head of state.
“I could call Amin’s direct telephone number in case of any need ahead of a big tournament,” said Kawere, who was coach and later official of the Ugandan boxing team. No wonder, the most successful era in Uganda’s sport coincided with Amin’s presidency. “Amin could also call me anytime.”

One such time he called Kawere immediately to his office and handed him a whopping $2,000 as a token to the boxers on international duty.

In recognition of Kawere’s services to sport, Amin offered him a giant sports shop on Kampala Road, which had been vacated by the expelled Asians. But because other senior ‘Afandes’ were equally interested in the prime property, Kawere rejected it, despite assurances from Maj. Gen. Isaac Malyamungu, who was also once Kawere’s boxing trainee.

That friendship did not blind Kawere to Amin’s political excesses, but he strongly believed that Amin was the best thing to ever happen to Uganda’s sport. “No one else,” he said, three times. 

Honours
During Namilyango College’s centenary celebrations in 2002, Kawere was among the few alumni recognised for great service.

In 2016, he also received the ‘Service to Country’ award, upon which he said: “When I was a boxer in Namilyango, it was simply for fun. I didn’t know that so many years later I would be recognised. I’m truly happy and can’t thank you enough for this.”

Larger Than Life. During his stint as Bombers coach at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Kawere welcomed a certain Cassius Clay, 18, to have sparring rounds with Grace Sseruwagi, George Oywello and Peter Odhiambo. PHOTO/ISMAIL KEZAALA

He coached Lubaga Senior School, King’s College Buddo, Makerere University and also tried to promote boxing at Namilyango’s biggest rival St Mary’s College Kisubi, where he coached every Friday, before he was transferred to Fort Portal.

In 1956, Kawere was a Uganda Boxing Association referee and judge. 
He was also a certified coach under the Amateur Athletic Association (U.K) and as International Boxing Association judge in 1974. From 1961-1962, Kawere attended Loughborough College of Physical Education in the U.K.

A road in Mengo, Rubaga was named after him. Kawere, a devout Catholic, could travel from Bubuule every weekend to catch the Sunday mass at Rubaga Cathedral, where his requiem mass was done yesterday. If he still had the powers, Kawere would have ensured that boxing returns to Namilyango and KBC gets a permanent home, again. Unfortunately, he could only wish.

Kawere is survived by Christina Nampeera Kawere on September 25, 1953. They are blessed with six girls and three boys.

At nearly 100, he has outlived most of his contemporaries. He has seen many rounds of life. And his victories shall never be matched.

Kawere at a glance

Born: June 1, 1927
1944-59: School, national and international boxer.
1945-49: Namilyango College Boxing captain.
1949: Represented Uganda as a sprinter.
1949-50: Member of Uganda football squad and Nsambya football club.
1951-58: Captain Uganda boxing team
1958: Commonwealth Silver Medal (Welterweight)

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