What you need to know:
- Kibira’s first tournament was the National Schools Championship in June 2018 at Patidar Samaj Restaurant in Wandegeya. He won his two fights, bagging gold in the lightweight division and helping Nsangi SS to third place.
Owen Isaac Kibira is a surprise package among the Bombers, having joined boxing in 2017. But the 22-year old has made the best of his five years to join the Ugandan team that will compete at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham starting July 29.
When he was 12, Kibira, the first born among three boys and one girl, left his single mother’s home to live with Hajji Juma Nsubuga, who would become his coach, mentor and guardian.
“As Owen was due to join secondary school, I stopped his mother from taking him to a very rural school, where she had got him a bursary,” Nsubuga recalls. “I vowed to take care of the boy as my child.”
Nsubuga has nurtured several disadvantaged boys and girls into boxers, but he says no one matches Kibira’s persona and hard work.
“I just stopped him but Owen used to kneel while greeting people, even strangers,” Nsubuga says. “At some point I even doubted he could be a boxer.
But beneath that calm disposition and shy looks, grew a very ambitious fighter whose mentor now regards a medal prospect at the Commonwealth Games.
“No one trains harder than Owen,” Nsubuga adds. By 5:45am the two are up for Subh, the Islamic mandatory prayer at dawn. Immediately after they are at the gym, working. “And how he trains doesn’t matter whether he’s training for a fight.”
Love at first sight
While in Senior One at Nsangi Secondary School in 2017, Nsubuga, the head coach at Kyengera Boxing Club, and then board member at the school, organised a boxing event on the school’s music dance and drama day.
Kibira had tried other co-curricular activities like aerobics but instantly fell in love with boxing.
Learning that his uncle and his mother had tried boxing in their teenage years, also encouraged him.
“There was a lot of bullying at school and I saw boxing as something that could protect me against attacks from the bigger boys,” Kibira says in an interview at Forest Park Resort, in Buloba, Wakiso.
But he stopped training after one month. “My whole body was in pain. Training was too tough for me.”
But his friend Fulje Mugerwa dragged him back to the gym. “We started together; we must quit together,” Mugerwa insisted.
He even guided Kibira through the basics, which helped him to catch up.
Kibira’s first tournament was the National Schools Championship in June 2018 at Patidar Samaj Restaurant in Wandegeya. He won his two fights, bagging gold in the lightweight division and helping Nsangi SS to third place.
“I started believing I could be a boxer.”
A federation policy blocked all 2018 medallists from the 2019 schools championship, and Kibira’s next show would be the National Juniors in 2019, where he said he faced two opponents every day for five days. He got silver after losing the lightweight final to Cobap’s Emma Nyanzi.
As the seniors competed for slots on the national team ahead of the 2019 African Games in Rabat, Morocco, Kibira, Mugerwa and others were boxing at the National Novices.
After two victories, Kibira lost the semis 2-1 to Gulu’s Innocent Amoko.
“I was shocked because I was plotting revenge against Nyanzi, who had defeated me in the juniors.”
But Amoko, once more, proved his worth by defeating Nyanzi in the final to scoop gold.
Meanwhile, Kibira’s friend Mugerwa was undefeated throughout, garnered six points in the bantamweight division in the Boxing Champions League, but ironically, he won’t go to Birmingham. Their coach said being unbeaten made him complacent. “And I was somehow happy when he lost in the league,” Coach Nsubuga said.
Sparring with Olympians
Some wondered how the little-known Kibira became a sparring partner for the three boxers heading for the Tokyo Olympics.
But the soft-spoken slugger says he earned it during several friendlies as Kyengera Boxing Club visited different clubs including Gulu during the lockdowns due to covid-19.
He faced professional boxers, paid back all the amateurs who had defeated him, sparred with the likes of Stanley Mugerwa. But he is more proud of that duel with Musa Shadir Bwogi, the then Bombers captain who had just earned the ticket to the Olympics.
Kibira’s coach sent me the video of that four-rounder at Zebra Boxing Club in Bwaise on WhatsApp. Shadir had his moments, thanks to his experience, but Kibira gave him a good match, amid cheers from the spectators, mostly boxers and coaches. “I weighed 65kg, Shadir was about 70 but I managed to contain him and also put him under pressure,” Kibira recalls.
That was remarkable, Kibira adds, because Shadir had stopped most of his sparring partners at the gym.
“Someone had even warned me against daring him. But stubbornly, I told him: ‘It takes a heart to box,”
Kibira says that’s how he ended up camping with Shadir and the other two potential Olympians.
“In the camp [Kavumba Recreation Centre], I used very fast head movements; threw a high volume of punches and comfortably switched stances; which I thought Shadir needed in case his Olympic opponents did the same.”
Kibira also learnt lots from Patrick Lihanda and other coaches in the camp. And he thanks the federation for that opportunity which motivated him to aim higher.
“I started feeling: if I can do what these national team guys do, I’m next in the queue. I worked harder for it.”
Road to Birmingham
As clubs and boxers prepared for the National Trials in September 2021—the first amateur event since covid-19 came—Kibira was ready for anyone in the welterweight, the favourite division for Shadir, who was fresh from the Tokyo Olympics. But Shadir chose to compete in the middleweight division.
With experience in friendlies and the Olympics camp, Kibira strolled past his three opponents to reach the semis. “I felt faster, had more endurance with a quick reaction.”
Then came the controversial four-year contracts for the inaugural Champions League. For Kibira the decision was simple. “I knew I won’t be boxing forever. So I take any opportunity that shows.” Besides, did he have a choice when Nsubuga, his guardian, is diehard of the federation president?
He, however, admits that the senior boxers’ refusal to sign the contracts was a blessing for the new generation.
“Well, they served their time. Now it’s upon us to surpass their achievements.”
Kibira says his rematch against Ukasha Matovu in May was “the simplest fight I have had.”
Kibira did what he does best: switching from southpaw to orthodox with consummate ease, using fantastic lateral movements, unleashing a stinging jab and some good hooks. “I totally confused him with a different fighting style.”
Conversely, Matovu betrayed his huge following. He was just not in the mood: neither attacking nor defending.
His coach Lawrence Kalyango said he was unfit because “we learnt of the fight on short notice.”
But Kibira says that fight had been postponed thrice due to Matovu’s excuses. “It seems he was never going to be ready for me.”
Their first encounter in February ended in a draw, much to Matovu’s disappointment. He threatened to stop Kibira when they met again. But in the rematch Kibira was just too good. And Matovu, a graduate of the 2018 Africa Youth Championships, missed the ticket for the Commonwealth Games to Kibira, who had never donned the Bombers colours.
Kibira smiled home with a Shs1m gift from Nakifuma County MP Sulaiman Kiwanuka.
Last month, Kibira and Teddy Nakimuli picked silver at the Kilimanjaro Open in Tanzania, the Bombers’ only friendly ahead of Birmingham. Three picked gold and one bronze. But Kibira’s biggest excitement came a week later. “I didn’t sleep the night before we picked our UK visas at the High Commission. Now I was sure of Birmingham.”
“Hajj Juma [Nsubuga] is like my Godfather,” Kibira says. Beyond teaching me boxing, he also got me a bursary for my education.
“With him I don’t worry about food, shelter, etc. He’s that person I confide in.”
Nsubuga says Kibira’s grades were not good and after his O’Level last year, he advised him to join carpentry. His other coach Samuel Tamale does the same job and has helped Kibira learn the skills and the market dynamics in just six months.
“Coach Tamale gives me due attention until I perfect something. And we plan our schedule together. So there’s no clash between boxing and work. In fact sometimes we do boxing training at the workshop.”
But above all heroes is his mother Sophie Namutebi. “She’s been supportive and whenever I feel discouraged she is my counsellor.”
“I started training for international opponents when I was still a novice,” Kibira says in response to his expectations in Birmingham. “So as long as we both put on the gloves, your records, where you come from, don’t matter.”
He adds: “In every competition I enter, I want to be in the gold medal bout. There I would be shooting several birds with one stone: attracting international fame, making my country proud and inspiring others.”
“Most boxers come from hard-knock life, so my success can inspire others including my siblings to seek a meaningful life through boxing.”
If Kibira gets a medal in Birmingham, Nsubuga won’t be surprised. “He deserves it.”