What you need to know:
- Pure Passion. British trainer George Francis and promoter Mickey Duff made John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi a world champion. Marcus Warry, another Briton, wants to retrace that lost route for Ugandan boxers to greatness. He talked to Abdul-Nasser Ssemugabi about the hopes and realities of this venture.
How did you get interested in the Ugandan boxing story?
My coming to Uganda was interesting and accidental. When I turned 40 in November 2018, I decided to have one white-collar boxing fight.
So I signed up at Miguel’s Gym in South London where Dillian Whyte used to train.
Same time I had gone back to college to study art. Sounds like a midlife crisis, though. And I had a Christmas holiday for about a month.
I wanted it to be a boxing holiday in one of the boxing countries like Cuba, Mexico, Philippines, even America.
Then I saw East Coast Boxing Club’s Facebook page. I learnt that Hassan and his [twin] brother Hussein [a Brisbane gold medallist though for Kenya], had formed this gym for the ghetto boys in Naguru. I felt this is the kind of story I needed to experience. I never wanted to go to a smart gym. I thought there’s an outside chance for me to get involved.
When I went to East Coast Boxing Club, Adam Kassim [African silver medallist] was my first coach. I got to know him and the community well because he used to invite me to the ghetto. It was interesting for someone from London. Hassan asked me to be the patron of this club, and when I returned to the UK, I remotely co-organised the white-collar boxing event at Legends with others on the ground. I came back two weeks before the event and I boxed at the event.
Meanwhile, I met my girlfriend—a Burundi who lives in Uganda—for the first time. So that gave me an additional reason to come back.
That said, what was your introduction to boxing?
My entire life I have intended to take up boxing. My grandfather and my dad used to box in the army. I grew up with the story of my dad getting smashed. He was in his corner keeping his guard up and basically being smart and then the opponent saw an opportunity and gave him an uppercut.
And the birth of Gloves & Glory?
I had just returned here in early 2020, when Covid came and the airport was closed. So, I was stuck here for a year and three months yet we couldn’t do much in terms of boxing.
But via social media I reached out to friends for donation and we bought food and other items for the Naguru community.
That, I suppose, got me more connected to the community and the boxing family.
A friend Ian Payne [who worked with the British High Commission in Uganda, now back in the UK] came up with the name Gloves & Glory for the initiative.
So, beyond the legends: Ayub Kalule, John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi and others. How much do you know about Uganda’s boxing glory?
During the lockdown I realised I was going to be stuck here for some time. I started drawing portraits of Ugandan boxers. I started with Mugabi. Then I decided to do one a day. I did like 40 portraits. And whenever I was doing one, I tried to find more information about that boxer. So, I was also learning and whenever I shared a portrait on social media, I realised I was sharing the history of Ugandan boxing with my people in Uganda and in the UK.
I also realised there’s no Hall of Fame, no statues [for the legends].
But we have a wall of fame [at the MTN Arena]
[Laughs!] I saw it and I think it’s a really sorry site. Isn’t it? I also learnt that some of these greats like Grace Sseruwagi [who sparred with Muhammad Ali before Ali won gold in Rome] Leo Rwabwogo, [double Olympic medallist] end up in sorry lives.
Legends living sorry lives, and Uganda’s last Olympic medal being in 1980 sums up Uganda’s glory being gone. What could be the cause?
I can’t claim to be an expert and I’m actually interested in your opinion on this…But it could be a mixture of factors…and I think things changed with regime changes in the 80s, and it seems Museveni’s regime, since 1986 had other priorities than sports.
I don’t want this to come out as criticism because we need them on board, but seriously you can’t compare the investment [in sport] to that in Amin’s era. That explains the success in the 70s.
My point is that what used to be a fire is now down to a flicker…and something must be done now before the fire completely runs out.
Clearly there’s been so little public money in the sport and so less from the VIPs and corporates which I think it’s partly due to so many events starting four hours late. And those are some of the things Gloves & Glory can work on by organising events with conducive VIP treatment.
How is it done in Wembley, for instance?
Without dodging your question, we have to accept that the UK and Ugandan markets are worlds apart.
But here I have been to events when they are just erecting the ring at the designated start time. So, I think we need to fix all those logistical issues, start on time and eventually the fans will also start coming on time.
Once I paid Shs25,000 for VIP but when I got in, there was no difference between VIP and ordinary.
Our target is attracting Ugandan corporates and VIPs and getting partnerships abroad. Then government support will be a bonus.
What more are your plans on a grander scale?
This is what we summarised in our manifesto: supporting the youth, and grassroots boxing clubs in Uganda; celebrating Uganda’s great boxing history and initiate a boxing hall of fame; building a modern boxing club and arena in Uganda; restoring sanity in amateur boxing and creating brilliant boxing events, to generate international awareness and funds.
Let’s break them down
We have already started by supporting a youth [Paul] Raskara, a talented boxer from the East Coast by paying his school fees. His mother died, his father lives in a remote village. He surely needed a hand. And we want to do a lot more of that.
About grassroots support to clubs, I’m more familiar with East Coast, KCCA. But when I return in July, we shall visit several other clubs to learn more about them and where possible we can improve their facilities.
That in a way taps into the point of restoring sanity [that later].
When I came here, I was told some kids share gumshields and that shouldn’t happen.
However, I have been here long enough to know that the equipment that is supposed to be accessed free by boxers can be sold. So, we shall need a strong system to do a bit more of oversight.
When I’m asking for assistance, I need to look people in the eye and assure them that what they give me will go to the right beneficiaries.
About the legends there’s an article I read that listed Uganda’s top ten boxers of all-time. Sadly, two of them passed away, but of the remaining eight I have been able to contact six. Justin Juuko has joined us which is a big win.
So, I have thought about raising a statue for maybe Kalule or The Beast.
I also tried to talk to The Beast about writing a book about his life which is also connected to the rise and fall of Ugandan boxing.
I wanted the book to cover the beginning and for months I tried to talk to Tom Kawere—who is considered the grandfather of boxing in Uganda—sadly, he passed on before we met.
I’m also in contact with Father Grimes [the former headmaster of Namasagali College, who introduced theatre and boxing to the school].
He wrote a book about running a boarding school in the Amin era.
Building the boxing arena will require a business plan of $5-10m dollars, which will be hard to get in Uganda, but we also plan to go abroad.
I have already designed that arena we intend to build, and it’s modelled like York Hall, [in London] and one of the determinants of that design is giving VIPs a separate and special experience. But at the same time, we don’t want to be too elitist because we also need the [ordinary] people there.
In 2015 your partner Eddie Bazira tried to do what you want to do. He held the inaugural fighter awards to honour the legends. But he never realised his bigger plans. What could have been the problem?
Honestly, I haven’t talked to Eddie about that but generally, there’s a lot of politics in boxing.
Talking politics, how are you going to improve your relationship with UBF because you won’t operate successfully without the blessing of UBF?
When I first came here, I never wanted to step on people’s toes and tried to have positive relations with the boxing leadership. But to be honest I don’t know how to make our relationship positive with [Moses] Muhangi as UBF president. I don’t say it’s impossible. But I just don’t know how.
Most of the issues you want to address are about amateur boxing as if professional boxing is in the right place.
I have seen a great deal of friendship and solidarity among pro boxing promoters. I don’t feel there’s [unhealthy] competition. Yes, pro boxing has a long way to go but it’s in quite a good space.
Meanwhile, Gloves & Glory is also a promotion company. We are going to sign Juma Miiro and Raskara, at some point and others who didn’t sign for the Champions League [under UBF] because those who signed are contracted for four years. So, until then we can’t sign them.
Your promise to use your British connections to attract partnerships and British boxers with African connections is exciting. But how realistic is it?
In terms of raising funds for the project I feel like a multimillionaire British boxer with African roots can be one of the best investors. Many of them are fundamentally involved in the idea of making boxing great again and how this is going to support the youths—it a social impact investment.
The reality in getting them on board is by keeping trying.
When I go back [he is already in the UK] I’ll visit boxing clubs, get people photographed with these caps [branded by G & G]. Obviously, the more famous the better. And post them on social media. That will be a way of building the campaign through growing the numbers on Instagram, etc. That’s the main focus now.
When I go to Morecambe, where Tyson Fury lives, I’ll be like a stalker. You never know we might end up having some amazing conversation and everything gets like boom!
I have a friend who runs Boxwise London, a social enterprise that has changed the lives of thousands of young people through boxing. He’s also running projects that build schools in Eastern Uganda… He’s a good example of the kind of connections we can build.
You know my background is in marketing and I’m an entrepreneur basically, which is fundamental to this project. Entrepreneurs take risks others wouldn’t.
And at the launch when Kalule turned up I felt complimented because he created “the great” we want to revive. That the people recognised him and kept clapping was also great. That’s what will motivate the young ones to keep trying to be great.
We’ve seen many such promising projects in football, athletics, basketball, and in boxing. Some even involved the President [Museveni] but failed to deliver. Some even died at birth. What are your hopes and how unique is your project?
Nice question. This is why the mobilisation campaign is important. Because the more people you have on board the more momentum you gather. It’s going to be a campaign led by people, if you like.
The other thing is that our manifesto has very clear objectives. Example, where we talk about building an elite boxing club and arena for instance, there are clear steps towards that. Right now, we’re looking for the land. Meanwhile we are also looking for a site to open a sports shop to sell quality boxing equipment.
We could also end up with a boxing club relatively sooner by managing an existing one.
The other advantage is that Eddie [Bazira] is helping me a lot with his experience as a promoter and a Ugandan. With [Paul] Mutebe handling the press, Hassan and Hussein training, and someone else handling the brands, I feel we’ve got a good team.
Yes, some of our goals are audacious but some of the things we are already doing.
But it’s ultimately difficult and if it’s going to work it might take us five, ten years.
And I would like to learn from you the reasons why others failed such that we avoid them.
I’ll let you learn on the job…anyway, some things might take a long time. But what’s the earliest we should feel Gloves & Glory’s real impact?
We already organised the Kent-Katende Memorial event [in April] and soon we’re going to get involved in boxing promotion and try to engage corporates for some serious sponsorship.
Miiro will headline the event; we also expect Adam Kassim to do an exhibition fight with his former nemesis [Abdul Tebazaalwa] whom I met recently. That’s around September and possibly at the Legends Rugby Grounds.
So, you trained at Whyte’s gym and you are a big Fury admirer. Wasn’t your heart divided when they faced off?
Of course, I had a soft spot for Whyte because he lived in the same area like I do. But at my age Fury is the only sportsman I can genuinely claim I’m a proper fan of. When I was younger, I could get stressed about just anything; get angry when a rugby team lost, and what not.
I have read Fury’s biography and his comeback story from being 25 Stone [159kg]; sorting himself out after battling mental health and drugs and becoming an ambassador for mental health is amazing. And when I go home, I’m going to try to see if I can find him.
His story aside, how do you rate him as a boxer?
I think he is hard to beat…I don’t see how you beat him. He has the height; he’s got the heart of a lion; he gets knocked down and gets up.
And his patience on the canvas during the count is an art you haven’t mastered. Yeah, that’s the mistake I made [in my fight against Andaman Daku]. Everyone says I shouldn’t have waited a bit. Anyway, I’m still learning a few things in the game. I will be back.
GLOVES & GLORY
Clubs Affiliated: East Coast and KCCA
Events Held: KK Memorial (April 2022)
Project Beneficiaries: Clubs and Boxers
Grand Plans: Establishing Boxing Club, Arena and Promotion Company
Directors: Marcus Warry, Eddie Bazira