Night of firsts: Awaits Olympians in Pro Boxing

Hard Hitter. Semujju (L) lands a ferocious left onto the face of his opponent during his amateur days. He is a warrior. PHOTO/JOHN BATANUDDE

What you need to know:

  • Shadir was groomed by the gifted hands of Hussein Khalil, a 1982 Commonwealth gold medalist and his twin brother Hassan, at the East Coast Boxing Club in Naguru.
  • Ssemuju was a lightweight but in sparring Sero always pitted him against Ssemakula, Fred Muhumuza, Sula Segawa and Solomon Geko, all his seniors in experience, technique and power. “We are trained like Spartans—one of the most feared armies in the Greek world—


They were last seen in action in October last year. But Musa Shadir Bwogi, David Ssemuju and their fellow 2020 Tokyo Olympian Catherine Nanziri return to the ring Friday April 1, on a night of many firsts in Ugandan boxing.
It will be the first boxing event at the Phillip Omondi Stadium in Lugogo; the first time three Olympians make their professional debut on the same event and on a night a new promotion company stages its first event.
By the end of last year, the Olympians’ future was clouded in uncertainty. Where could they go after shunning the inaugural Champions League? But 2022 seemed to have come with glad tidings: 12 Sports Rounds Promotions by Stephen Ssembuya gave them an offer to join the paid ranks.
 
From captain to main act
Being the captain for the Bombers won considerable fame for Musa Shadir Bwogi but the boy who had dominated the local scene at the light welterweight and welterweight needed something bigger at the international level.
Shadir, as he is famously known in boxing circles, had been to the 2017 African Championships, the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2019 African Games, where his teammates Isaac Masembe and David Ssemuju won silver medals.
But Shadir returned a dejected soul, without a medal again.
It gets to your head when you fail to scale the heights most of your childhood friends and training mates have hit. Sometimes it’s even more perplexing when those winning colleagues are not necessarily more talented than you.
Shadir admits having considered quitting boxing after the disappointment at the 2019 African Games.
But when he finally reconsidered the decision, and tried one more time, Shadir became a hit.

He bounced back and finally stood taller than all 12 teammates. On the last day of the African Olympic Boxing Qualifiers in Dakar, he defeated Ghana’s Jesse Lartey in the third-place box-off, won the enviable ticket to the Olympics, and a bronze, his first ever medal in four international tournaments.
“My father, wherever you are, you started it. I’m completing, I have achieved my dream of representing my country at the Olympics,” he told the press in Dakar in February 2020, celebrating a huge relief and conquest.
Again, another disruption called covid-19, threatened to shatter Shadir’s Olympic dream, first postponing the Games, then denying him ideal preparations but eventually he and two others hit the Olympics canvas in 2021.
But Shadir was special: the only Ugandan boxer who had directly qualified for Tokyo. [Nanziri and Ssemuju passed via rankings after the World Olympic qualifiers were cancelled].

That Shadir lost his only fight in Tokyo to Georgia’s Eskerkhan Madiev by split decision did little harm to his Olympic status, an envy of many Ugandan greats like Kassim Ouma, Zebra Ssenyange, Sharif Bogere, etc.

Higher Horizons. Nanziri doesn’t regret her decision to turn professional and insists that she is eager to play more than three rounds. PHOTO/ISMAIL KEZAALA


Shadir was groomed by the gifted hands of Hussein Khalil, a 1982 Commonwealth gold medalist and his twin brother Hassan, at the East Coast Boxing Club in Naguru.
The club has succeeded in filling the void left by the traditional KCC Boxing Club, which was home to most boxers in Nakawa between then 1960s and late 1980s.
Shadir’s best friends Fazil Juma Kaggwa and Juma Miiro, who are Commonwealth bronze medalists, are some of the success stories from the club that’s hardly 20 years old.
Now having raised his stock as an Olympian, it was time for Shadir to move on. But where could he go? He had failed to get connections while in Tokyo, yet in Uganda pro boxing was far from attractive.

Stuck in a dilemma, Shadir tried to start all over again. In September 2021, he strolled through a tournament that was named National Trials, which was then made the qualifier to the inaugural Uganda Boxing Champions League. The semi-pro league could have excited many—the unknowns who dreamt of building their amateur profiles and the likes of Shadir, who craved a feel of professional boxing, with some cash.
But the Uganda Boxing Federation (UBF) was not sure how the participants would be paid, yet the league contracts tied them for four years. Shadir smelt a rat. He blew the whistle and fellow boxers, including fellow Tokyo Olympians, responded. They jumped off the ship.

What next? Again, no one was sure. The future looked bleak. They petitioned the government. The UBF succumbed to pressure, allowing the ‘rebels’ to box without signing contracts. But the other conditions were not clear. Again, they fled, but this time for good.
Then Stephen Ssembuya, whose attempt to lead UBF, had failed, pounced and recruited the ‘rebels’ under his new 12 Sports Rounds Promotions.
For the last four weeks, Shadir, who faces Herbert Mugalula in the main bout, has been balancing marketing himself and training, hopping from gym to one radio or tv station to another. “I work out at East Coast and Amrap Gym in town,” he told Sunday Monitor.

“We have a wonderful team and we are concentrating on strength, stability, stamina and speed.”
From the onset, Shadir made his intentions clear. “I’m warning every boxer who will stand in my way that I have come to conquer, to claim what is mine and sweep all honours in middleweight and welterweight,” he said during the event launch last month.
Mugalula is a good fighter and his bout against Shadir promises to be a good fight. Shadir doesn’t care.
“He has been a boxer since my childhood and I know this is my turn. I can’t let him stand in my way.”

Animal with right man in corner
David Ssemuju started boxing at Boggie’s gym near his family in Kyebando, in Kawempe division.
He then trained from several clubs before eventually finding Sero Addes, the man to whom he owes his boxing success. Coach Sero, as Ssemuju fondly calls him, is the youngest brother to Nevada Boxing Hall of Famer Cornelius Boza-Edwards, but doesn’t rush to mention it.
But he tells you: “I grew up with tough fighters: Ayub Kalule, Mustafa Wasajja, Vitalish Bege, Muhammad Muruuli, Vicky Byarugaba,”

He then adds: “The person who took me to the gym [Boza-Edwards] ended up a world champion, I used to work out with The Beast [John Mugabi] in the US.
“What I learnt from them is what I give these fighters. If they perfect that they must conquer.
Ssemuju and his trainer first worked together in 2012 at the famous KBC—Kampala Boxing Club on the fringes of Nakivubo Stadium.
“His punches were light. I didn’t like them. I kicked him out several times but he kept coming back. My friend advised me to accept him,” Sero remembers.  
When Nakivubo was demolished in early 2017, they would reunite at Body Shapers Gym in a building in the city centre.

Ssemuju was a lightweight but in sparring Sero always pitted him against Ssemakula, Fred Muhumuza, Sula Segawa and Solomon Geko, all his seniors in experience, technique and power. “We are trained like Spartans—one of the most feared armies in the Greek world—
You either win or die. Bleeding is no excuse. This nurtured me as a fearless fighter. I fear no opponent, no weight.”
At some point, Ssemuju brought along his little brother Isaac Ssebuufu, another exciting boxer, who is on the April 1 card.
This statement tells what defines Coach Sero. “My training regime is hard because boxing isn’t table tennis, it’s not just a game; it’s war. You must fight to survive,” Sero told me.

“You’re hit, you hit back. You end up in sweat, tears, or blood, it’s normal.
Ssemuju has not mastered everything but Sero admits he has learnt “fighting, not mere boxing.” He adds: “the level he’s targeting—professional boxing—is tough.
“The guys like Latin Americans are tough. You want to box with them you won’t manage. You gotta be tough like them.”That is why if you step into Sero’s training, you forget your phone and be ready to work out for two grueling hours. “Afterwards, take a shower, take your tea, go home.”
Sero also calls Ssemuju an ambitious learner.
“He loves what he’s doing and wants to learn. Whatever you teach him he says ‘coach let me try it,’ until he gets it.”
No wonder Seemuju has nicknamed himself the Animal.

Many believe Ssemuju is a perfect fit for pro boxing and if his training was to prepare him for this, fellow debutant Hamza Latigo has two choices: surrender the middleweight contest in the early rounds or be ready for a thorough beating for several rounds.
Sero prefers boxers who balance intelligence and bravery. And Ssemuju is just that. He starts slow, but quickly grows into the fight, shooting at every inch of the opponent’s target area—a typical pressure fighter, who wins and loses with honour.
Sero is the man who has transformed the likes of Sula Segawa, who is now based in Silver Springs, Maryland, USA.
Since switching address to the USA, Segawa has had three title shots, though he’s yet to win one. But the hopes are alive.

The shape of Ssemuju’s dream resembles Segawa’s.
“I dream of fighting for the biggest titles like the WBC, WBF at continental and world level,” Ssemuju says, hoping to build a pro record from and attract suitors abroad, just like Segawa.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Ssemuju told us upon turning professional under 12 Sports Rounds Promotions last month.
Ssembuya, the promoter, vowed to give each of his fighters four fights by the end of 2022.
Sero, who fully concurs with his fighter’s ambition, says four fights is a good pledge but it remains to be seen.

Nanziri must focus
Despite being the first female Ugandan boxer at the Olympics, Catherine Nanziri and her entire management wanted her to feature at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
But that mission looked in sheer jeopardy after the 22-year old boycotted the Champions League, which the UBF made the de facto qualifier for the Games due in July in Birmingham.
Nevertheless, Nanziri continued to believe.
“It’s a good feeling. I want to experience the fight of more than three rounds, as my colleagues in the Champions League, as I partly prepare for the Commonwealth Games,” Nanziri said at the February 22 event where she announced she had turned pro. “Better still, fighting for money will be a big motivation as I take on the Kenyan.”

No Turning Back. Former Bombers captain Shadir Musa Bwogi, who has been the face of the amateur game, is looking forward to a bigger pay day. PHOTO/JOHN BATANUDDE

But now that the flyweight alongside fellow ‘rebels’ missed on the long list of the Commonwealth Games, isn’t it obvious that she should focus on her pro career?
“Yes, we’re going pro flat out,” says her manager Akram Yiga, who strongly dismissed the Champions League as a selfish arrangement meant to enslave boxers for no gain.
 At the African Olympic Qualifiers in Dakar, Nanziri’s first international event, she defeated Senegal’s Khadidja Timera, loved by her home crowd and lauded among the ladies to watch.

But in Tokyo, she lost to her only Olympic bout Tsukimi Namiki, who was also Japan’s first female Olympic boxer. Nanziri felt the burden of fighting at such a grand stage moreover in front of a partisan crowd cheering her opponent.
But against Kenyan Nichole Achieng on Friday, Nanziri shall be the host fighter and shall have no stage fright excuses.
Mental preparedness is one of those issues her training team that includes Emmanuel Busagwa and Henry Majwega should be working on.

In terms of experience, Achieng has an advantage, having been a pro fighter by 2017, when Nanziri had not entered national amateur competitions.
But Nanziri looks a better boxer than the one at the Olympics, with bigger and stronger muscles. In the videos shared by her management on social media channels, Nanziri hits even harder.
Nkulinze, is how she rallies her fans, meaning “I’m waiting for you.”


THINKING TWICE  
Bold Decision. Shadir admits having considered quitting boxing after the disappointment at the 2019 African Games.But when he finally reconsidered the decision, and tried one more time, Shadir became a hit.
He bounced back and finally stood taller than all 12 teammates. On the last day of the African Olympic Boxing Qualifiers in Dakar, he defeated Ghana’s Jesse Lartey in the third-place box-off, won the enviable ticket to the Olympics, and a bronze, his first ever medal in four international tournaments.

“My father, wherever you are, you started it. I am completing, I have achieved my dream of representing my country at the Olympics,’’ he told the press in Dakar in February 2020, celebrating a huge relief and conquest.
Again, another disruption called covid-19, threatened to shatter Shadir’s Olympic dream, first postponing the Games, then denying him ideal preparations but eventually he ticked off that box. 

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