Suicide fights: A necessary evil in boxing

Wanting In Every True Sense Of The Word. Former national boxer Festus Omondi (R) and Marvin Ssali in a mitt work session at Zebra Boxing Club in Bwaise - a surburb of Kampala City. The safety standards at the gym are no better than those in suicide fights. PHOTO/ABDUL-NASSER SSEMUGABI

What you need to know:

  • Good Or Bad? Hellen Baleke, Diana Tulyanabo, Moreen Ajambo and Diana Atwine went to the 2014 Aiba World Women Championships in Jeju, Korea, without any official fight. Their only experience was from suicides. That they did not survive the first preliminaries at the world stage is a story of another day, writes Abdul-Nasser Ssemugabi

Four wooden or metallic poles, a couple of ropes around them and a boxing ring is done. Don’t mind the dusty or concrete floor without a canvas. Don’t ask for ring pads.
Anyone can be the ref, judge, or ring doctor in a fight where a welterweight (about 69kg) can take on a heavyweight (91kg). The fans can throw coins and notes to the boxers even during action. In Ugandan boxing lingua, these are called suicide fights where fighting, not safety, is the priority. These unsanctioned fights seem risky, yet anyone shall tell you, are the factory that makes Ugandan boxers and their fans.

To 2020 Olympian David Ssemuju suicides are a way of life. First, he fought them for experience as an upcoming boxer about a decade ago, but even when he was already an established boxer in 2017, he travelled for one in Tanzania to supplement what he earns from his painting gigs. “We made some good money from that suicide,” Ssemuju recalls with a smile of content. On different suicides Ssemuju has been literally everything: boxer, referee, judge, cornerman and spectator.

Joshua Tukamuhebwa, the finest boxer in the Uganda Boxing Champions League, says his light welterweight opponents fear him. 
And he is not just bragging—boy has ferociously knocked out three in three fights. He could be slightly lucky that one of his arch-rivals moved to a different weight and another boycotted the league. Still, the lean Tukamuhebwa confesses being heartless in the ring—a product of countless suicide fights against opponents much older, heavier than him since teenage. So the more the Uganda Boxing Federation (UBF) insists on the need to regulate suicides, which are usually friendly matches between clubs, many fear that it could kill the most natural way to identify and groom talent and eventually kill boxing.

Moses Muhangi

The crackdown
Such fears were amplified even louder by the unfortunate incidents on Easter Sunday, when police and the Flying Squad raided a boxing event in Masanafu on Ssentema Road, indiscriminately arrested over 400 people in attendance, beat some and detained 300 at different police stations in Kampala and Wakiso.
What followed were truths and half-truths that further divided the boxing family. The April 18 police report said the mission was to arrest thugs, suspected to be attacking the Northern Bypass and other areas, who had organised a tournament disguised as boxing clubs, according to a tip off from field intelligence.

After engaging several security officers, Salim Uhuru, head of professional boxing, without producing evidence, accused Moses Muhangi, the UBF president of feeding the security with false intelligence “that led to this unfortunate incident in boxing.”
Uhuru, the Kampala Central Mayor, spent the whole Monday at Old Kampala Police Station until 8pm when nearly 100 boxers were released. But Muhangi, the amateur boxing president, did not express interest, which lent credence to the allegations against him. Hours later, Juma Nsubuga, an emcee at UBF events, but claimed other responsibilities, recorded an audio confessing “on behalf of the federation,” that UBF was behind the arrest and warned that the worst is yet to come.

Muhangi shared the audio on a WhatsApp group of sports journalists, without confirming or denying Nsubuga’s claims. (Nsubuga told someone in a private phone conversation that his boss had instructed him to record that audio. Nsubuga was also on the committee that amended the UBF constitution last year, though he couldn’t read some words in the document).
 A day later, he shared a letter to police in which he repeated that the Masanafu event was neither cleared nor sanctioned by the federation, and pledged the federation’s collaboration with the police in case there were other reasons for the operation.

The police report also claimed that the event was not cleared by police. But the event organiser and boxer Sabiiti Sserunkuuma, alias Nesta, says he approached the area police and “other recognised personalities.”
He also shared a letter inviting the Wakiso Resident District Commissioner to the event. It thus makes little sense that Nesta, whose organinsation Boxing4Sensitization, has reformed and skilled youths through boxing, could connive with “thugs” to stage a boxing event.
The event was also advertised on twitter, Facebook under the theme: “Empowering the urban youth through sports and collective development,” but the poster also carried a slogan Ebiso Bisala Ku Easter [literally, the swords are sharp on Easter], a more relatable catchphrase among boxing fans.

“We have been staging these friendlies, previously called suicides, without the requirement to first seek permission from UBF, but we got some officials from the federation to help us,” Nesta told us, adding that the federation has never engaged them on the new policy. “Otherwise we would have abided.” Martin Ntulume, the chief UBF doctor, who was also arrested at the unsanctioned event, says security was misinformed and equated the incident to the killing of Isaac Zebra Ssenyange, the renowned boxer who was shot dead by security operatives in December 2020.
“We were lucky that no one died,” says Ntulume, who was released to give first aid to those injured in the scuffle, but his teenage son and nephew spent the night at Kawempe Police Station. “Anything could have happened; one policewoman was arrested for attempting to shoot.”
Ntulume adds that the massive arrest was unnecessary because the criminals were not arrested yet no one escaped from the scene.

Why suicides
Hellen Baleke, Diana Tulyanabo, Moreen Ajambo and Diana Atwine went to the 2014 Aiba World Women Championships in Jeju, Korea, without any official fight. Their only experience was from suicides.
That they did not survive the first preliminaries at the world stage is another story, considering the opposition they faced. But next time you see an inexperienced fighter giving a senior boxer a big challenge, know that that couldn’t be the first time the two are facing off. Charles Ssemakalu, coach Namungoona Boxing Club, says the ‘junior’ could have got the confidence after taking on the ‘senior’ during suicides.

Ssemakalu adds that being the best boxer in one’s gym is just basic. “Suicides help us test our boxers, identify their strengths and weaknesses against those from other gyms, an advantage when they meet in a serious competition.”Even without facing off, boxers and coaches pick vital notes about different fighters during suicide events. Better still, nowadays, those bouts are recorded by smartphones and shared on social media platforms, which coaches say is a new training tool.

Sometimes, those unsanctioned fights happen just before major national events like the novices, intermediates and open. 
“You don’t just bring a boxer to a national event without testing them in suicide fights,” says Lawrence Kalyango, alias Coach Lora, who guided the Bombers at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.
By the time you select a fighter, Kalyango adds, you must have ascertained that he or she has gained basic ring craft and is no longer frightened by fighting before a crowd. “That’s how we groom good fighters.” Besides, coaches add, suicides give experienced fighters a chance to try new skills and styles without fearing to dent their official records.

Safety risks
In the USA, these unregulated boxing events which have happened since the early 1900s, are called “smoker fights.” Nowadays, all fighters are matched up according to their weights and fight experience. They are weighed in, checked by medical personnel for safety and health, and set a time and opponent to fight. That’s pretty much what Muhangi wants to be done in Uganda. But Joseph ‘Joey Vegas’ Lubega, a 2002 Commonwealth Games silver medallist, who was arrested in the Easter raid, says the federation should not poke its nose in every boxing event. “As long as the organiser has the police clearance, a boxing friendly should happen without being sanctioned. But some people at the federation want to mix politics with sport and they disregard advice,” says the former Africa Boxing Union light heavyweight champ.
However, Coach Ssemakalu, Lubega’s big brother, sees the need for officials for safety reasons.

“Sometimes a boxer takes a serious punch that requires medical attention, which is lacking at most suicide events; it’s also common in football friendlies,” Ssemakalu says.
“Sometimes boxers who must fight with headgears fight without them; some are matched with opponents far heavier and take huge blows, without any technical intervention.”
To avoid that Ssemakalu hired six UBF officials—referees/judges and a medic—for his club’s friendly in Namungoona the night before Easter. But he knows that organisers would try as much as they can to avoid such expenses.

Survival For The Fittest. Light Flyweight  champion Businge training at KBC gym in 2018. Most boxing gyms in Uganda are as risky as suicide fight venues. On the left is boxing supremo Muhangi whose stance on unsanctioned fights is uncompromised. PHOTOS/JOHN BATANUDDE & ABDUL NASSER SSEMUGABI

Before signing the contract for the Champions League late last year, Tukamuhebwa’s main attraction to suicides was money.
“Some could come when I’m broke and I asked for at least Shs50,000,” he says. “On a good night I could make about Shs200,000 in prize money and tips from the fans.” But the East Coast boxer is also critical of the casual approach to safety. “There is little protection and sometimes if you get a medical emergence the organiser doesn’t have the capacity to fund it…so you bear the consequences.”

But safety mishaps also happen in most gyms because they lack resources. Ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, UPDF’s John Owino got a deep cut above his left eye during a sparring session at Kampala Boxing Club, but the coaches struggled to stop his bleeding because they never had enough cotton wool and disinfectants. Earlier on another boxer had been knocked down and his head hit the floor which was made of shredded tiles. But both boxers got back to their feet and boxed again.
Ssemuju then wonders: “shall UBF also regulate sparring in gyms?”

Way forward
But Muhangi insists his message is simple: to avoid a repeat of the Easter incident, every boxing event should be sanctioned by the federation and cleared by police. Ntulume agrees, adding that where necessary, Covid-19 guidelines should also be followed.
But Kalyango, who was also arrested in Masanafu, doubts that will end all possibility of the Easter incident.
“Those things [the arrests] could happen again, but we shall try to do what we can and leave the rest to God.”
Shall you ever engage in suicides again? We asked Isaac Masembe, as he marched out of Old Kampala Police gate Monday evening. The 2019 African silver medallist, who was a judge at the Masanafu incident, said: “Why not?”