Ugandan boxing champion Ayub Kalule recalls the ups and downs of his career
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Ayub Kalule does not believe that Sugar Ray beat him. We’re sitting at his favourite hangout, Café Bravo, in the centre of Kampala. He’s talking about his maiden fight across the Atlantic.
In many ways, we are far from the Houston Aerodome where he lost the WBA light middleweight title in 1981. His memory seems to be fading as he struggles to remember the details about his career.
Kalule was born in Najjanankumbi, just five kilometres south of where we were sitting. He discovered boxing while he was at Nsambya Primary School.
“I chose boxing to defend myself against people who used to bullshit me in the neighbourhood,” he tells me. Soon he was drafted onto the school boxing team.
“I was too young and when I used to weigh in during school tournaments, I would be below the required weight.” In order for him not to miss out, he would sometimes run to the tap and drink enough water to add a few kilos.
He started training at the Kampala Boxing Club (KBC), the most equipped gym in Kampala. “That was about 1971,” he tells me. He furrows his brows as he makes an attempt at remembering the exact year.
KBC was a top boxing club under the tutelage of the legendary boxing coach, Peter Grace Seruwagi, who was heavily involved with spotting talent for the Bombers – Uganda’s national boxing team.
Kalule joined the team around 1973 when he started representing Uganda, and when he decided to end his formal education. His first international tournament was at the second All Africa Games held in Lagos, Nigeria. He might have been new on the team but managed to come back with a bronze medal. In 1974, Kalule was part of the Bombers squad that went to Christchurch in New Zealand for the British Commonwealth Games.
“I fought each and everyone and came back with a gold medal in the lightweight category,” he says with another smile.
On his return, he remembers President Idi Amin giving the team gifts and money. He got about UGX 10,000 (USD $1,455 by current exchange rates adjusted to inflation and currency depreciation). “That was a lot of money back then. Today, that money would help you get a good reconditioned car.”
Going into the fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, Kalule had knocked out 18 of his opponents in his 36 professional bouts and he was the reigning WBA light middleweight champion. He was the clear favourite going into the fight at the Houston Aerodrome on 25 June 1981, where 25,000 people watched the two top boxers.
Kalule blames a translation mix up between him and the Spanish-speaking referee, Carlos Berrocal, for the unceremonious end to the fight.
“The referee asked me whether I wanted to continue with the fight and I nodded telling him, yes, I was ready to continue.” He was shocked when the referee stopped the fight in the 9th round.
“One thing people don’t understand is that Americans want to be superior. That is why most fighters who went to fight in America lost, but when these same American boxers fought elsewhere, they ended up losing.”
“It seemed like they bribed him [the referee] to do that,” Kalule tells me, barely hiding the frustration on his face.
Five years earlier, going into the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Leonard and Kalule had been billed top contenders for gold in their weight, but Kalule was denied the opportunity when Uganda became one of the 28 African nations that boycotted the Olympics in protest against the Canadian government’s warm relations with the South African Apartheid government.
“I had thoroughly prepared for the Olympics; I had fought and beaten everyone in the welterweight category,” he tells me.
“When we came back to Uganda and I heard the bad news that we would after all not be going to Canada for the Olympics, I decided to turn professional.” It was an easy decision to make because when the Bombers were on their European tour, Kalule had spoken with one of the top boxing managers there in Denmark, Mogens Palle.
“I contacted Palle and not before long, I was in Copenhagen.” That was early in 1976.
Not before long, a fight was arranged. It was against a German, Kurt Hombach, in Copenhagen.
Hombach had already fought 40 opponents while Kalule was still a novice.
“Were you scared?”
“No,” he says with a little grin on his dark-skinned face.
“My promoter told me, ‘We are sorry we could not get you a less experienced fighter,’ but I said ‘Okay, I don’t mind who I am fighting, I am here to give my best. If my opponent hits me hard, I hit back harder and whoever hits the other more should win’.”
Kalule beat Hombach after four rounds. That fight marked the beginning of Kalule’s successful professional boxing career.
“So who was your toughest opponent?”
“The Yugoslav, Marijan Benes.”
Kalule pauses and chuckles. “I kept tapping and punching him but he kept coming forward. I couldn’t press him back,” he says with another smile. He raises his fists and throws jabs in the air.
Kalule came back to Uganda in 1994 and got back into boxing. He wanted to nurture young Ugandan boxers. Unfortunately, he has not found the environment conducive for him.
“The people [involved in boxing] never want to learn and they don’t want to admit that they don’t know,” he tells me. He says the current generation of Ugandan boxers lack guidance, explaining the stagnation that has gone on for 40 years.
Kalule today lives a quiet life. He prefers not to talk about his private life, and that includes his family and private business. It was only during my second time meeting him that he agreed to talk about his family. He no longer lives with his wife, Ziyada, with whom he moved to Denmark 43 years ago. They are now separated.
However, Kalule says he has six children including two daughters, Mariam and Zajida, and sons Dauswa and Sadat. He also has two children with a Danish woman, and they still live in Denmark.
Today he lives with his mother, Jaliat, in Ndejje, on the southern outskirts of Kampala city. You are likely to meet him at Café Bravo where he blends in with the elderly patrons. He likes to read the local dialect newspaper, Bukedde.
He also works out a lot and looks fit. At 62, Kalule still does roadwork and occasionally runs more than ten kilometres, and can often be found at Kibuli Police training school where he trains professional and amateur boxers.
When I met him at the derelict training complex with one punching bag, Kalule was flanked by “China” Kasumba, the Police Boxing Club’s coach. He takes off his shirt and exposes a body that would make a 25-year-old man jealous. His chest is well built and his belly free of fat.
He shows an upcoming boxer to stand and throw strong jabs. A few moments later, he holds the punching bag tightly as another young boxer throws several punches. The younger boxer misses a trick and Kalule goes for his head