Munduga: From Las Vegas lights back to poverty

Peter Grace Sseruwagi, one of Uganda’s most successful boxing coach, describes John Munduga as ‘the most talented boxer I have ever coached’. With such a tag and fairly successful career in Las Vegas, John Munduga is back to where his journey to stardom started four decades ago, writes Swaib Raul Kanyike

The famous Naguru Housing Estates, also known as Naguru quarters, is no more. This neighbourhood became famous for churning out talented sportsmen back in the day.

What are left are the shanty households around Naguru Go-down. John Munduga, a former national boxing team captain and professional boxer resides here.

On a sunny Saturday morning, I set out to meet him. But as I find out, he is a pale comparison of the powerful boxer who tore opponents apart in his heyday.

Munduga was born in Naguru on January 10, 1961 in a sporting family. His brothers Jim Philip Mukii and Moses Lumago (Rip), were national boxers. Initially, Munduga was a footballer while at St Jude Primary School, Naguru. But his boxing career took off the day he visited the Naguru Community Centre, which was a one-stop hub for different sports disciplines.

“I peeped into the boxing gym and saw guys punching bags, sweating and skipping rope. Immediately, I decided to give it a try. That became the start of my boxing journey. Fred Genza (Rip) was our coach. I started at the same time with John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi,” he recalls.

Naguru was awash with sportsmen at the time. It has produced Phillip Omondi, Hussein ‘Juba’ Khalil, Moses Nsereko, Brian Umony (football), John Oduke (tennis), Dick Katende, Charles Lubulwa, John Siryakibbe, Peter ‘Ishimaru’ Okello (boxing) and Yayiro Kasasa (rugby) among others.
Despite Munduga’s talent, his father always objected to his sporting side because he was bright in school.

Beginning of a stellar career
Munduga’s potential was realised at the school’s boxing championships, where he was champion for four successive years. In 1972, he participated in the national juniors’ championships as an 11-year-old, representing KCC Boxing Club and won gold in the paper-weight category (25kg).

However, Munduga was achieving all these feats without his father’s knowledge.
In the National Novices’ Championships, Munduga was disqualified for being underage (below 18).

However, his big break came in 1977, when he was selected to represent Uganda in the annual Urafiki Championships in Nairobi and defeated a Kenyan to win gold.
At that time, the national team was also preparing to travel to Thailand for the King’s Cup. “When Sseruwagi heard that I had won gold, he called me for residential training. Sseruwagi also used his influence to bend the rules and let me fight in the novices category. I defeated all my opponents and won gold,” boasts Munduga.

He was also allowed to participate in the inter-mediates, where he bagged gold. Munduga thereafter travelled with the Uganda Bombers to Thailand as the youngest boxer. Others were Mugabi, Kalyesubula, Peter Odwori, Cuban Businge, Vincent Ocira, Paul Muyodi, Vicky Byarugaba and James Ochaya, but only Byarugaba and Ochaya won gold. Munduga beat an Australian, a Venezuelan and lost to a Thai in the semis, winning bronze.

“Before the trip, I went to my father and told him I was flying the next day. He somehow softened because none of his sons had ever stepped onto a plane. He told me to buy him a jacket because it was a rainy season. On return, I brought more than he had asked for jackets, shoes, shirts. He even started telling my siblings that I was his favourite son,” he giggles.

Munduga was also selected for the 1978 All Africa Games in Algiers, Algeria. He started well by beating a Malawian but lost his second bout to a Kenyan. Byarugaba and Lodovico Owiny won gold and bronze respectively.

Redemption in Poland
In 1978, Uganda participated in the Trybuna Ludu Invitational Championship in Poland.
Munduga defeated Ángel Herrera from Cuba, the reigning world champion at the time.

This sent shock waves amongst his next opponents. Munduga would later face a Romanian in the quarters, Russian in the semis and pip a Polish in the finals to win gold. He was also voted the youngest boxer of the tournament. The following year, he defended his gold. He was also part of the team that went on a one-month European tour, where he also won gold.

1980 Moscow Olympics
Munduga was selected the overall captain for Team Uganda at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

The boxing team had Mugabi, Lubulwa, John Siryakibbe, Peter Odhiambo III, Geofrey Nyeko and George Kabuto. Munduga defeated Venezuelan Nelson José Rodriguez in his first bout but was knocked out by Iraqi Farouk Jawad.

“I started the fight well but he punched me in the neck and I fell unconscious,” he defends himself. Mugabi won silver.

Turning professional
After the Games, Mugabi decided to go professional. Munduga also harboured the same dreams but decided to go assess the situation first. The two friends kept in touch.

In August 1981, Munduga was in residential training with the national team preparing for that year’s Urafiki tourney. Mugabi, then based in London, connected Munduga to boxing promoters and he escaped from camp, which incensed Sseruwagi.

“I travelled to London and on landing at Gatwick Airport, Jack Edwards came to pick me. I stayed at his home for one week, where I received the best care imaginable. Mugabi was in Germany but joined me later and took me around the city.”

Munduga was signed to promoter Mickey Duff for five years. Duff was also managing Mugabi and other boxers. Whereas Mugabi was fighting mainly in England, Munduga’s first 13 professional fights took place in Germany. He won all of them and became a darling of the Germans.

When Mugabi relocated to Tampa, Florida, Munduga followed him. On May 3, Munduga defeated Robert Wilcox by a Technical Knockout (TKO) in the first fight round. He went on to win his next 10 fights, until June 21, 1986, when American Mark Breland beat him by a TKO. Breland had previously won gold at Olympic and World Amateur Championships. Boxing greats Muhammad Ali, Marvin ‘Marvelous’ Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard and Joe Walker were all in attendance. Six months later, Munduga defeated Alvaro Granillo at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada. Despite the win, Munduga says, he was way past his best.

“Breland’s punches left me dazed. He gave me a thorough beating and I never recovered from it.

In fact, it made hate boxing, the sport that I had loved all my life a litle,” Munduga says. After the Granillo fight, Munduga took a two-year sabbatical. His return was not any sweeter, losing all his four fights. “I decided to rest for a while my body was tired. I was tired and had started to lose passion.”

On February 21, 1988, Munduga got back to the ring but lost to Darrin Van Horn. He left the US and fought Paul Toweel in Berlin, German, but also lost.

He also lost his two final games to Ikleff Ahmed Hadjalla in May 1989 and Rexfort Kortram in November 1989 in West-Vlaanderen, Belgium. After the losses, he decided to hang his gloves. Munduga’s professional career stands at 30 fights, 25 wins (19 by Knock Out) five losses.

Return to Uganda
On returning to Uganda, Munduga started coaching Kololo High School’s boxing team. It is there that he discovered budding boxers like Jolly Katongole and Sharif Bogere. He also doubles as Mulago Boxing Club coach and was Rwanda’s coach at the 2000 Africa Zone V boxing tournament in Cairo, Egypt.
However, Munduga, like a good number of former local sports stars, is living a sorry life he neither has a steady source of income nor proper residence. No amount of questions will make him open up on what really led to this.

All his effort, he says, is in trying to coach and groom youngsters into champions to emulate the legacy left by the Ugandan boxers of the yesteryears.

In Part V, meet Peter Grace Sseruwagi, the man who knocked out Idi Amin and put Uganda in fourth position in world boxing rankings through his exceptional coaching.

SOURCE: Daily Monitor


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