Peter Grace Sseruwagi is undoubtedly the most successful boxing coach Uganda has ever produced. As a youngster, he tried various sports – football, athletics, until he found his true calling in the boxing ring.
Born in 1931 in Buyagga, Namutamba, Ssingo, Sseruwagi’s sporting talent was evident at an early age. He was a budding footballer and runner at Butumbiizi Demonstration School and won numerous accolades.
However, disaster struck when he broke his leg at Mengo Senior Secondary School. Now walking on clutches, Sseruwagi frequented Mengo Social Center to watch boxers sweating it out.
“Tom Kawere was the leader, and later on guys like Francis Nyangweso (Rip) joined him. That’s how the famous Kampala Boxing Club (KBC) was born,” recalls Sseruwagi.
However, his true calling came while at Kyambogo College. There, he switched to boxing, joining other boxers like Ben Ochan, Omallo, Obita, and Okello. But because he was unfit, Sseruwagi spent the first six months learning the basics of the “sweet science” footwork, shadow boxing, ducking, blocking and side-stepping.
In 1956, Kampala Boxing Club (KBC)onvinced him to join it. “When I joined, some boxers at KBC were scared of me.
“Yes, they were more skilled because they had started the game at an early age, unlike me. But no one could stand my raw power. My right hand punch was the most dreaded weapon in Uganda and East Africa,” he boasts.
As a light-welter weight (40kg), Sseruwagi says, most boxers in this weight category feared him and he ended up fighting those in higher categories.
Sseruwagi first represented Uganda internationally at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Wales. He was the East African light-welter weight champion at the time. Kawere, Obita, Nyangweso and Les Puch were the other boxers on the team.
But at Cardiff, Coach Mike Beaudu took him as lightweight (30kg).
“Obita was also a good light-welterweight. But he was poor at losing weight. So Beaudu took me because I had had proved good at losing and gaining weight. But I did not fight because I failed to lose 10kg,” he says.
Sseruwagi cites the wintry condition as the reason for failing to shed off the kilos. “I starved myself day and night but still failed to make the cut.
The weather played me hard. I could not run in snow. At the time for weighing in, I had shed 9.5kg but the judges still refused. That still haunts me up to now.”
At the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Sseruwagi was on a revenge mission. He steamrolled all his opponents by knocking them out to the semi-finals, where, he says, he was cheated.
“I was fighting an American. I floored him but the judges scored the game in his favour. I asked Tom (Kawere), ‘omusajja baabadde baagala nsooke mmutte’? (Did they want me to kill him first).
Journalists turned against the judges and organisers. They felt ashamed to the extent of giving the American his medal secretly. ”
The only positive thing Sseruwagi picked from Rome was sparring with the legendary Muhammad Ali.
“Ali had heard about Ugandan boxers. So he asked Coach Kawere for a chance to train with us. When he shook my hands, he felt the power and asked to spar with me first. But he was a monster I couldn’t keep up with him. Then he went on to George Oywello and Peter Odhiambo. Angelo Dundee, Ali’s coach, praised us for helping Ali to win the light heavyweight gold medal,” he says.
However, the Rome frustration was too much for Sseruwagi. He lost interest in the game, and retired in 1961.
After retiring, Sseruwagi ventured into coaching because Kawere had gone to the UK for training. In 1962, Kilembe Mines Boxing Club required his services. However, this was contested by the National Council of Sports (NCS) general secretary, Hassan Sunderani, who wanted him to concentrate on the national team.
But the lack of resources in the national team camp and poor pay forced Sseruwagi to take Kilembe’s offer. His team won all the available local trophies in his first year, which rubbed Sunderani the wrong way.
His first taste of success as national team coach came in the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia, with Oywello, Nyangweso, Kesi Odong, John Ssentongo, Peter Odhiambo and John Sentongo all winning medals.
On return, Sseruwagi went straight to Kilembe to prepare his team for the local boxing events. Again, Kilembe swept all the available medals, which further heightened the impasse between them and NCS.
In the end, the two parties reached a compromise NCS would send three boxers for training in preparation for the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica. These were John Ssentongo, Mathias Ouma and Ben Ochan and with Sseruwagi’s tutelage, they all won bronze.
This performance further fuelled NCS’ resolve to have him coach the national team on a fulltime basis.
“The matter got serious. The government forced me onto a plane from Kasese to Entebbe and I was given an ultimatum to either coach the national team or go to jail. They even threatened to close Kilembe Mines so my bosses released me.”
His three-decade reign was undoubtedly Uganda’s golden generation of boxing, with boxers winning numerous accolades at the local, regional, continental and world stages.
With Ayub Kalule and Joseph Nsubuga winning Gold and Bronze respectively in the World Championships in 1974, Uganda was ranked fourth in the world, behind Cuba, Soviet Union (Russia) and USA. It was a great honour for Uganda to finish ahead of renowned boxing powerhouses like Yugoslavia, Romania, Venezuela, East Germany and Bulgaria.
World beaters like Kalule, Eridadi Mukwanga, Leo Rwabwogo, Cornelius Boza Edwards, John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi, Vitalis Bbege, John Munduga, Mustapha Wasajja, John Odwoli, Muhammad Muruli, Ben Masanda, John Byaruhanga, Vicky Byarugaba, David Musoke, Alex Odhiambo, Hussein ‘Juba’ Khalil, Justin Jjuuko and Godfrey Nyakana all flourished under Sseruwagi.
In total, he guided Uganda to 95 gold, 75 silver and 54 bronze medals at the All Africa Games, Commonwealth Games, Pre-Olympics, Olympics and Thailand’s King’s Cup.
This journey lasted three decades making him Uganda’s most successful coach ever.
Fall from grace
Despite all those achievements, Sseruwagi is a poor man. During the NRA bush war, he was a collaborator with NRA rebels.
Consequently, Milton Obote’s army raided his farm and took away his herd of more than 400 animals. This, he says, was the last straw that broke the camel’s back.
“That set me back. I had focused all my energies on my farm to look after me in retirement. But they left me with nothing.
“When Museveni came to power, he set up a committee to compensate our property. But when I reached there, a prominent senior army officer told me to back off. I tried three times in vain, then I let go. Some had even started threatening me, yet during the war they were eating at my place” he shakes his head.
Sseruwagi also suffered a back injury while on national duty in 1992 and dragged government to court to pay for his medication. However, his case was dismissed.
His efforts to reach the president have proved futile, thwarted by authorities, he says. In July 2014, Museveni tasked sports Minister, Charles Bakkabulindi, to look for Sseruwagi, but that is where it all ended. And, he believes that will never happen, since it was not the first time President Museveni was asking his aides to look for him.
The only joy he is left with, he says, is the fact that his name will long outlive him.
SOURCE: Daily Monitor