As the president, you cannot open the event by boxing in the ring,” Idi Amin’s Sports Minister, Maj-Gen Francis Nyangweso, frantically tried to dissuade his commander-in-chief from precipitating what promised to be a protocol disaster.
“Are you arguing with me?” Amin asked, obviously angry.
“No, sir!” Nyangweso retreated.
That short dialogue, way out of camera shot, preceded what would be a dramatic and unprecedented opening to the Sixth All Africa Amateur Boxing Championships in Lugogo, Kampala, on December 9, 1974.
Without any warning, Amin, who was presiding over the opening event, decided that he would take on national boxing coach Peter Seruwagi in a curtain raiser.
The Amin vs Seruwagi match was not on the programme but in Amin’s way of conducting affairs, this was no obstacle.
“Amin declared that he would open the championships by boxing me. The fight went ahead, ending in a knock-out in favour of Amin,” recalls Seruwagi.
Because the bout had not been planned for, Amin entered the ring with his neck-tie still on. Seruwagi wore a track suit.
The Voice of Uganda newspaper reported on December 11, “President Amin, opening the Sixth All Africa Amateur Boxing Championships on Monday night, registered a technical knock-out over his opponent, Uganda’s boxing coach Grace Seruwagi.
“The referee had to stop the fight in the second round to save Seruwagi from further punishment,” the Voice of Uganda added under the headline, “Boxer of the year.”
“Lugogo Indoor Stadium went wild with cheers when the Ugandan leader entered the boxing ring. Cheers of Amin Oye, Uganda Moto greeted the General as he kept trotting with his tremendous footwork and jabs.
The General’s opponent tried to ward off the powerful blows, but not for long.”
Immediately after the bout, Amin said he enjoyed sports and wanted to boost the morale of all boxers taking part in the championships.
He said sports, particularly boxing, were central in uniting people.
“Amin is a one-time boxing champion in East Africa and was unbeaten throughout his boxing career,” the Voice of Uganda reported.
In an interview with The EastAfrican at his farm in Katavu village, Myanzi sub-county in Mubende district, Seruwagi recalled: “Amin wanted to knock me out very fast, which I didn’t want. So I kept dodging his punches. In the first round, I dodged one of his punches and injured him in the armpit. Because he was determined to knock me out, I pretended to fall and I was counted out.”
Seruwagi believes that Amin wanted to revenge for a boxing bout he lost to him 16 years earlier.
According to Seruwagi, “I floored Amin in a specially arranged fight in the 1958 National Championship at the Nakawa Engineering School, with him in lightheavy and me in welterweight. So I think he wanted to pay me back by knocking me out at the championships. Otherwise, I don’t see why he wanted to fight me, a national boxing coach.
“I was surprised because you don’t open the games by fighting the coach.”
Even then, Seruwagi had to follow the unwritten rules of not humiliating a head of state at a sporting event.
He said that when a president is opening games like football, you cannot intercept his pass, so you let it roll into the net even if you are a goalkeeper.
“I knew this rule and my colleagues had also warned me of it. If I knocked out Amin, I would not have ended the night alive. As I was entering the ring, his security men were standing at all corners. So I had to use my wisdom not to humiliate him.”
Nyangweso says Amin wanted to show the world that he was a good boxer.
He adds, quickly: “Of course we had to fake a knockout. How do you beat a president?
“Idi Amin was an undefeated heavyweight champion from 1955-1959. That is not to say that he didn’t have strong rivals.
Locally, he fought Lesile Peach of Uganda Police but his biggest challenger was Owiso Owure of Kenya. They would really beat each other up. The Amin-Owure fight was always a must-watch,” recalls Nyangweso, a former boxer himself.
Uganda won the Sixth All Africa Boxing Championships with five gold, two silver and two bronze medals, thus retaining the title they had won at the previous tournament in Nairobi in 1972.
Eleven countries competed for the 44 medals at stake.
During our interview, Seruwagi, who has not forgotten the art of boxing, did some shadow boxing, boasting that he could still floor any opponent who came his way.
Returning to his seat under the trees in his compound, he expressed bitterness over the government’s failure to facilitate the treatment of an injury he sustained while on national duty at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
And recently he was diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure.
“I got a back injury while coaching the national team in the Olympics in North America. I was taking the boys through a rotating exercise when I slid and fell on the floor. I was rushed to hospital immediately and treated for a week. On discharge, I trained the boys while still in pain. I was treated by Dr Sekajuko, the team doctor.”
Seruwagi had a slipped disk in the lower back.
“I could not continue coaching. I resigned the national boxing coach job in 1992 because I couldn’t perform at my best. My treatment costs were met by the National Council of Sports, but when I resigned they stopped paying the bills. So I took them to court.”
Seruwagi sued under workers’ compensation through his lawyer, Prof John Barya. The case was dismissed on a technicality because Seruwagi complained six years after his injury, according to Prof Barya.
Seruwagi said: “My injury has become permanent. Now I can’t bend down to work on my farm. I walk with a lot of care because, with a misstep, I can easily fall.”
A slipped disk is common among boxers, weightlifters, footballers and athletes due to intensive training.
“When he returned from America, I advised him to rest and I gave him some treatment,” Dr Ssengendo recalls.
“He was injured during Milton Obote’s second regime, which promised him treatment abroad. But when the government changed, the NCS administration also changed, so there wasn’t anybody to follow up the matter.”