Documentary exposes the rot in Kenyan boxing scene

Friday July 3 2015

The poster of the documentary The Last Fight

The poster of the documentary The Last Fight directed by Jackie Lebo. PHOTO | FILE 

By CARLOS MUREITHI

John Kariuki is a boxer with memories of his many conquests in the ring. One he fondly remembers occurred a few years ago against a Seychellois fighter at Charter Hall in Nairobi as he represented Kenya.

Kariuki’s opponent dominated the fight in the early stages, even flooring him. But Kariuki overturned the situation, knocked out the Seychellois and won the fight.

But when the Kenyan national anthem was played to mark Kariuki’s win, it did not mean much to him. The reason being that he went back home to Nakuru (150km west of Nairobi) empty-handed. The organisers simply put him in a vehicle to Nakuru and bade him goodbye. His journey to Nairobi was different. Kariuku was jobless and struggling to provide for his family.

The sad tale of Kariuki, who currently is a porter at the main agricultural produce market in Nakuru town earning Ksh500 ($5.2) a day, is one of three Kenyan boxers’ stories in the documentary The Last Fight, released in early June and directed by Jackie Lebo.

The documentary attempts to shed light on the poor state of Kenyan boxing, with boxers, coaches and managers clinging the hope that someday, the situation will change.

Those interviewed in the documentary speak of the glory days when Kenya used to produce great boxers who did the country and continent proud in the international arena. Boxers such as Philip Waruinge, Robert Wangila, David “Harish” Ouma, Stephen “Steve” Muchoki, Bernard Irungu, David “DK” Kamau and Suleiman Bilal were among many that excelled at the sport.

The documentary addresses several issues in a bid to make the viewer comprehend why Kenyan boxing is going to the dogs, if it has not done so already.

The famous Dallas Boxing Club in Nairobi’s Muthurwa area is struggling to survive. The head coach Ndirangu “Coaches” Mahugu, has for five years now been trying to compel Nairobi County officials and the national government to improve the Muthurwa Community Centre, where the club is based.

His attempts to get an appointment with Hassan Wario, the Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Culture and the Arts, have been futile. Still, he is hopeful.

The Last Fight makes us question why, even though boxing keeps young people occupied and away from criminal activity, the government does not appear to be interested in developing the sport.

Nevertheless, Mahugu is optimistic because the current government has a new crop of leaders, a new system and a new programme for doing things.

“We believe that one day is going to be our payday, and that will be the best day of our lives,” Mahugu says confidently.

Parallel to Kariuki’s story are those of Issa Mwangi of Dallas Boxing Club and Mary “Dragon” Muthoni of Nakuru Amateur Boxing Club, also known as Madison Square Garden. This is the club at which Kariuki also trains and that produced several boxers who made up the Hit Squad, Kenya’s once great national boxing team.

Mwangi, who at one point in the film is shown washing a bus for a living, is a young boxer who looks up to his idol Suleiman Bilali, the 2003 and 2007 All Africa Games boxing champion in the men’s light flyweight category. The youngster is determined not to make his lack of a high school educationhold him back.

Muthoni, a mechanic, is a mother-of two. Her story makes us realise as much as Kenyan boxing in general is flagging, Kenyan female boxers specifically seem to have been left out of the sport and a lot is needed to make them play a bigger role in it.

Muthoni has not fought for four years because she does not have competitors. Most boxing clubs, she says, do not have female boxers. And those that do, do not select them for competitions. Muthoni, though, is adamant she will keep going until she no longer can. In her simple house is a picture of a mansion. “We buy these things to imagine,” she says.

The documentary makes us think about what could be possible if Kenyan boxers had more avenues of showcasing their talent and making a living by doing so. As it is, says Stanley Kamau, the chairman of the Nakuru Amateur Boxing Club, the boxers hope they can excel, be noticed then employed by the police, armed forces or prisons department so they can join the boxing teams and be able to compete in the sport, since they would then be on the government payroll.

If there is one thing we understand from sports management in Kenya, it is that its bad state is largely due to institutional failure.

The institution, in this case, is the government. The Sports Ministry is the institution that should primarily manage boxing and all others sports.

A wonderful selection of music lifts Lebo’s documentary, which leaves a viewer praying that the boxers win the fight to realise their dreams.