•Gone are the years when Kenyan boxers would soak in fame and glory.
•The last vintage performance exhibited by a Kenyan boxer was in 1998 when Robert Napunyi Wangila won a welterweight gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.
Local boxing enthusiasts almost smashed the ceiling out of excitement after four Hit Squad members stormed the semifinals of the Africa Boxing Championship in Maputo, Mozambique on Tuesday.
The splendid form comes on the back of heartwrenching episodes of losses on the global stage.
Other than the Africa Zone III Championship, where local boxers have asserted authority, there was nothing to celebrate from their performance at the Tokyo 2020 games, the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games as well as the IBA World Boxing Championship.
In the three events, Kenyan boxers returned home empty-handed after miserable outings.
The country is now crossing its fingers for a better season in Maputo where the remaining quartet will all be gunning for the Sh1.2 million winner's prize.
Boxing Federation of Kenya (BFK) President Anthony 'Jamal' Ombok has predicted a bright future for local boxers after years of uncertainty in the sport.
Kenyan pugilists have been grappling with a string of unimpressive results in major global shows but Ombok reckons the situation is about to change.
Gone are the years when Kenyan boxers would soak in fame and glory. The last vintage performance exhibited by a Kenyan boxer was when Robert Napunyi Wangila won a welterweight gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.
Wangila is the only Kenyan Olympic gold medalist outside athletics and the only boxer from Sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa to have won Olympic gold.
Ibrahim Bilali, 57, came close to equalling the feat when he bagged a bronze medal in the flyweight division (– 51 kg) at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California.
But BFK honcho Ombok believes the country is about to experience better tidings.
“Boxers, the ball is now in your court. We want results from your end. The journey has just begun and I won't lie to you, the future of the sport in this country is bright,” Ombok said.
“As long as you work hard, you are likely to go far. I want to see a situation where boxers will own their cars. I'll be the first one to ask you for a lift to town,” Ombok said.
Ombok has said comprehensive plans are in place to phase out the current crop of ageing boxers and replace them with young and vibrant blood.
Ombok reiterated the need to embark on early preparations ahead of the next Olympics, saying the federation would step up facilitation to catapult the Hit Squad to the medal podium at the next games.
“We should now start thinking seriously about bridging the gap that will be occasioned by the exit of the likes of Nick Okoth and Christine Ongare. Some of the boxers who flew Kenya's flag at the Tokyo Olympics may not be available for national duty owing to advanced age,” he said.
Ombok said that BFK learned some key lessons at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games that will be used to enhance the country's performance in future events.
“Every boxer nurses dreams of participating in the Olympics someday. We deployed four boxers at the just concluded games but unfortunately, we didn't secure any medals.
“We are putting structures in place to nurture budding boxers who will take over from those who have already played a crucial role in serving the country,” he added.
Despite Hit Squad’s heartbreak at Tokyo Games, Ombok remains optimistic about the country's future on the international stage. He believes the Paris 2024 games in France will offer new tidings.
“I’m convinced Hit Squad will bag medals in the next Olympics and not just one but quite a number. This is because we have many young people who have embraced boxing. They saw what the quartet did in Tokyo and felt motivated.”
“Right now, we have put in place the necessary structures and incentives to push the Hit Squad to the sky. They have all been receiving their allowances in good time and besides, they have all the facilities and equipment prerequisite for good performance,” said Ombok.
“Our boxers have absolutely no reason not to perform given the favourable environment they are operating from,” he added.
Ombok prevailed upon the BFK leadership to continue pulling in one direction, pointing out they stand to gain some considerable traction with a firm unity of purpose.
“When I took over the leadership of BFK, I made it clear that we must always work as a team to achieve our set objective, and that's precisely what we've done so far,” said Ombok.
Ombok stressed the need to reactivate all the activities that stuttered to an abrupt halt in the damning wake of the ravenous Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
“The existence of the coronavirus pandemic disoriented some of our plans. We have rolled out the inter-county boxing championships and followed it up with the inter-club competition. We have set aside time specifically for elite and junior tournaments,” said Ombok.
Ombok reiterated BFK’s plan to increase its presence by spreading tentacles further across the country.
“If you visit areas such as Busia, you will most definitely run into a beehive of activities unlike in the past when boxing was limited to Nairobi. That's what has always been our target – to roll out programs at the grassroots.”
BFK communications director, Duncan Kuria said budding Kenyan boxers must put their noses to the grindstone a lot more if they intend to fly the country's flag on the global front.
While critiquing the performance of participants in recent events, Kuria conceded there was still a lot of work ahead.
“They are undoubtedly promising but must work extremely hard to offer any meaningful challenge to the existing squad. I doubt if they can outmatch them at this juncture.”
Kuria observed that although more pugilists have exhibited great potential to shine in the future, they seemed unripe to step into the shoes of the ageing Hit Squad members.
Already seasoned members of the national team have hinted at calling time on their careers.
They include Hit Squad captain Nick Okoth and Africa Zone 3 heavyweight champion Elly Ajowi who comprised the quartet that graced the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“Unless these youngsters burn the midnight oil to sharpen their claws, they will experience a tough patch against their more experienced opponents,” Kuria said.
Kuria, however, said he was pleased to note that fresh talent had emerged from counties previously considered as boxing minnows.
“The fact that we are having boxers from places such as Vihiga, Trans Nzoia, and Machakos speaks volumes about the positive turn the sport has taken in the country in recent years,” Kuria said.
“We are glad that some of the counties even house the BFK branch offices."
Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) boxing club head coach Nicholas Abaka wants more room created for budding boxers who can shift the tide in favour of the country in the heavyweight divisions.
The erstwhile Hit Squad pugilist has pledged to groom gallant fighters who possess the mojo to power the country back to its glorious years.
Abaka, who retired from the ring in 2019 after flying the country's flag in international competitions for close to a decade, says he has been busy moulding a new crop of boxers in his fold.
Abaka knows what it takes to attain the desired heights in the category, having taken the country by storm in the 2005 Zone 5 Championships in Nairobi, where he clinched gold in the welterweight division and capped off his stellar performance with the Best Boxer Award.
“The only way for us to move forward as a country and reclaim our forte in boxing is to begin moulding boxers from the scratch. We can't keep relying on the ageing boxers who are about to call time on the careers,” said Abaka.
The gaffer attributed the dearth of boxers plying trade in the heavyweight division to weak structures and unenterprising coaches who are unwilling to rummage through the grassroots for talent.
“The biggest challenge we have is that most boxers who end up in those weight categories do so in their prime. Coaches should get out of their comfort zones and move to the grassroots in search of relevant talent. Otherwise, we shall constantly decry the lack of boxers in those divisions,” said Akaba.
Abaka echoed concerns raised by Hit Squad head coach Benjamin Musa who said he had constantly experienced difficulties recruiting boxers to compete in the heavyweight and superheavyweight categories.
“The situation is so bad that we may be forced to travel to some major global shows without a full squad because some of the boxers interested in some weight divisions can not match up to the required standards,” said Musa.
National heavyweight champion Joshua Wasike also said he was tired of facing opponents who are too weak to offer him any meaningful challenge in the ring.
But besides that, Musa has implored the government to pump more resources into boxing.
Musa reiterated the urgent need to expose the team more often, pointing out that competitions at that level ultimately boiled down to experience.
“We need to invest heavily if we intend to start harvesting medals in such high-profile events. Nothing is achieved in a vacuum. Take the example of Mozambique. They are now reaping handsomely after giving their boxers adequate exposure on the international stage.
“We thank the government for their continued support including funding our trips to international assignments. However, there is a need for our boxers to participate in more invitational tournaments before major continental and global events,” Musa said.
Musa has raised concerns about the enormous gap existing between the existing members of the national team and the budding boxers.
Musa said the boxers who have not plied trade for the country in recent years still have some catch-up to do.
“We noticed there is still a huge gap between the current crop of Hit Squad members and the rest of our boxers,” Musa said.
He, however, insists that the fortunes of Kenyan boxers have experienced a positive curve in international outings despite the numerous challenges.
“There is a marked improvement in our performance if you consider how we did things in the past. At least our boxers have the gas to persevere through the entire bout, unlike in the past when most of them could be knocked out in round one,” Musa said.
Hit Squad captain Nick Okoth attributed his flop at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games to inadequate exposure but said he had gleaned the vital ingredients that could steer him to a podium finish in future events.
“While our rivals were busy participating in tournaments, we remained in camp hoping for the best. It's all about exposure. The more competitions you attend, the better you become,” Okoth quipped.
“The fact that all of us fought to the end of our bouts is a clear testimony that we were good at individual basis but lacked the necessary experience that usually comes with exposure.”
Okoth believes the emergence of a fresh crop of boxers portends a bright future for the country.
“It's exciting to see a new set of upcoming boxers who are good at what they are doing. Their presence adds some flavour to boxing tournaments. In the past, the tournaments have been so predictable because we've had the same boxers battling in the ring,” Okoth said.
Okoth, further reckons the new approach to training that is being employed by the national team tacticians will fire local boxers to unprecedented heights on the global stage.
The hard-battling Kenya Defence Forces officer — arguably the most experienced in the squad — said that a burning urge to break Kenya's losing streak has inspired the new tactical model.
The gaffers, led by Benjamin Musa, have been frantically groping for novel ways of transforming Kenyan pugilists into the desired gems after a series of heartbreaking outings.
“Our coaches have discovered a new approach in training where they encourage us to sit down and analyse videos capturing us in past action,” Okoth said.
“We then discuss our strengths and weaknesses and suggest the adjustments we should make to improve the quality of our performance in the ring,” he added.
He said the coaches then use the information they have received from the group discussions to smoothen the rough edges that merely serve to impede the progress of the squad members.
“It's working fine for us and I believe the approach will go a long way in bringing us to the desired standards,” Okoth said.
“Of course, we attend the gym as usual but the group discussion has helped us to refine our skills because we work hard to correct the mistakes our colleagues point out.”
Okoth headlines the star-studded list of pugilists currently attending the Africa Boxing Championship in Maputo, Mozambique.