John Baker Muwanga, one of Uganda’s most highly regarded boxing champions, was born on April 2, 1956 in the outskirts of Kampala and grew up in Nsambya. Joseph Nsubuga, another of Uganda’s renowned former boxers, was Muwanga’s older half-brother.
Equally unique and fascinating is how Muwanga started boxing, how he progressed and why and how he hung up the gloves. His path to boxing began when his half-brother Nsubuga, who was born in Kenya in the early 1950s, showed up in 1963 at the family home in Nsambya accompanied by his sister and his mother. The children’s father had been employed by the East African Railways and Harbours, where he worked in Kenya. Muwanga was delighted to have an older brother around. Nsubuga had dabbled in boxing. Soon Muwanga would accompany Nsubuga to the police boxing club in Nsambya a few times. But Muwanga was not impressed with the sport. Also, Muwanga’s mother would soon leave the house and take Muwanga and one of his sisters to live elsewhere. He soon ended up a student at Mugwanya Preparatory School (Kabojja), a boarding school; and then transferred to sister school St. Savio Primary School on Entebbe Road.
At Savio in 1969, Muwanga ended up fighting a thug who turned out to be the son of a politically prominent person. As a result, Muwanga was expelled from school. His father was very furious and assured him that he would never amount to anything. Meanwhile, brother Nsubuga was steadily making progress in boxing, Muwanga garnered attention simply by being the brother, though he was disparaged as comparatively weak and not as tough as his boxing brother. It is here that Muwanga decided to try boxing. They matched him up with gaming opponents, brutally beat him up and laughed at him. The people of northern Uganda were reputed to be good fighters, and Muwanga was discouraged from continuing boxing on the grounds that such boxers “would kill you for nothing”. But the taunts only made Muwanga more determined to refute the skeptics.
Muwanga dared to enter the national junior championships which were held at the Nsambya police shed. He would represent the Nsambya Boxing Club. At that time and place, in those days, medical tests were not up to par and were not taken seriously. Muwanga was allowed to box. He was paired with an opponent Tilima from Naguru Boxing Club. In the fight, Muwanga did not prove himself; his opponent, who was much better than him, tried her best not to humiliate him. Tilima even pretended to be knocked down, even when he hadn’t been hit. Muwanga writes (personal communication, June 10, 2014):
“What a show! This guy tried everything not to humiliate me, but he failed, people laughed until tears ran down his cheeks. The guy even pretended to be knocked out of the air by a punch I had thrown about 10 inches from him. He got a warning for that. I lost and the crowd laughed.”
Muwanga’s associates would laugh at him for that fight. This made him try harder to become a good boxer. Early one Sunday he decided to go to the Kampala Boxing Club in Nakivubo. Muwanga writes, “I went to KBC in Nakivubo, determined to learn boxing or die” (Personal communication, June 10, 2014). The club was closed.
Muwanga returned to KBC early the next morning. There, a fellow James Bond Okwaare made fun of how Muwanga had boxed. Okwaare was quickly reprimanded by national coach Erias Gabiraali. Muwanga started training there when he met some of the visiting national boxers. These included Ayub Kalule, Cornelius Bbosa Boza-Edwards, Mustafa Wasajja, Ben Ochan, Alex Odhiambo, Ochodomuge, and David Jackson. Even Muwanga’s brother Nsubuga would come. In closing words, Muwanga writes (personal communication, June 10, 2014):
“One day I was surprised to hear that my brother was going to Scotland [Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, 1970] to represent Uganda. I couldn’t believe, not only that other urchins from the ‘town’ were also going to make the sweetest cake guys from the next slum that was Katwe Kinyoro, the likes of John Opio were on the team too! There was justice in the honest sweat, hard work and discipline… the rest is history.”
At the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh on July 18, 1970, 16-year-old Joseph Oscar Nsubuga (lightweight) was beaten by points decision by Olympian Kenneth Mwansa of Zambia in the preliminary round.
At the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, the 20-year-old Nsubuga, now a light welterweight, defeated Philip Sapak of Papua New Guinea. This happened in the first preliminary round on January 27, when the referee stopped the fight early after Nsubuga quickly outplayed his opponent. However, in the quarter-finals which were held two days later, Scotland’s James Douglas defeated Nsubuga on points and thus stopped Nsubuga’s quest for a medal.
Months later, in August 1974, Nsubuga, fighting as a middleweight, would win a bronze medal at the inaugural World Amateur Boxing Championships in Havana. Nsubuga had moved up to the middleweight division.
The TSC Tournament was held at the Dynamo-Sporthalle in Berlin from October 3 to 7, 1974. In the quarterfinals, Nsubuga, fighting as a middleweight, beat Zaprianov (Bulgaria) on points. But in the semi-finals he was beaten, on points, by Peter Tiepold of the German Democratic Republic. He settled for the bronze medal. here the Ugandans performed remarkably well: James Odwori (flyweight) and Ayub Kalule (light welterweight) won gold; Vitalish Bbege (welterweight) won the silver medal.
Nsubuga would make his professional debut in May 1975, moving to Finland and then to Norway; he would fight mainly in Europe. Nsubuga stopped competing in 1981 after he was eliminated by famed future world champion Davey Moore. Nsubuga’s most significant fight was his spirited gladiator battle (non-title fight) with renowned Panamanian Roberto Durán on January 13, 1980 in Las Vegas. The Panamanian looked tired, but Joseph “Stoneface” Nsubuga was knocked out late in the fourth round. He retired from boxing in 1981 with an impressive record of 18 wins and 3 losses. Nsubuga passed away in Helsinki on May 4, 2013, at the age of 59.
During the 1970s, while at Namasagali College in Uganda’s Kamuli district, Muwanga showed himself to be a skilled, feared and popular boxer. At the national amateur level, he is said to have twice defeated renowned future world champion and fellow Ugandan Cornelius Boza-Edwards (Bbosa). In April 1973, he held the Annual Golden Belt Tournament in Bucharest. Most of the winners and silver medalists turned out to be Cubans and Romanians. It was here that 17-year-old Muwanga entered international competition for the first time. Here Muwanga, along with his achievements on the Ugandan team (Ayub Kalule, Vitalish Bbege and James Odwori), won bronze medals in Romania. Later in the same 1973, Muwanga wrestled for Uganda twice in two Urafiki tournaments (Kenya vs. Uganda); he was victorious. Muwanga was soon overwhelmed when veteran Ugandan boxing legend Alex Odhiambo, who had so far been so critical of the younger boxer, subsequently gave him the thumbs up!
Locally and during training, Muwanga fought several times against Odwori and another famous Ugandan boxer, “Kabaka” Nasego, but did not win. Among the Ugandans he beat were Vincent Byarugaba and several others. Muwanga’s period as a national amateur boxer was from 1973 to 1977 when he was also a student at Namasagali College; thereafter he attended the University of Oslo while wrestling professionally. Muwanga recalls that in the training camp, where behavioral attitudes varied from boxer to boxer, as an admired example, the skillful Odwori was particularly talkative, while Ayub Kalule preferred action to words (Personal communication, October 29, 2015 ):
“…guys like Ayub Kalule…preferred action to talk, a phenomenon in my opinion. James Odouri talked a mile a minute but had the rare ability to back up everything he said. A very rare quality. We call him ‘ Kasuku’ [parrot] behind his back.”
John Muwanga, as a light flyweight, represented Uganda at the inaugural world amateur championships held in Havana in August 1974. Notably, Kalule and Nsubuga won gold and bronze here, respectively. Muwanga was eliminated in the preliminary round by a points decision in favor of Bejhan Fuchedzhiyev (Bulgaria). Quite remarkable is the fact that six of the Ugandan contingent in Havana had studied at Namasagali, one of the few schools in Uganda that embraced boxing. In addition to Muwanga, boxers who attended Namasagali included Nsubuga, Odwori, John Byaruhanga, Vincent Byarugaba, and Shadrack Odhiambo.
Muwanga’s national status continued to rise, and at age 20, he was selected to represent Uganda at the Summer Olympics in Montreal. Most African countries, twenty-eight of them, boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to ban countries whose athletes had participated in sporting events in South Africa from entering the Olympics. apartheid. The New Zealand rugby team was then on a tour of South Africa. Countries like China, Iraq and Guyana also withdrew; although with China it had to do mainly with a political name recognition problem: non-recognition of “Republic of China” vs. “People’s Republic of China.”
Boxers from Uganda who withdrew from participation due to the boycott included Baker Muwanga (bantamweight) alongside Venostos Ochira (light flyweight), Adroni Butambeki (flyweight), Cornelius Boza-Edwards (Bbosa) (featherweight), David Ssenyonjo (lightweight), Jones Okoth (light welterweight), Vitalish Bbege (welterweight) and John Odhiambo (light middleweight). None of these boxers had represented Uganda at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Vitalish Bbege had won gold at the African Boxing Championships held in Kampala in 1974.
Muwanga began his professional career in Norway in April 1978 and finished it in October 1982. He boxed primarily as a lightweight. All of his fights took place in Norway, apart from the last two which took place in Finland. He didn’t lose any of the fights, but he probably would have liked to be exposed to more intense competition and also box in Western countries where there are more contenders and champions. One factor was the ban on professional boxing in Norway, officially in place since early 1981.
Muwanga went as undefeated as a professional boxer with 15 wins, 0 losses, with 6 knockouts (Boxrec.com). He regrets to some extent that he didn’t flourish as much as he would have liked as a boxer, but at the same time he is thankful that boxing took him places and opened up so many advantages for him. He writes, “…my boxing career, in my opinion, wasn’t as exciting as I wanted it to be, but I’m not complaining because it opened so many doors for me and took me places I never thought I’d see…” ( Personal communication, June 10, 2014).