Josaya Wasonga remembers Kenya’s finest boxing olympian
In 1962 a welterweight boxer called Benny “the Kid” Paret died in New York after an unsuccessful attempt to defend the crown. Robert Wangila, a Kenyan welterweight, died in July 1994, 36 hours after a bout in Las Vegas. Wangila’s nickname was also “Kid”.
For all you history buffs, here’s the physical address: Block Z2, 5023. Situated on the cusp of Tana Crescent, off Charles New Road, in Nairobi’s Jericho-Lumumba Estate, between the Community Hall and St Joseph Catholic Church.
The fading greyish one-bedroom council brick house could pass for just another crib. But it’s not. It achieved a feat that has remained unrivalled in Kenya: producing an Olympic boxing champ.
In this ’hood, he was simply known as ‘Roba’, short for Robert. Robert Wangila. Then he was a truck driver at Kenya Breweries Limited (KBL). Roba must have dreamed about boxing glory in house number 5023. And it came true in the ’88 Seoul Olympics when Wangila, 21, literally punched his name into history books.
Lucas Ochieng’ fondly remembers Roba. The two were teammates at KBL boxing club, where Ochieng’ fought in the welter-, middle- and light-heavyweight divisions. Ochieng’ recalls Wangila’s discipline, and how they would alternate – depending on which match they were preparing for – between training at Kenya Police, “Dallas” (Muthurwa), KBL’s Ruaraka gym and at St Teresa’s Undugu.
“Roba came from a humble background and had his priorities straight. He didn’t smoke or drink. Unlike some boxers who were quick to settle scores with fists, he wasn’t easily provoked… he had second thoughts.
“In our ’hood, most guys got into trouble, but Roba knew what he wanted, and he went for it. When it came to training, he trained harder than most of us.
“Roba went to school at Maasai Boys, up to Form Four. He lived with his stepfather, mother (an SDA adherent) – and his stepsister, Margaret. Roba would at times attend mass at St Joseph Catholic Church, although he became a Muslim while in America.”
That explains the genesis of Wangila’s troubled family life, which came to the fore on the very day Kenya’s flight touched the ground from Seoul. Two men, both claiming to be his biological fathers, were on hand to welcome their triumphant son. There were reports that Wangila was mortified by the spectacle and hid himself in the airport’s bathroom. This charade was to continue for days, clouding what should have been a fairytale story.
Wangila was introduced to boxing by his distant cousin Modest Napunyi Oduori, one of Kenya’s finest pro pugs. In December 2004, Modest’s son Anthony Napunyi knocked down his Ugandan opponent, Mohammed Basule, who was pronounced dead one hour later in a Nairobi hospital.