Former Commonwealth, Africa, and World Military boxing champion, Chief Obisia Nwankpa, in this interview with FRANCIS AJUONUMA, speaks on his boxing career and the dwindling state of the sport and the way forward, and others
Coach, it’s been quite a long time now, so what is happening to you?
I don’t understand what is happening in the country but I realised we are at a stopover. Things are not going as it is used to be. So, people like us -ex-athletes; I’m a retired athlete, I’m supposed to be on a different level doing different things in sports too, but we’re just looking Anya-Anya like the Igbos will say. That’s what is happening right now.
So, are you saying at this moment, you are not doing anything?
Yes, for now, I’ve not been doing anything about sports. Because we don’t know where we are going to or where we are going to land.
So, looking at your boxing sojourn as an amateur, do you think you had a successful career?
As an amateur boxer, I’ll tell you there is a lot to say concerning amateur and boxing. We’ve not revealed boxing to our children. A person like me, it is now I’m supposed to expose the real boxer I was to the youths but the opportunity is not there for me.
What exactly do you mean by the opportunity is not there?
What I’m saying is that I don’t have the support, financially from meaningful organisations and Nigerians to enable me to impact my boxing experience to the young ones; those who need it. If you look at the way things are now, nothing goes for free. You spend money to get money, you spend money to get news, most of the things now, and there is nothing that goes free. So, I need that assistance to pass this message to people, to children, and to those who need it.
How was your amateur career like?
I had a successful amateur career. I was a two-time world military champion. I was a Nigerian champion for many years and as an amateur, I was a West African champion; I held the title for many years and I became African champion and I held the African title too for many years. Later I represented Africa against Latin America, I won and became Africa/Latin-America champion that was 1974. Then in 1974 ending as a Commonwealth gold medallist, I represented Commonwealth against the United States of America, again I won and became Commonwealth versus United States gold medallist. This happened openly and every person saw it. Most of the people, who were officials that time, though some have died, are still alive so this is how I became Commonwealth champion in the super lightweight category.
Has any Nigerian equal this record?
No, especially nowadays it’s going to be very hard because things are not moving smoothly the way it was during our own time.
So, how was it during your professional career?
Yes, I turned pro in 1977 and as I turned pro, history repeated itself. I became Nigerian professional champion, I became West African champion, I became African champion too and I became Commonwealth champion; this is true because many, many of the youths who go around with me, many are still alive, this happened. There is something I forgot to add to this very record. I forgot to add my world military championship in amateur, I was world military champion, gold medallist
Apart from you, has any Nigerian won it?
I think somebody had it; he had one world military gold medal but I only remembered my own now. I’m one of the first persons that had it. I had it two times. I had it, 1974 and 1975. 1974 I had it in Guadalajara, Mexico. I had it too in Bangkok, Thailand.
How did your boxing career start?
That’s wonderful. It was at Igbobi Boxing Club, Lagos in 1966 that it all started; that was before the Nigerian civil war and at that time I was just a very young boy. I started boxing when I was 15 years old. At that 15 years was when I entered the ring first in my life and was in 1965. Gradually, in 1969 I became a champion in amateur.
So, who was the coach that discovered you?
Ha, that was Nicolas Kushway. He was based in Lagos, but an indigene of Asaba. He was Igbobi Boxing Club coach. The man has passed away now; may his soul peace. So, he was the coach of Igbobi Boxing Club. So, I lived close to him and through that I became interested. I went to him regularly and I was very, very young, I was about 15 years old then, that’s how I joined his club at 15 years and I continued doing it with him gradually and two years after I entered the championship at the age of 18.
At the age of 19, I became runners-up of my weight, that my weight at that time was lightweight. So, after that, in 1970, I became the light welterweight champion of Lagos, not the club because I was no more at the level of the club. So, in 1971, I became a champion too, a national champion, then 1972 I retained it and retained the champion too and at that 1972 I became an Olympian. I was in Munich, 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, so, that’s how I became an Olympian.
So, you were there in Munich, how far did you go?
Well, I lost in the quarter-finals. I didn’t win any medal there. But in 1976 everybody was sure that I was going to be a gold winner because I was so matured and prepared for the games and that was 1976 Montréal, Quebec, Canada. We’re in the games’ village when the announcement came that we Nigerians should go back to our place. You know, they said the Federal commissioner then announced that we should all come back. So, we went and packed our things and wait for the next instruction and the next instruction was that we should go back home because of politics.
So, at the period how did you receive the instruction from the Nigerian government to return home?
Nobody will be happy, nobody among us was happy because we’re withdrawing from the games, going back home and a lot of our African teams did.
Okay, from all indications, it’s obvious that you had a wonderful boxing career both as an amateur and professional, even as far as fighting Saoul Mamby for the world title can, please share that memorable night with Nigerians?
Yes, I spent 13 years as a professional and 16 years as an amateur. In my amateur games, I spent about 16 years then. In my professional, I spent about 13-14 years. I started my professional immediately after the amateur, so my professional life was that I rose to the number two contender in the world. immediately I rose to number two in the world, they saw that I was going very well, they raised an alarm that for me coming as a contender and I’m number two I have to do world elimination; is always very hard for any African to come out of world elimination but I came out of it against Juan Gimenez of Argentina and that was in 1981. I fought him in Lagos. We got a promoter, Afolayan, he was a good promoter, so he promoted my world elimination. At that time is always hard for an African to go for world elimination and come out of it.
You have to be three or four boxers, then they will pair you people with number one against number two or number four against number two or number three against number one, you see that was how they paired so the two that will come out will become number one and two contenders, so these number one and two have to face themselves to determine who fight for the World Boxing Council (WBC) title, that was how it happened. So, I went for that world elimination and I came out successfully and became the number one contender in the world. So, I’m then the only African that came out of the elimination. I think there was another African that came out of it too, that was Ghana’s, Azumah Nelson.
So, only two of us, who came out successfully among the African champions and world contenders. So, there is no other boxer in Africa, apart from Azumah Nelson and Obisia Nwankpa, no any other boxer, who succeeded in world elimination but I thank God I did, I succeeded but when I went for the world title with Soaul Mamby, yes, I lost by 2-1 split decision. It was a very painful night for me. Nobody believed it but I thanked God, I’ve to thank my God for it. So, that night when they announced that I lost 2-1, oh, I shade tears but we thank God we’re still alive today.
So, what do you think went wrong for you in that fight?
Yes, a little indiscipline, that little indiscipline I saw it and confessed that it was a little indiscipline. I was surrounded by lots of finance and a lot of gifts. Everything was around me, within me, so I couldn’t control the weight. The weight was rising, every day the weight was rising, so I had overweight. I knew I had a weight problem, my body was heavy so for me to make that weight that day immediately after weighing in, I have to go and do training, I did lot of training for more than two hours to shield that weight. I had two kilos over and I had to shield it before I go to the ring, so the thing affected me in the ring.
Which of these among your opponents gave you a tough time?
Yes, that was Juan Gimenez. For the world’s elimination, he was just like a lion. He was bouncing on the ring like a lion and he was coming after me like an enraged lion. That night I had to give all I had in boxing. You know, to become the number one contender qualified for the world title. Juana Gimenez, Juan Gimenez, I can’t forget him, he was such a tough boxer. You know Argentines are tough fighters, I had it very tough with him that night. For me to have a unanimous decision over him, I have to give everything.
Chief, I can see that your record speaks volumes of your achievements. You have served and carried the flag of this nation very high, has this country you the recognition you deserve?
I’ll say I had it once. Most of the time nobody remembers you but I thank God for his mercy. It got to a time that I was not even having a place.
The house I built in my place, in Abia state got collapsed and I needed assistance to raise that house, of recent, just about two years ago I cried to my state governor, Okezie Ikpeazu and I thank God that my governor heard my name and he responded to me with approval that I should be given some money you know, to rehabilitate that house but up till this moment, I’ve not received that money. It’s now a year and five months since the governor gave the directive for the release of the money. I think those, who are supposed to facilitate the transfer of the money to me are foot-dragging, only God knows why the delay. However, I want to thank my governor for recognizing my legendary but up till now, that money has not got to my hands.
With all these laurels that you won for Nigeria as an amateur, even at the professional level, how has the Federal govt appreciated you?
I represented this country for thirty-something years, amateur and professional I did it for about 39 years in boxing; amateur, and professional
So, looking back to your active boxing years, how do you compare boxing in your time and now?
We’re proud of Nigeria boxing in those days. Nowadays, presently the way we see boxing now is not good is in shamble. At times I feel like shielding tears. Because this is something we laboured for, this is something we’ve worked so hard for and we have youths who are coming up nicely too but suddenly, everything right now is turning upside down.
What do you think is responsible for this?
I think management is responsible. There is no good response from the government side. In the past, our boxers feature at different competitions across the world to gain exposure but today nothing is happening. Right now, AIBA World Championship is going on in Belgrade, Serbia and no single Nigerian boxer is featuring. It’s sad, really sad.
So, what advice do you have for the government?
My advice to the government is that government has to come down, come back to the youths, and allow the youths to function. Because without the youths functioning, having a little freedom to their youthful age, things will not work well, because right now the youths are suffering and that’s why you see there many offences and crimes. Crime is growing higher in the country now because most of the places that will engage them have all been taken over. So there is a need for the government’s provision of more sports facilities across various parts of the country, while the boxing federation ensures that our boxers compete at the various international competition for exposure.
Looking back at your boxing career do you have any regret?
Yes, there are some areas, you know. I was living fine, and living high, so there are some areas where mistakes were made due to maybe overjoy or youthful exuberance. There are some mistakes or make that you which you are not supposed to, but I don’t know and can’t remember any now.
So, how did you get the name Golden Gloves?
Yes, that name was given to me by a veteran sports journalist, a very senior one, I think his name is Esbee( Late Babatunde Oshuntolu) of Daily Times. He said to me that I always give him joy and happiness anytime he watches me fight in the ring, that I always win gold for Nigeria, hence he has christened me with the name Golden Gloves. I heard he is late now, my condolences to his family.
Sometime in 2019, you were honoured with a Chieftaincy title “Okuturuenyi 1 Ndi-Igbo” (Warrior of Ndi-Igbo) Ndi-Igbo in Lagos through his HRH, Eze Dr. John C. Nwosu, Ezendigbo in Mushin land, how do feel about this honour and challenges it brings?
It’s a great joy and honour to be conferred with a Chieftaincy title by Igbos in Lagos. I see it as a very great achievement and award to me. I’ve been receiving awards but this Igbo Chieftaincy title makes me happier and takes me so high too.
You saw how Anthony Joshua lost all his world titles to Alexandre Usyk of Ukraine and now he wants a rematch do think he stand any chance against Usyk?
For him as a champion to have lost to that guy in that manner, is going to be very hard for him to reclaim the title because when the pride was there, everything was in his favour yet he lost to that guy, for him to come back now there must be more serious attention. I saw his face structure was battered which shows that he suffered beating on that very day.
So, I’m saying and will advise is that he should forget about it; cut it off. Yes, man must be able to accept defeat at times because any defeat that uttered the structure of your face and make you look as if you were highly battered shows is not a small beating. I would have told him to forget it and retire. Yes, he should retire now that he’s alive and not when a man is disfigured.
Finally, let me ask this. Is there a use of juju (charm) in Nigerian boxing?
Let me tell you one thing; what you believe in works for you. There is juju not only in Nigerian boxing but in everything in Nigeria. Those who believe in the efficacy of juju do it. We see them, I’ve suffered it once. It works but it doesn’t go above; it has a limit; there are people you do it against and it doesn’t work, it depends. We all operate on a level but there are people you do it against that is not going to be favourable, while, there are people you do it against and it works. That Africa juju is real.