John Baker Muwanga, one of the best regarded of Uganda’s boxing champions, was born on April 2nd 1956 in the vicinity of Kampala, growing 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 hang up his gloves. His pathway to boxing started when his half-brother Nsubuga who was born in Kenya in the early 1950’s showed up in 1963 at the family home in Nsambya while accompanied by his sister and mother. The father of the children had been employed by East African Railways and Harbors where he worked in Kenya. Muwanga was delighted to have an older brother around. Nsubuga had dabbled at 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 vacate the house, taking with him Muwanga and one of his sisters to live elsewhere. He soon ended up being a pupil in Mugwanya Preparatory School (Kabojja), a boarding school; and thereafter he was transferred to the sister school St. Savio Primary School on Entebbe Road.
At Savio in 1969, Muwanga ended up fighting a bully who happened to be the son of a politically prominent person. Muwanga was expelled from school as a result. His father was very furious, and assured him that he would never amount to anything. Meanwhile brother Nsubuga was making steady boxing progress, Muwanga got the attention for just happening to be the brother–although he was put down as comparatively weak and not as tough as his boxing brother. It is here that Muwanga decided to try boxing. He was matched with play opponents, he was badly beaten and laughed at. People from northern Uganda were reputed to be good fighters, and Muwanga was discouraged from continuing with boxing on the grounds that such boxers would, “kill you for nothing.” But the taunting just made Muwanga the more determined to disprove skeptics.
Muwanga dared to enroll in the national junior championships which were held at the Nsambya Police shed. He would represent Nsambya Boxing Club. At that place and time, those days, medical tests were not up to standard and were not taken seriously. Muwanga was allowed to box. He was matched with an opponent Tilima from Naguru boxing Club. In the fight, Muwanga did not prove himself; his opponent who was much better than him did his best not to humiliate him. Tilima even pretended to be knocked down, even when he had not been hit. Muwanga writes (Personal communication, 10 June 2014):
“What a show!!! This guy tried everything not to humiliate me but failed people laughed until tears run down there cheeks. The guy even pretended to be knocked down by the air of a punch I had swung some 10 inches away from him. He got a warning for that. I lost and the crowd laughed.”
Muwanga’s associates would laugh at him because of that fight. This caused him to strive the more to become a good boxer. Early on a Sunday he decided to go to Kampala Boxing Club in Nakivubo. Muwanga writes, “I went to KBC in Nakivubo, determined to learn how to box or die” (Personal communication, 10 June 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 rebuked by the national coach Erias Gabiraali. Muwanga started training there as he got to know some of the national boxers who dropped in. These inclued Ayub Kalule, Cornelius Bbosa Boza-Edwards, Mustafa Wasajja, Ben Ochan, Alex Odhiambo, Ochodomuge, and David Jackson. Even Muwanga’s brother Nsubuga would drop in. In concluding words Muwanga writes (Personal communication, 10 June 2014):
“One day I was shocked to hear that my brother was going to Scotland [Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, 1970] to represent Uganda. I could not believe, not only that other urchins from the ‘village’ were also going, to make the pie sweeter boys from the slum next door which was Katwe Kinyoro, the likes of John Opio were also in the team!!! There was justice in honest sweat, hard work and discipline… the rest is history.”
At the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, on July 18th 1970, 16 year-old Joseph Oscar Nsubuga (lightweight) was defeated by points decision by Olympian Kenneth Mwansa of Zambia in the preliminary round.
At the Commonwealth Games of 1974 held in Christchurch, 20 year-old Nsubuga now a light-welterweight defeated Philip Sapak of Papua New Guinea. This happened in the preliminary first round on January 27th when the referee halted the fight early after Nsubuga had quickly overwhelmed his opponent. However, in the quarter-finals that were held two days later, James Douglas of Scotland defeated Nsubuga by points and thereby halted 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 during October 3-7, 1974. In the quarter-finals, Nsubuga fighting as a middleweight beat Zaprianov (Bulgaria) by points. But in the semi-finals he was beaten, by points, by Peter Tiepold of the German Democratic Republic. He settled for the bronze medal. here Ugandans performed remarkably well: James Odwori (flyweight) and Ayub Kalule (light-welterweight) won gold; Vitalish Bbege (welterweight) won the silver medal.
Nsubuga would debut as a professional in May 1975 whereby he moved to Finland then to Norway; he would mostly fight in Europe. Nsubuga stopped competing in 1981 after he was knocked out by famous future world champion Davey Moore. Nsubuga’s most signified fight was his spirited gladiator battle (non-title bout) with renowned Panamanian Roberto Duran on January 13th 1980 in Las Vegas. The Panamanian seemed to be tiring, but Joseph “Stoneface” Nsubuga was knocked out at the end of 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 4th 2013, aged 59.
During the 1970’s while at Namasagali College in Kamuli District in Uganda, Muwanga displayed himself as a skillful, dreaded, and popular boxer. At the amateur national level, he is said to have defeated renowned future world champion and fellow Ugandan Cornelius Boza-Edwards (Bbosa) twice. In April 1973, the annual Golden Belt Tournament took place in Bucharest. Most of the winners and silver medalists turned out to be Cubans and Romanians. It was here that Muwanga, aged 17, first participated in international competition. Here Muwanga, together with his accomplices on the Uganda team–Ayub Kalule, Vitalish Bbege, and James Odwori–all won bronze medals in Romania. Later in the same 1973, Muwanga fought for Uganda twice in two Urafiki (Kenya vs. Uganda) tournaments; he was victorious. Muwanga soon became overwhelmed when the veteran Ugandan boxing legend Alex Odhiambo, who had heretofore been so critical of the younger boxer, subsequently gave him the nod and the thumbs up!
At the local level and during training, Muwanga did fight Odwori and another famous Uganda boxer “Kabaka” Nasego several times, but he did not win. Among the Ugandans he beat were Vincent Byarugaba, and several others. Muwanga’s stint as a national amateur boxer were from 1973 to 1977 when he was also a student at Namasagali College; thereafter he attended Oslo University while he fought as a professional. Muwanga recalls that at training camp, where behavioral attitudes varied from boxer to boxer, as admired example the skillful Odwori was particularly talkative, whereas Ayub Kalule preferred action to words (Personal communication, 29 October 2015):
“… guys like Ayub Kalule… preferred action to talk, a phenomena in my opinion. James Odouri talked a mile a minute but, had the rare ability to back up whatever he said. A very rare quality. We called 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 here won gold and bronze, respectively. Muwanga was eliminated in the preliminary round by a points decision in favor of Bejhan Fuchedzhiyev (Bulgaria). Quite notable is the aspect that a massive six of the Uganda contingent in Havana had studied at Namasagali–one of the few schools in Uganda that embraced boxing. In addition to Muwanga, those boxers that did attend 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 Montreal Olympic Games of 1976 when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to bar from the Olympics countries from which athletes had participated in sporting events in apartheid South Africa. The New Zealand Rugby team was then touring South Africa. Countries like China, Iraq, and Guyana also withdrew; although with China it primarily had to do with a political name recognition issue–non-recognition of “Republic of China” vs. “Peoples’ Republic of China.”
The Uganda boxers withdrawn from participation because of 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). Non of these pugilists had represented Uganda at the 1972 Olympics held in Munich. Vitalish Bbege had won gold at the Africa Boxing Championships held in Kampala in 1974.
Muwanga started his professional career in Norway in April 1978, and ended it in October 1982. He mostly boxed as a lightweight. All his bouts took place in Norway, aside from the final two that took place in Finland. He did not lose any of the bouts but he likely would have liked to be exposed to more intensive competition and to also box in western countries where there are more top contenders and champions. A factor was the banning of professional boxing in Norway, this officially effective from the beginning of 1981.
Muwanga ended as undefeated as a professional boxer with 15 wins, 0 losses, with 6 knockouts (Boxrec.com). He regrets to some extend that he did not flourish as much as he would have wanted to as a boxer, but at the same time he is grateful that boxing took him to places and opened to him many advantages. He writes, “… my boxing career, in my opinion was not as exciting as I wanted it to be but I’m not complaining it opened a lot of doors for me and got me into places I never thought I would see… ” (Personal communication, 10 June 2014).