One of the first things that come to mind at the mention of boxing legend Grace Peter Sseruwagi is his 1974 boxing bout with then Uganda President Idi Amin.
Trust Amin when it came to pulling off the outrageous. Sseruwagi, who succumbed to a long battle with diabetes and cancer on Tuesday, found himself in the middle of such a scenario on a cold December night.
Uganda was hosting the Africa Boxing Championship, and to Amin, a former heavyweight champion, there couldn’t be a better start to such a function than a boxing curtain raiser involving him.
“He shocked us in cabinet with news that he would box in the opening bout,” revealed then sports Minister Maj. Gen. Francis Nyangweso in a 2004 interview.
His preferred opponent was his 1950s national team-mate, Sseruwagi, who had since upgraded to national coach.
“As head of state you cannot open the event by boxing,” Nyangweso and other Ugandan dignitaries tried to convince Amin out of his idea.
“Are you challenging me?” a visibly furious Amin shot back. “No Sir,” Nyangweso and company quickly responded. With that, the historic Amin versus Sseruwagi contest was set.
Sseruwagi who died at 87 on arrival at Nsambya hospital, said in a 1998 interview: “I was scared.”
“Not that I couldn’t take on Amin in the ring (I had actually beaten him in my days as a boxer. But he was now not only President, but also a dictator.”
Come competition day and Sseruwagi was visibly nervous.
Amin, towering at 6.3 feet in trousers and a long sleeved shirt, was the first in the ring to thunderous applause from the huge crowd at the Lugogo Cricket oval. Sseruwagi’s entry meanwhile almost went unnoticed.
At the sound of the gong, Amin charged unleashing jabs. Sseruwagi, making no effort to strike back, was on the back foot as he ducked punches.
“Surrounding the ring were mean looking State Research agents. I just couldn’t dare hit back,” explained Sseruwagi.
Indeed before long Sseruwagi was on the canvas. Not as a result of a punch, but just for the sake of allowing Amin make a point of being a great boxer.
The Voice of Uganda newspaper reported on December 11, “President Amin, opening the Sixth All Africa Amateur Boxing Championships on Monday night, registered a technical knock-out over his opponent; Uganda’s boxing coach Grace Sseruwagi.
“The referee had to stop the fight in the second round to save Sseruwagi from further punishment,” the Voice of Uganda added under the headline, “Boxer of the year.”
But that was the only time Sseruwagi ever took a fall in his over 50 year marriage to the Sweet Science.
He believed in taking the fight to opponents. He believed in boxers putting up their best even in the simplest of training session. He complemented this with a special gift of firing up his proteges.
“He could lift you from your lowest of moments into victory,” remembers Africa’s first world amateur boxing champion Ayub Kalule.
“Fear simply wasn’t in his vocabulary. But most important, he was a great teacher.”
David Agong, who served as national team manager and later Uganda Amateur Boxing Federation president, describes Sseruwagi as a master of boxing psychology.
“He knew what a boxer wanted. But most important he knew how to instill discipline. Then he was good at ensuring that boxers were physically at their best.”
Agong says Sseruwagi’s stature as one of the world’s best coaches was clear right from his first outing at the Olympics in 1968.
“That he could win two medals at his first outing at such a big event, was a bold statement.”
But to Agong, one of those incidents that remains vivid in underlining Sseruwagi’s superb coaching skills came at the 1980 Olympics.
Uganda’s John “The Beast” Mugabi was in devastating form knocking out everyone in his path to the final.
Then to everyone’s surprise, Mugabi said he wasn’t fighting the final.
Reason: he saw no reason why he continued on a lean diet as his team-mates who had already fallen by the wayside had full access to the well-stocked dinning.
“We had to talk sense into Mugabi to realise the benefits of fighting in an Olympic final. This included lectures on why he had to be in the required weight.
With Mugabi ready to fight, Sseruwagi was in even better form drawing up a fight strategy for the final.
Mugabi faced a huge task against Cuba’s 1976 silver medalist Andres Aldama. Aldama had at the Montreal Games been edged to gold by US superstar Sugar Ray Leonard. This was supposed to be the Cuban’s moment for gold.
“But Sseruwagi had a formula for Aldama. The trick was in taking the fight to Aldama,” remembers Agong.
Mugabi indeed disoriented Aldama with a flurry of punches shortly after the opening bell. But the Cuban was also not about to settle for a second silver and put up a spirited fight to edge Mugabi on points in a welterweight thriller.
But to Agong and Sseruwagi, Mugabi’s silver was as good as gold. “Going by the effort we put in convincing Mugabi to fight. Then the good fight he put up was all as good as gold.”
This was one of those moments when Sseruwagi’s abilities were stretched to the limit. This was in sharp contrast to day he took a dive against Amin.
But of course succumbing to the Amin threat was also wise. Would we celebrating his life 44 years later if he had punched Amin? RIP coach.