Wednesday 30 March 2011

Adeyinka Makinde e-mail interview on African Boxing

Eoin Redahan: There are countless American boxers of African ancestry in boxing’s Hall of Fame. Why do you think Africa has so few boxers in the Hall of Fame?

Adeyinka Makinde: Perhaps you could ask a similar question as to why the African Diaspora in North America produces the men and the women with the fastest recorded times in sprinting. Most of them, I'd wager, would be able to trace their ancestry to parts of West and Central Africa, yet there is no corresponding success among their contemporaries from the 'Motherland'. It's likely to be down to the nurturing they receive in the early stages of their careers. Many African athletes do not have proper and adequate facilities in their home countries. Some go further to postulate genetic improvement. The forebears of those sold into slavery centuries before were often times captured warriors. Then only the strong survived the horrors of the middle passage. Maybe there’s an inkling of truth there, but I think it is more a case of having an environment within which training and nurturing expertise marries with latent talent and ambition.

Eoin Redahan: Why do you think the continent has produced relatively few world champions (South Africa withstanding)?

Adeyinka Makinde: It would be interesting to see a set of statistics showing bar chart- or trend-chart style, the accumulated figures of active fighters on a year-by-year or decade-by-decade basis from the African continent. Then this would be compared to the situation in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Although poverty and desperation borne of out of the membership of an available underclass would appear to place Africa -among the continents- in something at the vanguard of the potential breeding grounds for fighters, there is simply no infrastructure in most African countries to produce, first of all a thriving scene of active fighters and regular promotions, and then secondly, an era of successful fighters.

Eoin Redahan: Why do you think boxing in sub-Saharan Africa didn’t become more of a boxing hub after the Ali-Foreman fight in 1974?

Adeyinka Makinde: Well, the Ali-Foreman fight was a one-off spectacle. Mobutu Sese Seko, who sponsored the fight, was an egomaniacal and rapacious despot who was only interested in magnifying his prestige and lining his own pockets. He was, unfortunately, like the bulk of dictators the continent has been cursed with, not at the helm of an enlightened dictatorship which would have had the foresight to use an event of such magnitude as the stimulus for opening boxing and other sporting academies, or other plan which would have involved learning and adapting from the expertise demonstrated by the foreign organisers. Ali-Foreman was a typical prestige exercise embarked upon by such dictators. It is typically big, even gargantuan in scope, but also something of a white elephant which decays over the course of time. An utter waste of public resources. That fight still has resonance of course due to the manner of Ali's victory and, at least to non-African eyes, its 'exotic' setting. Don King played up the 'Back to Africa' angle, but Africa, and specifically Zaire, now Congo, did not benefit from it. There have been a few prominent bouts. I remember Dele Jonathan, a Nigerian lightweight based in Barcelona, beat Jim Watt, a Scottish fighter, for the commonwealth title in 1976. Livingston Bramble defended his title in Lagos in the early 1980s. But Africa is so far from being the hub that it could be, and Holyfield v Botha, even if it had taken place in Uganda is not the sort of fight to turn the continent into a ‘fight hub’.

Eoin Redahan: Countries such as Argentina and Puerto Rico have rich traditions in boxing. In your experience, which African countries have the strongest traditions?

Adeyinka Makinde: Tradition is predicated on stability and continuity, which given the frequent bouts of political and social chaos on the African continent has not been possible. I guess one would have to refer to Ghana and the often romanticised district of Bukom, a shanty town which is part of its capital city, Accra. Here, one can trace a direct line from Roy Ankrah, the first British Empire (now Commonwealth) champion from black Africa in the 1950s, through to David 'Poison' Kotey to Azumah Nelson and onto Ike Quartey. Joshua Clottey is the latest. What's so interesting about this phenomenon is that it represents a transmogrification of sorts of the martial traditions of the Ga ethnic group into the colonially transplanted sport of boxing. Even though Nigeria had two world champions by the 1960s, it was noted at the time that Ghana had a better organised system and would be more successful in the long run. Nigeria has a tradition of sorts, but this is cannot be referred to as being "strong". The game has never been particularly well organised there and those who reached the pinnacle of the sport; Hogan Bassey, Dick Tiger and if you like, Samuel Peter had to fine tune their skills in foreign lands. You wouldn't necessarily say that Carlos Monzon had to go to outside Argentina to become better would you? He learned his trade in his country and then travelled to bag the titles and the money. Uganda has something of a tradition in regard to amateur and professional boxing with John Mugabi, Ayub Kalule, and Cornelius Boza-Edwards. But I can only think of Kassim Ouma in recent years making an impact. In the case of Nigeria, a civil war in the 1960s disrupted all sorts of activities including sports, and after the war, there was a deliberate policy to discourage professional boxing and to focus on the amateur ranks. But this, in the long run, has fallen foul of the usual neglect and politicking associated with sports administration there.

Eoin Redahan: How much of a hindrance do you think geography is to the development of the sport?

Adeyinka Makinde: Geography, in this our world of global mass communication and travel should not be a hindrance per se. It is all down to economics and mentality. The sport has not developed due to the lack of infrastructure and the near sightedness of administrators. A few years ago, a friend of mine in Nigeria wanted some advice, as well as some contacts in regard to promoting fights in Nigeria. I told him that the tried and tested way was to get as much of your capital from sponsorship through businesses and also from television. He replied that when he contacted a Nigerian television station, they insisted that the norm was for a promoter to pay the TV company for the privilege of broadcasting the bouts. Now, this sort of thinking does not apply all the time. I remember that as a child, Nigerian Breweries, a very successful Dutch-Nigerian conglomerate of which my uncle was a managing director, sponsored lawn tennis, and in particular, the Nigerian Open. If the right ideas are there, geography is irrelevant. Geography would be relevant, I guess if a fighter from say America or Britain was worried about the facilities available in the event of serious injuries.

Eoin Redahan: Some of Africa’s greatest boxers live and fight in other countries for the majority of their professional careers. Does this have an adverse effect on their popularity back home?

Adeyinka Makinde: Not necessarily. Hogan Bassey, Dick Tiger and so many forgotten Nigerian fighters who went over to Britain in the post-World War period were such stars back home. Samuel Peter went home a hero after his world title win. However, it is true to say that the 'out of sight, out of mind' principle applies today. Boxing is not as popular as it once was. The migrant football stars are extremely popular. You'll find billboards of Ivorian, Nigerian and Cameroonian stars advertising home grown products on billboards on the city thoroughfares of Abidjan, Abuja and Yaoundé.

Eoin Redahan: How important is it for these fighters to return home for some of their bouts?

Adeyinka Makinde: The economic practicalities prevent this from being the case. It would have been interesting to see if Samuel Peter could have accomplished this if he had hung on to his title for longer. The chances are that like Dick Tiger's bout with Gene Fullmer in Ibadan in 1963; it would have needed state sponsorship. The Ghanaian economy has been relatively stable for years, but the recent bout between Azumah Nelson and Jeff Fenech was held in Australia.

Eoin Redahan: How big of a boost would it give boxing in Africa if Joshua Clottey defeated Manny Pacquiao in their upcoming bout?

Adeyinka Makinde: It has taken me some time to mention this. And I don't mean it to be a rebuke, but there is a tendency to bunch up Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, as some monolithic entity when in fact, it is diverse in terms of economic development and culture. What may boost east Africans may not boost West Africans. I would like to think that a Clottey victory could serve improve the organisation of the sport in his country. If such event serves as a stimulus in other areas, then all the better.

Eoin Redahan: Given the huge success of African players in European football in recent years; do you think their continued success will have a detrimental effect on the future of African boxing?

Adeyinka Makinde: Interesting question. Football was always the most popular sport in Nigeria and I presume that this has more or less being the case in other Anglophone as well as Francophone nations in that continent. Most Nigerians aspire to have a good education which would allow them to enter the professions. The tendency is to look askance at someone who would profess ambitions as a boxer. Perhaps, this is less the case with football. And given the abominable disparities of wealth in that country, getting a decent education for many is a pipe dream. Those of the teeming masses who can realistically only become wealthy through sports will undoubtedly look towards football, but playing football in the European leagues. This regrettably serves as a detriment to the development of the local football leagues and in a wider sense does tend to minimise boxing in the eyes of the poor youth as a pathway through which to overcome poverty

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