It was at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea that Kenya won her first-and-only Olympic gold in boxing. That was 33 years ago.
The rare fete was accomplished by the late Robert Napunyi Wangila, a legendary pugilist whose glittering career ended tragically after suffering head injuries in a knockout loss to David Gonzales in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the United States.
Over three decades later, and just a month before another Olympic showdown, about 1159 km from where he knitted his legendary status, Wangila is still considered the best boxer to have ever sprouted from Kenya.
He was born a Christian, in Kenya and died a Muslim in Las Vegas. But his final days on earth, including his burial, were punctuated with drama, following a shocking exit from the boxing ring.
July 24 will mark exactly 27 years since Wangila passed on. He died doing what he loved most-boxing. But close to three decades later, Wangila’s name is still familiar in the boxing gyms not only in Kenya but whole world.
To date, he’s still the only Kenyan athlete to have won Olympic gold, outside athletics. In fact, no boxer from sub-Saharan Africa, outside of South Africa, has ever attained this feat.
You might even argue that had Wangila lived for another Olympic year, or two, maybe the boxing landscape in Africa would be different today.
That was never to be. The cruel hands of death robbed Kenya one of the brightest talents in boxing history on July 24, 1994. He died aged of 27.
The welterweight boxer breathed his last almost 36 hours after he had lost to David Gonzales in the ninth round of their fight.
Wangila’s remains were interred at Kariokor Muslim Cemetery. His spirit, however, is hovering in and around the boxing gyms in the country, including Lovington where the Kenya-Hit-Squad team is currently preparing for the Summer Olympics.
By the time of his death, Wangila had left behind a will spelling that he be buried in strict adherence to Islamic culture, a decision that was fiercely challenged in court by his family, but which they lost. Another win for a man who registered 12 consecutive victories before that big fall in Vegas.
Wangila who had relocated to Las Vegas a few months after the Seoul triumph died from head injuries sustained in a boxing bout.
He was sent crashing to the canvas by the heavy blows from Gonzalez, on the ninth round of the World Boxing Council bout.
He would be pronounced dead thirty-six hours later, in what doctors at the University Medical Centre later said was a blood clot on the right side of his head.
The opening ceremony for the 2020 Summer Olympics is penciled for 23 July, 2021 at the Olympic Stadium, Tokyo. July 23 will be just a day before Kenyan boxing fans mark Wangila’s 27th death anniversary.
Former tout-cum-boxer Elly Ajowi was barely five years when Wangila claimed the Olympic gold.
Over three decades later, Ajowi, a Commonwealth silver medalist who is also a police constable finally got the elusive Olympic slot after two failed attempts.
It will be the first time that the Africa Zone 3 Super Heavyweight champion will be boarding a plane to the Olympics.
Ajowi, though an amateur boxer with no dreams of turning pro after the Olympics as Wangila did, is clearly aware that the country is anxiously waiting for another Wangila moment.
“It is the dream of every athlete to take part in the Olympics. This is a chance for me to change my life,” Ajowi told Standard Sport.
Unlike his idol Wangila, Ajowi has no plans of moving to Europe or turning pro. Instead, he plans to venture into coaching after the Commonwealth Games.
“We have the Commonwealth Games coming up after Tokyo, and I would like to groom the next Ajowi thereafter,” he said.
The late Charles Anjimbi was Wangila’s coach at the East African Breweries where he worked as a truck driver. But Ajowi will work with Hit Squad head coach Musa Benjamin in the hunt for the elusive Olympic gold.
Benjamin was about 18 years when Wangila stunned the world in Seoul.
Right now, he finds himself at the centre of the action; a huge responsibility bestowed on him in Kenya’s long search for the elusive gold.
But while Benjamin believes that Wangila’s spirit could inspire the Hit Squad to pull a surprise in Tokyo, he admits that it won’t be easy.
“Olympic journey is a process, but we are going to represent the country effectively. Any medal will be a plus,” said Benjamin.
“We might not win gold in Tokyo. But we are not very far from it.”
Just like Ajowi, Team Kenya boxing captain Nick Okoth who has grown in a boxing environment, is hoping to follow in Wangila’s footsteps.
The 38-year-old Okoth who was brought up in the Mathare slums with three other boxing brothers is expected to have a second stab at the Olympics.
His last trip at the Summer Games, in Beijing 2008, ended in disappointment after he lost to a Mexican opponent in the round of 16. But he now believes that time has come for him to make history.
“I want to be the next Robert Wangila. I’m going for nothing short of an Olympic gold in Tokyo,” says Okoth, the 2015 Africa Boxing Championships lightweight (60kg) gold medallist.
Okoth believes that a bronze medal he attained in Russia, during the Konstantin Korotkov Memorial International Boxing Championships will give him the confidence.
??Though he never fulfilled his American dream, Wangila remains a legend in the Kenyan boxing circles and perhaps, his fighting spirit could inspire the Hit Squad in Tokyo.