Veteran boxing coach Joe Mensah talks about the state of the Nigeria’s boxing facilities (or lack thereof) and more in this interview.
What is your opinion on the current state of boxing facilities in Nigeria?
The state of boxing facilities is not what it used to be since the sport began in the country. It’s the effort of some individuals that made that era different from what we have now. The late Brai Ayonote built the Brai Ayonote Boxing Gym at the National Stadium, Lagos. The facilities there were bought by him from Germany but unfortunately after his death, most of the equipment were stolen. At a time, some young footballers were using the place for commercial purposes. So, right now, Nigeria doesn’t have a boxing gym because the Ayonote gym, as it is now, is not fit to be called a boxing gym. I say so because I have travelled around the world and I have seen a lot of gyms. In boxing nations such as Cuba and other countries in South America, the facilities and gyms there are very intimidating. Any of our boxers, who enter their facilities, will want to sleep there. Our boxers will feel inferior when they hear that they are fighting opponents who trained with better equipment than them.
When Ayonote, Col. Ukoh Whyte (retd.) and Samuel Ogbemudia were alive, we used to have training tours, which enabled our boxers to travel abroad and train as well as fight against boxers from other advanced countries. Even (boxers from) Cuba with the best facilities and organisation, train, camp and box outside their country. The same goes for England and the Americans. We don’t have the equipment, but the coaches are being run down when they don’t win. This is my challenge to the administrators – they all travel to countries hosting the Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games and other competitions and they see the facilities there. How many of these facilities do we have for the coaches to train with? Football is more advanced than the other sports and that’s why it’s easy for players to go abroad, pursue their careers and get exposed to better facilities than those at home. Then they are invited back to reinforce the national teams.
But for the boxers, that is not possible. They have to stay with the equipment and facilities at home and perform extraordinarily to get noticed. When boxers travel out for professional careers, they don’t want to return home and invest in the sport because they believe that the country didn’t do enough for them. If Nigeria had been supporting them, they would want to come home and spend the money here.
What are the facilities lacking in Nigerian gyms?
A lot of the components of a gym have to be in place before we can call our gyms standard. There must be weight training equipment, power training equipment, stand-by gym ring, punching bag arena, shadow box arena, showers, toilets and a lot of other equipment. When you go to the Ayonote gym at the National Stadium, you will only see a ring there, and the face of the bag. The rooms there were meant for the other equipment that the gym should have. The rooms were where those things were to be erected but nothing like that has been done. When we went to Germany, we saw some things, which we recommended to be done at the Ayonote gym. For example, there is a wall-pad that when you punch it, it tells you the rate of your speed and the power behind your punch.
Some of us felt bitter when we saw things like that (in Germany). If footballers are not doing well, I will blame them because there is no school or university that does not have a football field. If athletes are not doing well, I will blame them because there is no state sports council without athletics facilities. In any stadia, athletics and football pitches must be there. How many facilities in Nigeria have a boxing gym? This is my outcry. Administrators blaming coaches that they are not doing well should have a re-think. The sports lottery body in England is maintaining their facilities – they give grants to their athletes and pay them weekly allowances since 2000 when it started. Today, the British have won so many medals that even a Nigerian, Anthony Joshua, a gold medallist for Britain, is now a world champion. What is our own sports lottery body in Nigeria doing?
Aside the lack of equipment, what are the other challenges of Nigerian coaches?
There is the absence of encouragement and funding. What is the encouragement, financially to support the coaches? I still blame the Federal Government till today. I mentioned it a long time ago and that is why nobody wants to see my face. Cuba is a communist country; they look after their athletes and coaches. They don’t give them money but they give them houses, they feed them and they give them everything that they need to live well. That started with their former president Fidel Castro. After his death, his brother changed it a little. He is going between both communist and socialist systems, which means he is allowing boxers and all the sportsmen to be part of the professionals. Other countries have their ways of encouraging their athletes and coaches but what kind of encouragement do we have in Nigeria? It is only when we get to camp that we are given the opportunity of getting allowances – after the camp, no more allowances. The coaches are not full-time employees. How many of the athletes are being sponsored by the Federal Government, either to schools or any other place? And they want the best from them? It’s not possible.
How can we get quality boxers to return Nigeria to the glory days?
A lot of things have to be put in place. The facilities have to be there; the encouragement has to be there; the equipment have to be there. In the days of Ogbemudia, Ayonote and Ukoh, the allowances and facilities were there. For instance, Ukoh built a training class for the Army and it is still there till date. Ogbemudia built the Games Village at Afuze, which is still there. Ayonote built the current boxing gym that he was not allowed to complete – and till date, it is still there. Back in those days, we were always in the national camp; from there we would go on training tours. Then, if I spent two or three weeks at home in a year, I was lucky. There were little incentives for us back then but we had allowances and our salary was there. As of that time, I was a Staff Sergeant in the Nigeria Army; there was also ration cash allowance for feeding for the military guys. The boxers were fed in the camp. So, what did we need? I stuck my head to boxing because it was moving very well, but today, those things are no more there.
You talk so highly of Ogbemudia, Ukoh and Ayonote, all of them military officers…
(Cuts in) Gen. Kenneth Minimah completed the new boxing hostel – these are people who did it out of love. I don’t know if the people we have now are interested in the game or not. If you have passion for something, you will go for it and you won’t mind spending your time and money on that thing to make sure it booms. That was what these men did.
Do you think it’s an indication that civilians don’t have what it takes to take boxing to the next level in Nigeria?
I wouldn’t say it is an indication because sports administration is about passion. Before the military men came into the limelight, it was the civilians who were actually in charge. The white men left boxing for the civilians, it was not the military. The military came into it when they came to power. So, there was no difference between the two. In the early civilian era, we had E. L. Jegede, Olu Obutoku, and some others. Most of them were social welfare officers, who the Europeans left boxing for. The Europeans were the ones who started boxing in Nigeria as a pastime before the country’s independence. During that time, you didn’t know the difference between professionals and amateurs. They were all one until they now separated professionals from amateurs in 1945.
We have athletes and coaches often complaining of being short-changed by the administrators. Was there any time this happened to you?
No, we were never short-changed. During the military era, before we stepped into the bus, we would have been given our cheques – we were paid by cheque. If you like, you could leave it at home and cash it when you return. We were paid our full money before we left the country or sometimes, we got paid on arrival at the country we were going to train or compete. At a time, we were receiving one-quarter of our salary as estacode but later it became three-quarter of our salary – and it was such a period of boom for us.