Uganda and Her Best Performances at the Commonwealth Games: Boxers and Track Athletes in the 1970’s


It was at the Commonwealth of Nations Games of 1970 and 1974, that were held in the city Edinburgh in Scotland and in Christchurch in New Zealand respectively, that Uganda’s competitors were most victorious at these quadrennial events.

In 1970, Uganda’s performance in boxing was the most uplifting with Uganda winning three gold medals (James Odwori, Mohamed Muruli, and Benson Masanda) and two silver medals (Leo Rwabwogo and Deogratias Musoke). The other medals won for Uganda were on the track–William Koskei’s silver medal in the 400 meters-hurdles, and Judith Ayaa’s bronze medal in the women’s 400 meters. Uganda performed equally well at the Commonwealth Games of 1970.

Bronze medal wins in boxing, at the Commonwealth Games held in Kingston in Jamaica in 1966, by Alex Odhiambo, Mathias Ouma, and Benson Ocan were indication that Uganda was moving up in international amateur boxing ranks. Uganda’s performance at the Commonwealth Games, four years earlier (1962) in Perth in Australia, witnessed Uganda win her first Commonwealth gold by way of heavyweight boxer George Oywello. Also impressive at the venue were the boxing bronze medal wins by John Sentongo and future national army commander and Olympic Committee member Francis Nyangweso, and the silver medal won by future national boxing trainer Kesi Odongo. To buttress Uganda’s confidence in the realm of boxing were Uganda’s first and only Olympic medal wins, at the 1968 venue Mexico City, by boxers Leo Rwabwogo and Eridadi Mukwanga–a bronze and silver medal respectively. That is in spite of the lofty Olympic judging of 1968 and later 1972 that was seemingly tinged with racial bias and favoritism.

Edinburgh, Scotland 1970

At the 1970 Commonwealth of Nations Games, the teenager James Odwori was Uganda’s boxing competitor in the flyweight division. The beginning was quite easy for Odwori, given that he was not drawn among the four out of the total 10 flyweights that would fight in the preliminary rounds on July 17th. Since the total numbers of competitors in the very low and the very high weight divisions were relatively fewer, many were automatically placed in the next round–the quarter finals. The first flyweight quarter-finals bout was on July 20th. Odwori beat Anthony Kerr of host-country Scotland, on points, and earned his ticket to the semi-finals. In the semi-finals that involved four contenders, Odwori was again scheduled to box in the first bout. By a majority points decision, Odwori impressively beat Mickey Abrams of England, on July 22nd and was through to the finals! Odwori would move on to beat Anthony Davis of Wales by points, to win Uganda’s first 1970 Commonwealth Games gold medal. Odwori had impressively set the standard for Uganda boxers. He boxed for the Uganda Prisons and the national teams for more than ten years to come and later went back to his native Kenya where he became Kenya Prisons boxing coach and later Kenya national coach.

The flyweight division involved twelve contenders at the Commonwealth Games of 1970. Just like Odwori, Uganda’s contender Leo Rwabwogo luckily bypassed the preliminary round of July 17th such that he would first fight as a quarter-finalist. On July 20th Leo Rwabwogo was place in the quarter-finals to fight Leon Nissen (whose identical twin Henry was also a boxer) of Australia. The referee stopped the contest in the second round, a technical knockout in favor of Rwabwogo, allowing Rwabwogo to move on the semi-finals. On July 22nd, Rwabwogo was placed in the first bantamweight semi-final bout with opponent 18 year-old David Larmour of Ireland who would later become an Olympian and professional boxer. Rwabwogo won by a majority points decision. For the finals, Rwabwogo would battle with future professional and Englishman David (Dave) Needham of Nottingham. Needham ably outpointed Rwabwogo by 4-1, allowing Rwabwogo to settle for the silver medal. The gold medal had eluded Rwabwogo at the Olympic Games in Mexico City where he settled for bronze; and in the forthcoming Olympics of 1972 that were held in Munich in Germany, Rwabwogo would again fall short of the big win after being defeated in the finals. But famed Rwabwogo remains Uganda’s only double-Olympic medallists and the only Ugandan to have captured medals at both the Olympic and Commonwealth Games.

Uganda’s bantamweight contender Eridadi Mukwanga had at the Olympic Games of 1968 in Mexico city cemented history by becoming the nation’s first Olympic silver medallist. At these Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Rwabwogo was in the very last bout of the bantamweight division scheduled to fight Joe Cooke of Canada. Mukwanga was not able to live up to his fame and expectations, defeated by points by Joe Cooke of Canada on July 18th. Cooke would later on also be kicked out of medal contention, when he was defeated by Stewart Ogilvie of Scotland, after the referee stopped the bout in the first round.

In the featherweight division Uganda’s Deogratias Musoke strutted his feathers. At the preliminaries, on July 18th, Musoke was pitted against unheralded G. Marisa of Tanzania. The bout went in favor of Musoke after the referee halted the contest in the second round. On July 21st, in the quarter-finals, Musoke moved on to the semi-finals after beating Eddie Pritchard of Wales by points. For the semi-finals was scheduled to meet with Pakistan’s Abdul Samad Mir. The fight did not materialize because Samad Mir was unable to fight. It became an easy walkover in favor of Musoke. The consolation for Pakistan was that Mir’s bronze medal was the sole one for the nation at this Commonwealth Games’ venue. Also, Samad Mir remains one of the most famous of Pakistani boxers. In the 1970’s he was declared “Best Boxer of Asia.” He joined the army and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. He also coached the Pakistani’s Army Boxing as well as National teams. Samad Amir passed away in May 2009.

In the finals, Musoke would face Kenya’s longstanding boxing legend Philip Waruinge whose boxing accolades include multiple medals at both the Commonwealth and the Olympic Games. Deogratias Musoke, defeated on points in the finals on July 24th, was awarded the featherweight boxing silver medal.

The preliminary lightweight bout on July 18th, between Uganda’s teenager Joseph Nsubuga and Olympian Kenneth Mwansa of Zambia, resulted in an early farewell for Nsubuga who was defeated by points.

Mohamed Muruli, one of Uganda’s master boxers, had as a lightweight been placed fifth overall at the Olympics of 1968 in Mexico City. This time, Muruli would represent Uganda as a light welterweight. There were twelve competitors in this division and Muruli was lucky to be drawn into the quarter-finals and therefore forego fighting in the preliminaries of July 17th. In the quarter-finals, held on July 20th, Muruli outpointed Reginald Forde of Guyana. Forde remains one of the most famous Guyanese boxers. On September 14th 1978, Reggie Forde was as a professional fighter knocked out in the fifth round by famed Uganda boxer Ayub Kalule, in the quest for the British Empire Commonwealth title.

On July 22nd, in the semi-finals, hard-hitting Muruli defeated future Olympian Odartey Lawson of Ghana when the referee stopped the fight in the first round. Muruli moved on to win the gold for Uganda after outpointing Dave Davis of Wales on July 24th.

The welterweight division witnessed Uganda’s Olympian Andrew Kajjo eliminate Hugo Chansa of Zambia by points on July 17th 1970. The next year Chansa would turn professional and in April 1974 he would die from brain injuries soon after being knocked out by Scotland’s Don McMillan in a middleweight bout. On June 20th, Emma Ankudey of Ghana would mar Kajjo’s quest for a medal by beating him by points in the quarter-finals. Ankudey would eventually win the gold medal and also represent Ghana at the Olympics of 1972 in Montreal.

Uganda’s biracial light-middleweight boxing champion David Jackson was drawn to start fighting in the quarter-finals, and not fight among the eight competitors in the preliminaries. As a teenager Jackson was placed fifth overall in among the light-middleweight competitors at the Olympics of 1968 in Mexico City. This time in Edinburgh, Jackson did not go far, given that on July 20th the referee halted the bout in the first round in favor of Tom Imrie of Scotland. Imrie had won the Commonwealth silver medal at the previous venue of Kingston in Jamaica and he remains a famous Scottish boxer. Imrie would be the eventual gold medal winner this time in Edinburgh, and thereafter move on to professional fighting. His record as a professional pugilist was mediocre. David Jackson would again fight for Uganda at the forthcoming Olympics (1972) in Montreal, and be placed 9th overall in the welterweight division.

The teenager John Opio moved on to the quarter-finals, after defeating future professional boxer Billy May of Wales, by points on July 20th in the preliminary rounds of the middleweight division. But in the quarter-finals, against Samuel Kasongo of Zambia, Opio was eliminated after the referee stopped the contest in the third round. Opio would represent Uganda at the forthcoming Olympics in Munich.

The preliminaries of the light heavyweight division involved the second-round disqualification of Commonwealth bronze medallist and 2-time Olympian George Mathias Ouma at the hands of Johnny Banham of England on July 18th.

Because there were only seven contestants in the heavyweight division, and six were placed in the quarter-finals. It was Uganda’s Benson Masanda, among the seven boxers, who hit the jackpot by automatically being placed in the next level–the semi-finals! The quarter-finals took place on July 20th. In the semi-finals on July 22nd, Masanda defeated Canada’s Jack Meda by disqualification in round 2. In the finals, on July 24th, Masanda won gold by defeating John McKinty of Ireland by points. Compared to all Uganda’s boxing participants, Masanda had won the gold in quite an easy and unconventional way. This would be Uganda’s second Commonwealth Games’ gold medal, following that of George Oywello in 1962 in Perth in Australia.

Courtesy of the final tally of gold medals won by James Odwori, Mohamed Muruli, and Benson Masanda; and silver medals won by Leo Rwabwogo and Deogratias Musoke Uganda had convincingly emerged as Commonwealth of Nations’ boxing championships. This was the first collective international victory for Uganda, and the nation rejoicingly looked forward to more triumphs at the international level. The rest of Uganda’s medals were just two: the silver medal won by William “Bill” Koskei in the 400 meters-hurdles, and the bronze medal won by Judith Ayaa in the 400 meters-sprint. The total of three gold, three silver, and one bronze medal placed Uganda as ninth overall at this Commonwealth tournament with 7 medals. How would Uganda’s boxers fare in the next Commonwealth venue that would be Christchurch in New Zealand in 1974? There had been a military coup in Uganda, commander Idi Amin became president, the regime became notorious for killings and disappearances of nationals and even foreigners. Anxiety loomed as to whether unfavorable social and political factors would translate to disappointing performances in the realm of sports. And yes, many aspects of sports deteriorated during the regime of Idi Amin, and the pool of potential and current athletes was reduced. But how would Uganda fare in Christchurch, two years to the day into the regime of Idi Amin?

Christchurch, New Zealand 1974

Christchurch hosted the Commonwealth of Nations’ Games from January 24th to February 2nd, 1974. The boxing flyweight division saw the returning of the gold medallist James Odwori of Uganda. In the quarter-finals, on January 28th, Odwori knocked out Tanzanian Olympian Bakari Selemani (Seleman) in the second round. The semi-finals, held on January 31st witnessed Odwori defeat Singapore’s Syed Abdul Kadir by points. Kadir remains one of Singapore’s most renowned fighters, and was named “Sportsman of the Year” after his Commonwealth Games’ bronze medal win.

The finals of the light flyweight division were held of February 1st. This time, Odwori would be pitted against Kenyan Stephen Muchoki who remains one of Kenya’s most famous boxers. The relatively shorter Muchoki outpointed the champion Odwori, leaving Odwori to settle for silver. Muchoki would successfully defend his Commonwealth gold at the forthcoming venue Edmonton in Canada, in 1978. His illustrious career also included the silver medal win at the World Amateur Championships in Havana in 1974, and later the gold in the tournament which was hosted by Belgrade in Yugoslavia in 1978. Muchoki would thereafter move into the professional ranks and even become Africa Boxing Union champion. But he failed in his quest for the European title and the World Boxing Association title, and he retired from boxing during the late 1980’s.

In the quarter-finals of the flyweight division, on January 29th, Ugandan John Byaruhanga knocked-out John Lawless of Scotland in the second round. But in the semi-finals, January 31st, Byaruhanga was defeated on points by Olympian Chandra Narayanan of India. Byaruhanga hence settled with the bronze medal.

Uganda’s bantamweight Ali Rojo was drawn as a quarter-finalist to fight Olympian Habibu (Habib) Kinyogoli of Tanzania on January 28th. Rojo won by points and moved on to the semi-finals. Kinyogoli remains one of the most renowned of Tanzania’s boxer and he is a boxing trainer.

The January 31st bantamweight semi-final was in favor of Rojo, by points, leaving Kenyan Isaac Kuria Maina to go home with the bronze. in the finals, on February 1st, Patrick “Pat” Cowdell of England killed Ali Rojo’s quest for the gold by winning by points. Rojo had won the second boxing medal for Uganda. A famous British boxer, Cowdell would build an impressive boxing career during which he became a European Union champion. But he failed to win in his fighting for a world title.

Uganda’s featherweight competitor was Shadrack (Shadrah? Shadrach?) Odhiambo. On January 29th, in the quarter-finals, young future Olympian and long-time fighter Odhiambo outpointed Colin Flinn of England. Odhiambo would later as a light welterweight fight for Sweden and win her a bronze medal at the World Amateur Championships in 1982 in Munich. Odhiambo also fought for Sweden in the 1980 (Moscow) and 1984 (Los Angeles) Olympics. He did not win any Olympic medals.

In the Christchurch Commonwealth games semi-final, Odhiambo ably defeated Dale Anderson of Canada by points on January 31st. However, the finals, on February 1st witnessed experienced Commonwealth Games’ champion Eddie Ndukwu of Nigeria win the gold medal on a points decision. Odhiambo had won Uganda’s third boxing silver medal! Ndukwu would soon turn professional and even reign as British Empire (Commonwealth) featherweight champion. Ndukwu remains among the more formidable names among Nigerian boxers.

On January 27th, in the preliminaries, a locally popular and heavily promising 20 year-old lightweight lad Ayub Kalule climbed into the ring to challenge Tanzanian William Lyimo who was the same age as Kalule. Kalule won, by points. In 1980, Lyimo aged 27 would fight at the Olympic Games held in Moscow. He commendably passed the second round, but was in the quarter-finals knocked out in the third round by 20 year-old Anthony Willis of Great Britain. He would thus settle for 5th position in the welterweight division. Many African countries boycotted the Olympic venue of Moscow. Heaney later became a professional boxer, but he would soon retire without an acclaimed boxing record.

In the quarter-finals of the Commonwealth Games’ lightweight boxing fight in Christchurch, on January 28th 1974, Ayub Kalule ably out-boxed and bloodily facially disfigured 22 year-old Irishman “Sugar” Ray Heaney. The fight is featured on You-Tube whereby Heaney was allotted two mandatory counts given the formidable punishing from the fast and hard-punching Kalule.

In the semi-finals, Kalule was set to face New Zealand teenager Robert Charles Colley. The outcome involved Colley being outpointed and settling for the bronze medal.

At the quarter finals, Kalule was pitted against 19 year-old New Zealander Robert Charles Colley. Colley would be outpointed (and settle for the bronze), allowing Kalule to move on to the final stage. After being eliminated by Russian Valery Limasov in the first round at the Olympic Games of 1976 held in Montreal (Canada), Colley would turn professional. Though Colley’s professional record is impressive, it is mediocre insofar as his fights were confined to New Zealand and Australia, and Colley retired quite early in life…in 1980. At the finals of these Commonwealth Games, Kalule would outpoint Kayin Amah of Nigeria and therefore win the gold. Kayin Amah, who had in the preliminaries lost to legendary Philip Waruinge of Kenya in the previous Commonwealth Games (1970), would this time be happier with taking home a silver.

Perhaps Ayub Kalule’s most prestigious amateur encounter, would be the inaugural World Amateur Boxing Championships that were held in Havana in Cuba in August 17-30. Here, Kalule, a light welterweight, defeated Bulgarian Vladmir Kolev to win the gold. In November of the same year, Kalule still as a light welterweight, won another gold medal for Uganda. This was at the African Amateur Boxing Championships that were held in Kampala on Kalule’s soil. The next year Kalule turned professional in Denmark, rose rapidly through the ranks. He could go on to become Uganda’s first professional world boxing champion (WBA junior middleweight). His accolades included becoming a European Boxing Union Champion, and battling such renowned boxers as “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Sumbu Kalambay, Mike McCallum, Lindell Holmes, and Herol Graham. Kalule fought in what many regard as the golden era of junior middleweight champions. Kalule is still Uganda’s most famous boxer. In March 2011, Kalule was contracted to coach top junior Danish boxers.

Joseph Nsubuga had been eliminated on points by Kenneth Mwansa of Zambia right at the beginning of the preliminaries at the previous Commonwealth Games venue Edinburgh. There Nsubuga had represented Uganda as a lightweight. Nsubuga, still a teenager, was now back at the Commonwealth Games to fight as a light welterweight. This time, the preliminary first round on January 27 witnessed Nsubuga quickly overwhelm his opponent. The fight did not go far. The referee halted the contest in the first round, dashing the hopes of Philip Sapak of Papua New Guinea. However, two days later in the quarter-finals, James Douglas of Scotland defeated Nsubuga by points and thereby halted Nsubuga’s quest for a medal.

Months later, in August, Nsubuga would win a bronze medal for Uganda at the inaugural World Amateur Boxing Championships in Havana. Nsubuga had moved up to the middleweight division. Quite a skillful boxer, Nsubuga would turn professional and move to Norway, and he would mostly fight in Europe. Nsubuga stopped competing in 1981 when he was knocked out by famous future world champion Davey Moore. Perhaps Nsubuga’s most notable professional fight was his spirited gladiator battle (non-title bout) with legendary Panamanian Roberto Duran. Though Duran seemed to be tiring, Joseph “Stoneface” Nsubuga was knocked out at the end of the fourth round. This fight is available on You-Tube.

Welterweight Mohamed Muruli had won Uganda a gold medal at the previous Commonwealth of Nations Games’ venue Edinburgh. There in 1970, Muruli had boxed as a lightweight. Here in Christchurch, Muruli was representing Uganda as a welterweight. The preliminary round witnessed Muruli outpunch Caleb Okech of Kenya, on January 26th. On January 29th, during the quarter-finals, Muruli beat future Olympian Carmen Rinke of Canada by points. The semi-finals involved Muruli beating Steven Cooney of Scotland, by points on January 31st. On February 1st, Muruli became the first Ugandan to ever win two Commonwealth Games’ gold medals by outpointing Welsh Errol McKenzie in the finals. McKenzie would turn professional during 1975, but he retired after an unimpressive boxing record. Muruli is among Uganda’s outstanding boxers, and he twice represented Uganda at the Olympics.

Uganda’s light middleweight John Langol was rescued by the referee who stopped the preliminaries match-up of January 27th 1974 against Lance Revill of New Zealand. The fight was stopped in the second round. In 1981, Langol moved to Birmingham in England to fight professionally. His professional tenure would last only four years and it would involve an unimpressive record of 6 wins and 8 losses. Revill would fight professionally in Australia and New Zealand, but his boxing record would be average.

On January 29th of 1974, in a quarter-final, Uganda’s middleweight champion Mustapha Wasajja was knocked out in the first round by Les Rackley of New Zealand. At the inaugural World Boxing Championships held on August 1974 in Havana, Wasajja was eliminated by points in the quarter-finals. In November, Wasajja would become Africa amateur champion at the regional tournament held in Kampala. In a pre-Olympic international tournament held in Montreal at the end of November 1975, Wasajja won Uganda’s only gold at the venue. Wasajja is notable for having become the premier WBA light heavyweight contender after he turned professional. He lost the mandatory championship fight to Michael Spinks, in February 1982. Wasajja mostly fought in Europe and his boxing record is quite impressive. After Spinks, Wasajja lost his next two fights and thereafter retired from boxing. Wasajja is one of Uganda’s greatest boxers.

Just as had happened in the previous Commonwealth Games, the reigning heavyweight champion Benson Masanda of Uganda was directly placed in the quarter-finals because there were not many contenders in the class. On January 28th Masanda outpointed Fisi Brown of New Zealand. In the semi-finals, the referee stopped the bout in favor of legendary Nigerian Fatai Ayinla, an Olympian who had won the light heavyweight gold at the previous Commonwealth Games. Masanda was hence made to step down for the bronze medal. In turn, the referee would stop the bout in favor of Neville Meade, in the finals. Fatai Ayinla-Adekunle’s accolades include the heavyweight gold medal at the 1973 All-Africa Games in Lagos, and a bronze medal at the 1974 World Amateur Boxing Championships in Havana. He boxed for Nigeria for many years.

Uganda’s other medals were won on the track. Uganda’s Silver Ayoo (46.07), narrowly beaten by Kenyan legendary Olympic gold medallist Charles Asati (46.04), won the silver medal in the 400 meters. Uganda’s 4 x 400m relay team won the bronze medal, behind Kenya (gold) and England. The relay competitors were William Santino Dralu, Pius Olowo, Silver Ayoo, and John Kakonge.

The Final Tally

At Commonwealth Games of 1970, held in Edinburgh, Uganda’s three boxing gold medals were won by light flyweight James Odwori, light welterweight Mohamed Muruli, and heavyweight Benson Masanda; and the two silver medals were won by flyweight Leo Rwabwogo, and featherweight Deogratias Musoke. Uganda did not win any bronze medals here.

In 1974 in Christchurch, the two gold medals were won by lightweight Ayub Kalule and light welterweight Mohamed Muruli; the three silver medals were won by light flyweight James Odwori, bantamweight Ali Rojo, and featherweight Shadrach Odhiambo; and the two bronze medals were won by flyweight John Byaruhanga and heavyweight Benson Masanda.

Hence, while Uganda won slightly more boxing medals in 1974, the medals in 1970 subtly carried “more weight.” For those eight years, Uganda had the best amateur boxers amongst the Nations of the British Commonwealth. Additionally, at each of the Commonwealth Games venues, Ugandan track athletes finished second and third (William Koskei–400 meter-hurdles and Judith Ayaa–400m, respectively in 1970, and Silver Ayoo–400m and Silver Ayoo, William Santino Dralu, Pius Olowo and John Kakonge–the 4 x 400m relay, respectively in 1974). In 1970 Uganda finished 12th overall in track and field athletics; Australia, England, and Scotland were the top three countries. Similarly, in 1974 Uganda finished 12th overall in track and field athletics; but England, Australia, and Kenya were the top three countries. The overall performances of Uganda at each of the Commonwealth Games venues were hence strikingly similar. Uganda has never performed better than that at the Commonwealth Games, ever since those 1970’s.