By Kiundu Waweru
Kenya: When it comes to sports, Kenya is legendary around the world for its gold-winning athletes. But there is a Kenyan son who made the nation proud by making history when he won a gold in boxing – a record that remains unbroken 26 years later.
Robert Wangila is the only African ever to win an Olympics gold medal in boxing, and the only Kenyan to win a gold in the Olympics in a sport other than athletics.
He punched his way to fame in the late 1980s, when the Kenyan boxing team was making waves. The team, comprising the likes of DK Kamau and Stephen Muchoki, had been nicknamed the Hit Squad, revered around Africa. Wangila became its undisputed champion when he won a gold medal in the 4th All Africa Games held in Nairobi in 1987.
The following year, at the Seoul Olympics, he beat Laurent Boudani from France in the welterweight in what was then described as an “exhilarating final”, where he sent Boudani crashing to the canvass in the third round. He was 20 years old then.
At the Olympics, Wangila was celebrated for possessing hard-hitting punches, with a powerful right hand jab. The amateur boxer at the time, according to Kenyapage.net, boasted 165 wins and five losses.
After this historical win, Wangila left for the United States for a life of professional boxing.
In the beginning, the American Press heaped praise adjectives on the young Kenyan boxer whom they nicknamed Kidd. The Olympic gold medal put him in good stead, and everyone predicted a great professional future.
“Robert Wangila established his plan almost before the opening bell stopped ringing and as a result, Will Hernandez couldn’t answer the tone to start the sixth round,” wrote Steve Kresal in the Los Angeles Times on June 25, 1993. The previous day, Wangila had won in a fifth-round knockout middleweight bout to Will Hernandez at the Irvine Marriott. This marked Wangila’s 15th knockout.
Hernandez had beaten Wangila 15 months earlier in Las Vegas in the eighth round and after the rematch win, the article quoted Wangila saying, “...and I wanted to punish him for the last fight. I was very, very upset…I am happy now.”
For his revenge, it was reported, Wangila gave Hernandez a bloody eye, the target of Wangila’s sharp rights. The cuts made Hernandez fail to show up for the sixth round.
Sadly, a year later, the world would be shocked, Kenya devastated, when Wangila died aged 26 following a bout pitting him against David Gonzales, then ranked number 10 by the World Boxing Council.
Spectators and boxing experts at the Aladdin Hotel said Wangila seemed to have been winning the match, but the tide had started shifting and referee Joe Cortez stopped the match in the ninth round in favour of Gonzales to Wangila’s protests.
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Wangila had sustained an injury and he collapsed. Robert Voy, the ringside physician, said after the post-fight examination in the ring, Wangila was very alert and responded normally. However, he fell into a coma in the dressing room. Doctors at the University Medical Centre later said that he had a blood clot on the right side of his head. He was operated on before passing on 36 hours after the match.
A Los Angeles trainer, Cassius Greene, who had worked with Wangila, speculated that Wangila might have sustained the injuries during practice but not in the Gonzales match. He told the Los Angeles Times that “they all knew Wangila could take a tremendous punch,” adding that he (Wangila) must have grown soft over a period of time.
Before the fateful incident, the American media described Wangila as struggling, at one time even saying he would return to Kenya as his boxing career in America was not taking off as everybody expected.
He had started off well, having won 12 out of five fights. He lost the 13th, and his career careened downwards.
Wangila, also known as Napunyi, was born in 1967 and grew up in Nairobi’s Jericho estate. He started his career with the Kenya Breweries boxing club and within no time was considered Kenya’s best welterweight boxer.
He is still a legend in Kenyan boxing circles and his legacy lives on in the Robert Wangila Memorial Boxing Cup.