Professional boxing is a lucrative sport and arguably the highest paying discipline in history.
Throughout the years, there has been many well-documented rises to prominence by boxers, who begin practising the martial art to run out of poverty since the allure of its life-changing financial gain is so great.
At the highest level, boxers earn billions of shillings in just a single night. They possess this strange ability to draw attention to the magic they create inside the ring.
From Floyd Mayweather to Mike Tyson to Lennox Lewis to Manny ‘Pacman’ Pacquiao, history’s most famous boxers are more than just athletes; they are celebrities in their own right.
Furthermore, a boxer’s fanbase is extremely passionate and will follow their favourite entertainer wherever he/she goes and whatever he/she does.
While at the international level boxers could make a fortune out of the sport, Kenyan boxers only make headlines for winning a number of titles but have little or nothing to take home.
In the early ‘90s Kenyan boxers were celebrated globally for winning world titles but that’s how far they went since most of them retired with nothing to show for the fame they earned in the rings. A number of them lost hope, blaming poor management, both at the amateur and professional levels.
Thomas ‘Black Rhino’ Okusi is one of the many Kenyan boxers who have nothing to show for the many years they juggled between the gym and the ring in their youthful days.
Okusi, who has been holding the national heavyweight title since defeating Mark Sirengo 15 years ago at Nyayo Stadium, has been forced to turn to a security job at a city club just to make ends meet. Fame has failed to put food on the table for the 54-year-old.
“Like any other sportsman, I took up boxing with the hope of getting something out of it. I worked hard daily to make sure that I succeed and become famous. I managed to achieve that but as years progressed, life started changing and had to be responsible. It’s then that I found out that boxing had not offered me what I was looking for and had to hang my gloves and seek other alternatives,” Okusi said.
Okusi blames promoters for his predicament and all that has affected the sport in Kenya. He believes that had promoters played their part well, then he and other boxers would be swimming in riches.
“Promoters are the cause of problems in our boxing. They put their interests first, at the expense of the sport. Many are times that we were forced to sign for bouts with promises of good money only to be duped. If promoters were sincere, maybe I would be a millionaire and won’t be standing here (the entrance of the club) ushering in clients or trying to maintain law and order,” he said.
Okusi, who inflicted 10 KOs on his opponents in his 16 years professional career, vividly recalls how two promoters made him miss on fighting in Russia after wrangles erupted amongst themselves.
“I got an invite to fight in Russia. This fight would definitely have earned me some good money by just appearing, leave alone winning. But this didn’t happen because as soon as I got to Russia, two local promoters started haggling over me claiming that they own me. This sent a wrong message to the organisers and they had to cancel the fight on the eve and I had to come back home empty-handed,” he said.
“This incident also made it difficult for me to get any major fight because my name had already been ruined,” said Okusi.
The father of five also recalls how, on many occasions, he went home without any penny despite having taken into the ring as part of the agreement by the promoters.
“I was duped severally. I would sign up for a fight but after the bout, the promoters would come up with different excuses on why we are not getting paid as agreed.”
“Sometimes we had to get home by the mercy of the fans who also made the mistake of believing the promoters that either a cheque had not matured or they are still waiting for the sponsors to pay,” Okusi said.
With the promoters failing to organise a fight that would have seen him defend his national heavyweight title, Okusi, who began boxing as a teenager in the late seventies, still has the belt in his house which he says has lost its meaning to him and maybe to Kenyans.
“Assuming I lose the belt and someone gets it on the street, how many people will know its value. How many people will know what it is and where to take it? he quipped.
He added that at one time he was tempted to throw away the belt but changed his mind.
“If our boxing authorities are serious, how can I be staying with the belt for all these years and nobody has ever come forward to ask about it and ensure that it’s contested for?
“This belt has lost its meaning. I remember there was a time I wanted to do away with it by selling it but I changed my mind and decided to keep it just to remind myself of the tribulations I have gone through in the sport,” he said.
For seven years now, Okusi who was once a member of the national team Hit Squad before turning professional has been walking from his house in Huruma to his workplace at Roasters along the Thika Super Highway after quitting his first job in his neighbourhood.
“I started doing this work (bouncer) in the late stages of my career when things started to go south. In the beginning, it was challenging because I was not used to spending the whole night standing and trying to maintain order.”
“Huruma was a very difficult working environment because it’s a place with mixed characters that you had to deal with differently and carefully or else you will be in trouble,” he said.
The challenges he faced in his first place of work and the rise in the cost of living made him move to his current job.
“The environment here is a bit different. I have managed to earn respect from the clients here,” he said.
His manager, Michael Okwaro, said Okusi’s humbleness has made him a darling to the clients.
“One will expect him, as a former boxer, to be involved in fights with the clients but this is not the case. He has maintained a humble figure and this has won him a number of friends and trust as far as security management is concerned,” Okwaro said.
Okusi opines that boxers in Kenya have reached desperate levels since there are less or no professional fights being organised for them.
But despite all the challenges Okusi does not regret taking up the sport.
“I don’t regret at all. I loved it from the word go and that’s why I endured all the challenges to get to where I got,” said the Maringo Social Hall-trained.