John Paul “The Beast” Mugabi – Uganda’s 1980 Bid For Boxing Olympic Gold in Moscow

Before he turned professional, famous Ugandan boxer John Paul “the Beast” Mugabi was simply John Mugabi–a young and hard-hitting, fast, promising boxer. After his silver medal win at the 1980 Olympics that were held in Moscow, 20 year-old Mugabi eyed the professional scene. Renowned British trainer and manager Mickey Duff noticed Mugabi and quickly enlisted him. Duff is one of many (including Ugandan Charles Lubulwa who participated in 3 Olympic tournaments) who opine that Mugabi was robbed of the gold medal. Into the professional ranks, Mugabi’s ferocity, strength, and speed in the ring would earn him the nickname, “the Beast,”–one that Mugabi has voiced as unflattering, but which the world became stuck on referring to him.

It was in the Parish of the Sacred Heart in Nogales in Arizona that Mugabi while training for what would become his most epic battle, that with world middleweight champion “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler on 10th March 1986, that Mugabi would acquire the name Paul after baptism into Catholicism (Clive Gammon, “This Beast Is a Beauty,” in ‘Sports Illustrated’; March 03, 1986).

Semi-arid Nogales ‘City of Walnut Trees’, stringing along the Mexican border, is Arizona’s biggest border town. Tiny Rio Rico is ten miles north of Nogales, and it is here at the Sheraton Hotel that a Mugabi training camp was set up in preparation for the Hagler encounter. Mugabi’s trainer, instrumental to his getting baptized, was the same Father Anthony Clark—the parish priest.

Back in 1976, 16 year-old Mugabi won a welterweight silver medal after losing to American Herol Graham in the Junior Amateur World Boxing Championships. Interestingly, only weeks before Mugabi’s battle with Hagler, Graham dethroned Ugandan Ayub Kalule of the European middleweight title after knocking him out in the tenth round. This fight would spell the end of Kalule’s illustrious boxing career. Many have wondered what would have been the outcome of a bout between Kalule and Mugabi. There is a 6-year age difference, and Kalule had been an idol and mentor of young Mugabi years back in Kampala.

The Olympic Games of 1976, held in Montreal were boycotted by many nations, including Uganda. Ayub Kalule had been scheduled to fight for Uganda. He became a professional boxer. And so did team-mate Cornelius Bbosa who was later to become widely known as Cornelius Bosa (Boza) Edwards, and become a world junior-lightweight champion.

The major highlight of the Games in Montreal were the finals of the welterweight boxing division, the date 31st July 1976. Young American “Sugar” Ray Leonard, who planned to stop boxing and continue with school at the University of Maryland was pitted against a stronger and taller Cuban with a stellar knock-out record. This Andres Aldama who had knocked out all five of his previous opponents, was expected to win. But Leonard, similar to Muhammad Ali in his earlier career adopted a “hit-and-run” strategy, and elusively frustrated and angered the Cuban. As the Cuban charged, Leonard would throw in a rapid combination of solid and accurate punches and then retreat. It was like a David-Goliath slaughtering, that even involved the Cuban getting knocked down, and also taking two mandatory counts.

The Moscow Olympic finals of the welterweight division in boxing, 2nd August 1980, involved a second coming of the experienced dreaded Andres Aldama. Among his recent accolades was a gold medal win at the Pan African Games held in Puerto Rico in the previous year. Aldama’s opponent John Mugabi at 20, was 4 years younger, far less experienced, and far less tested and known than himself. Each of the two boxers had knocked out four out of five of their previous Olympic boxing opponents. John Mugabi was Uganda’s remaining prospect for gold.

In the first round Mugabi proved to be the more active one. He threw many jabs, but the tall southpaw Aldama kept most of them at bay, most were not hitting their target. Aldama seemed to be studying his opponent, sizing him up. The judges probably gave this round to Mugabi, just for the effort.

The second round saw Aldama come off his stool fighting hard and determined. He gained confidence as the round progressed, unleashing hard head-shots on Mugabi several times. Toward the end of the round, he caused Mugabi to briefly stumble. But Mugabi courageously counter-attacked, obviously without intention to cave in. And just like most capable southpaws, Aldama occasionally confuse Mugabi by his switching to the orthodox boxing stance.

The third round was a war. Mugabi was landing blows to the head in the brawl, but Aldama’s delivery was noticeably more significant. Aldama was also more accurate. Mugabi was tiring in the face of experience and stiff solid punches. He did not yield to a knockdown, but a hypothetical fourth round would likely have resulted in Mugabi getting knocked out. Mugabi always had the strength and heart, but ineffectiveness at defending himself was his major career weakness.

The referee declared the fight a deserved 4-1 in favor of Aldama. The entirety of the fight is available on U-Tube. Thirty years later, legendary John Mugabi remains the last Ugandan to win an Olympic boxing medal.

Nicole Thomas

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