Uganda boxing trainer gives expert advice to aspiring pugilists

by Stephen Carr

Special To The Japan Times

If you don’t get into the ring once or twice, then you’re a coward, Geoffrey Ima says as he describes people’s attitudes toward boxing in his hometown in Uganda. Ima has been in the ring hundreds of times and came to love boxing so much, he wanted to earn a living from it — a career choice that led to a move to Japan and a job in Nagoya as a boxing trainer 10 years ago.

Ima, 37, was speaking from his workplace, the Chunichi Boxing Gym, which has a modest frontage among the bars and nightclubs of Sakae in Nagoya’s entertainment district. In the spacious basement, the gym contains punching bags, weight-training equipment and a full-size boxing ring.

“The town where I grew up, Naguru, was like a slum,” he recounted. “There were lots of people on low wages. Sports were the key to a better life, either boxing, football or rugby. It was a sports town. My two brothers and I all got into boxing.

“Outsiders tended to be scared of the town. They had the idea that people who lived there were very brutal. But it was just a normal place for us and in fact people doing boxing and other sports there are very disciplined.” Ima’s father died when he was just 2 months old and “luckily our mother pushed us to complete school. Other kids didn’t and quit early.”

Ima began boxing when he was 11. While he was in junior high school, he started to get headaches, but whether these were from boxing or impacts in football games or other causes he does not know. Doctors advised him to stop boxing, but he loved the sport too much. “I enrolled in elementary training courses and the senior coach’s course as a way to continue being involved in boxing, if I couldn’t be a professional fighter.”

He continued as an amateur boxer until his college days at the Uganda Polytechnic in Kyambogo, where he qualified as a radio, television and electronic technician in a two-year course. Ima extended this skill for eight months as a trainee at Radio Uganda.

While continuing his studies and engaging in various jobs, which included overseeing construction of apartments, a business enterprise of his brother and supervising a children’s amateur boxing team, Ima worked as a trainer with the Kampala City Council Boxing Team.

However, Ima was determined to seek wider horizons. “My eldest brother, John Bosco Waigo, boxed for Uganda at the 1988 Seoul Olympics,” he recalled. “Eight of the Olympic boxing team were from my hometown and afterwards seven of them turned professional. Now they’re in the U.K., Denmark, Germany and the U.S. The other one stayed in Uganda, where he is a trainer.

“People like that who ventured out of the country and came back wealthy were very inspiring for us back in Naguru. Two of my brothers now live in England and another boxer from my hometown went to Japan. I applied as a volunteer at his gym in Nagoya and was given a visa in 2003. I helped there for two years before being offered a job at the Chunichi Boxing Gym.

“In those days the Chunichi wasn’t so busy. Now we have many more members, and 26 are professional boxers. They come in here for training, to keep their careers on track. The others, the nonprofessionals, come in here just to shape up.”

The first customer of the day at 1 p.m. recently was Ayano Uchi, a slightly built young woman, who was energetically attacking a bag. She then got into the ring and launched into a spirited sparring session with Ima, who blocked her jabs and hooks in a practiced manner with a pair of big red punching mitts.

Several women attend the gym, including two Japanese who are professional boxers and one who wants to be an amateur. Ima also trains two Filipino women.

The next person to enter the brightly lit basement was Albert Smith, an Australian who runs an acting and modeling agency in the city. He changed into shorts and a singlet and started wrapping white bandages around his knuckles. “I’m getting so lazy,” he complained before putting on boxing gloves, climbing into the ring and launching a furious barrage of punches at Ima.

Asked if one needs a lot of aggression to be a boxer, Ima replied, “Aggression is built by a person” and returns to his theme of the sport being good for self-discipline. “When people start training here, I tell them they will feel muscle pain after their first day. Some give up easily, maybe after losing one bout. Others have more character and keep going even after four or five losses. One kept going even after seven defeats and went on to win three professional bouts. He has an eye problem now that forced him to stop.

“A group of four Japanese once came here to train and three of them quit. The fourth kept going and in his first amateur tournament managed to knock his opponent down. He got his license and won his first professional fight by a knockout. I felt very good helping him achieve his ambition.”

Most customers at the gym are Japanese but there are also a mixture of other nationalities: two fellow Ugandans, a Peruvian, two Japanese-Filipinos and the two Filipino women.

Coming to Japan was a culture shock for the Ugandan. “We Africans don’t keep time. If we have a 2 o’clock appointment, we come at 3 o’clock. The owner of this gym, Nobuo Azuma, is very strict though, so now I arrive at 2:15! No, I have to be here on time. If I’m two minutes late, he blasts me out, pins me hard. Later he cools down. Even on free days when I’m not supposed to be working, on a Sunday for example, he’ll tell me I need to go to the gym because a boxer is there who needs training. If I have money problems he helps me out. He’s kind inside and through his strictness he has taught me a lot.”

Another shock for Ima was the fate that befell his wife, who had escaped from Tanzania — a country that borders his own — for “political” reasons. “She was arrested by the police for shooting a red light. They asked for her papers and she showed them her international license. They let her go but cross-checked her identity, phoned and told her to report to the police station. She did not go.

“Then, two years later, they came with an arrest warrant as she was preparing the kids for school. She was told to pack a change of clothes and a toothbrush and had to leave her baby of 2 months, her 7-year-old daughter and my two boys, 4 and 7. They kept her in the police station for 10 days. Then she was detained in the Nagoya Immigration (office) for a year and three months for overstaying her tourist visa,” he says. His wife is now on provisional release, and while she has since applied for refugee status in Japan, she has not yet been granted it.

Ima’s ultimate dream is to run his own fully equipped boxing gym, though maybe not in Japan. “It’s peaceful in Japan and there are risks in returning home, but I could open a place in Uganda. My brother and I are going to organize a company to develop professional boxing in Uganda. It’s still low grade there. We have the expertise and experience. My brother has socialized with lots of the big promoters in the U.K.”

For the moment, however, he seems a man reasonably content, helping others realize their ambitions at the gym in Nagoya. “I have pride in all of us working together in this gym, getting people who were losing a lot in the ring to win more bouts.”