He is the last boxer to win an Olympic bout. Sam Rukundo, the Athens 2004 quarterfinalist, returned in Ugandan colors coaching a two-man team in Rio 2016. Uganda’s most qualified coach told Abdul-Nasser Ssemugabi about his ambition and plan to return boxing to winning ways
Ugandans would want to know from you after the Olympics. Generally, how do you explain Uganda’s performance?
Well, our preparations lacked due to little and late facilitation. Boxers were entitled to Shs3m per month to fund their preparations after qualification. Unfortunately, it came just about three weeks to the Games. So we missed a lot in the build-up and we had to improvise with the little we had, digging into our pockets, yet we had to sacrifice work.
How long did you spend with the boxers before the Games?
Katende (Kennedy) mostly trained in USA, he joined us a week before we departed to Rio. But I trained with Serugo for about two months, though we lived in different cities.
How was life like in Rio?
We got all we wanted in Brazil, the facilitation, equipment and all that. Even our concentration levels were high. I wish we had been together in a steady environment like that for long enough…
Let’s talk matters inside the ring
Katende got a tough draw against seed two, (Joshua Buatsi) who had also prepared better for the Games. The Briton was stronger and superior and he knocked him down in the third round.
But English tabloid Daily Mail labeled Katende “the most unfit boxer at the Rio Olympics” and everyone in our local media seemed to propagate that. How come you fielded an unfit boxer?
Everyone has their own opinion. You can say that likewise that reporter; he is English like the boxer (Joshua) who defeated Katende. But Katende earned his way to the Olympics by boxing and he had been training since. So it’s illogical saying he was unfit. The issue is he was the first to be knocked down in the tournament but anyone can be knocked down, no matter how fit they are.
And in Joshua’s next fight he knocked down (Elshod Rasulov of Uzbekistan) thrice. Now of that one and Katende, who was the most unfit?
Katende wasn’t his explosive self. Had he had some weight problems which perhaps drained his energy?
Yes, he had some weight problems but we sorted them in time. You see he was training from USA, then London, before. But we managed to shed it.
About how many units was he above the weight?
That’s between me and my boxer.
Then Ronald Serugo?
Serugo was very unlucky to lose that fight because I think he did all he had to win (however, in a meeting with Ugandan coaches after this interview, Rukundo agreed Serugo lost). You know amateur boxing is nowadays a serious business; countries invest a lot in winning yet unfortunately, Uganda no longer sends referees/judges to such big tournaments. You see, officials leverage for their countries. For example, if you and I were referees/judges from Tunisia and Uganda respectively, you would be careful not to frustrate a Ugandan boxer because you know I might do the same to a Tunisian…it’s the politics of the game. But we have no one to update us, nothing. It affects us.
So, what next?
That is why I’m here. Since I boxed at the Olympics in 2004, I have realized a lot has changed. The world has changed the approach to what we used to call amateur boxing.
What exactly do you mean?
For instance, to put yourself in pole position, you need to throw solid, strong punches, not just throwing punches. So we need to emphasise the importance of power training as much as technic.
We also need to adopt and incorporate professional style into what we call amateur. For starters, I need to arrange with the federation such that I meet these coaches in sort of a clinic such that I explain to these dynamics so that we can forge a way forward.
But how shall you work with a federation with some members doubting your credentials from the day your name was nominated for this job?
That’s a good question but it’s absurd some doubt my credentials. I’m the only Aiba Star Three coach in Uganda. How then do you doubt me? But anyway, all I’m focused on is winning medals for my country. That’s my ambition. Whoever doesn’t like me, it’s his problem.
I understand your tenure expires August 30, so in which category are you going to serve to pursue your ambition?
First, I can help as a Ugandan who wishes our boxing well and many will attest to that. I can also help through my clubs like Ssentamu, Namirembe and Nakulabye. But even then before my tenure expires I’m going to present to them my works and my plans, make my intentions clear, show them that I’m available, and it will be on them to either give the job or not.
But even with your Star Three, some say you lacked the experience of coaching an Olympics team. That they do not know a single boxer or club you have ever coached…
Whoever told you that go and tell them that Rukundo said “you are mad.” I coached Jolly Katongole (RIP) and Joseph Lubega (2004 Olympians), Martin Mubiru (2006 Commonwealth bronze medalist), Charles Ssemakalu, Lawrence Kalyango, who are national coaches, to mention a few. I was the pioneer of boxing in Rubaga Division way back in 1996, when I founded Namirembe Boxing Club, when I was still a boxer myself. So whoever doubts my coaching experience should face me in a debate and see whether he can sustain those claims.
I have also been head coach in several clubs in Sweden. Even as we prepared for the 2004 Olympics, coaches Musa Kent and Dick Katende (both dead) used my training tapes I had recorded from Sweden and books, as instruction tools.
Even when we were in Italy, I just didn’t pass the Aiba Star Three course; I was also recognised as one of the best performers. So, detractors are just playing petty politics which I won’t be dragged into.
You live in Sweden and only visit Uganda. How then shall you manage coaching here, satisfactorily?
You are right. But I have a home here because I’m Ugandan. Meanwhile, I applied for a one-year leave beginning December so I will be able to monitor the boys. That is if the federation assigns me for the job as head coach.
You know some of the boys; can you set a realistic target that by this time they shall be able to achieve this?
It’s absurd we lost those five boys (Sula Segawa, Fazil Juma Kaggwa, Atanus Mugerwa, Nasser Bukenya and Willy Kyakonye) who went to Netherlands, because they were the cream. But I believe we still have the talent here. We just have to give them due attention and see those who can improve and those who cannot. But we really have the talent and potential, that’s why even (Floyd) Mayweather attended Serugo’s fight with interest.
By the way what next for Katende and Serugo?
We are waiting for communication from Aiba because they want to join Aiba Pro Boxing (APB). So, they will get Aiba’s communication through the Ugandan federation, which has to send applications on boxers’ behalf.
But are you really eligible for the top job?
This won’t be my first time as head coach, by the way. I led the team (Serugo and Atanus Mugerwa) to the 2011 World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan.
And you aided them into vanishing in Europe.
No, that’s wrong. I didn’t. Imagine if Serugo hadn’t gone to Sweden, how many would have qualified to the Olympics in Rio?
But we thought he was at his peak but when he stayed in Sweden, he missed the London Olympics the following year.
As a coach, my responsibility is seeing the boxer participate, but his staying in Sweden wasn’t my making. He was mature and he decided so. Serugo won gold at the Tammer International tournament and even the National Council of Sports had blessed this journey. But we didn’t get enough facilitation, so they opted otherwise.
By the way, do you hear from the other five, who disappeared in the Netherlands?
See, even those disappeared. I’m also responsible? But the arrangement was that they were supposed to join me in Sweden, I had booked their accommodation such that we prepare for the final Olympics trials. The Ugandan federation was meant to give them facilitation for food but it didn’t happen. So, like Mugerwa and Serugo in 2011, these ones also found other means of survival. Anyway that’s spilt milk now; we have to move on with those available to rebuild the team.
Say something about the boxing league
The league is very important, primarily, in keeping the boxers active. I also have plans to widen its scope, I have connections in Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania, so we can bolster it and make it regional and more competitive.
But its facilitation standards are still poor. You must have seen Coach Vicky Byarugaba’s Facebook post when he complained of: a ring without ring pads, stairs, and in open space yet boxing is ordinarily an indoor sport. How would Kenyans, for instance, be interested in such a mess?
I don’t want to criticize anybody but I don’t think coach Byarugaba did that in good faith. He had a good point but better he would have tasked the federation on poor organisation instead of posting it in public.
As we wind up, your parting shots?
My message is simple: we still have hope and potential in boxing. All we need is unity; cease the wrangling, intrigue, envy. Boxing is Uganda’s, most successful sport so let’s work towards enriching that heritage. Boxing is a small family, if we continue wrangling; washing our dirty linen in public, no one will want to associate with us.