Mustapha Wasajja: Uganda's Mysterious Boxing Champion
Mustapha (Mustafa) Wasajja (Wassaja / Wassajja / Wasaja) was born on July 16, 1953 in Kampala, Uganda). As an amateur, Wasajja fought at welter-, light-middle-, and middle-weight. Wasajja, debilitated by weakness and shakiness for years, eventually succumbed to Parkinsonism on April 26 2009, near Kampala in Uganda
In the early 1970's, Wasajja was under the tutelage of Uganda's legendary and most famous coach Peter Grace Sseruwagi (Seruwagi) and national trainer Kesi Odongo (who at the 1962 Commonwealth Games held in Perth in Australia, won a a silver medal in the lightweight divison). As a light-welterweight, Sseruwagi represented Uganda at the 1960 Olympic Games held in Rome but was eliminated outside medal contention. Long-time Uganda sports official and ex-Uganda army commander Francis (Frank) Nyangweso, a light-middleweight contender at that time, was also eliminated in the earlier bouts at the same Games.
Wasajja's first distinguished international accomplishment came in the African Amateur Championships held in his native Uganda, in Kampala in November 1974. Wasajja won gold in the middleweight division. Gold medal wins by fellow countrymen James Odwori (Oduori), Ayub Kalule, Vitalis Bbege, Mohamed Muruli; together with silver medal wins by Ali Rojo and Jacob Odongo, further established two-time (1970 and 1974) Commonwealth boxing overall champion Uganda as international ring master. Earlier on in January 1974 at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, Wasajja, as Uganda's middleweight, was in the quarter finals knocked out in the first round by Les Rackley of New Zealand.
And at the World Boxing Championships held in August 1974, Wasajja was outpointed in the quarter-finals by Dragomir Vujkovic of Yugoslavia. An upcoming major outing for the glorious Ugandans would have been at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal in Canada. Many African countries, including Uganda, boycotted these Games. Notable Ugandan boxers such as Wasajja, Ayub Kalule, and Cornelius Bbosa (Boza-Edwards), would henceforth move into the growing field of professional boxing. These were the seeds of the 1980's golden era of Uganda boxing during which Ugandans, notably Ayub Kalule, Cornelius Boza-Edwards, and John "the Beast" Mugabi became professional world champions.
Of note is that a tune up for the 1976 Olympic Games included the international Pre-Olympic Boxing Tournament held in Montreal from November 27 to December 1, 1975. Uganda was represented by Wasajja (middleweight), hard punching and dreaded knockout specialist and Africa Champion Vitalis Bbege (welterweight), and Jacob Odonga (light-heavyweight). Only Wasajja emerged winner, while his counterparts were defeated in their finals. In the quarter-finals, Wasajja thouroughly outpointed Pietro Contarini of Canada. This was followed by Wasajja beating Jacobus Schmidt of Holland on points. The finals involved Wasajja beating Bryan Gibson of Canada by 4:1. Vitalis Bbege was also scheduled to fight for Uganda at the upcoming but aborted Olympics. Bbege soon turned professional in Europe but he surprisingly achieved very little success, and his name quickly faded away, just like it had risen up fast and furiously in Uganda!
Wasajja fought in 28 official fights as a professional boxer. These fights of Wasajja took place from March 1977 to March 1983, and Wasajja became a top-ten world contender as a light-heavyweight and cruiserweight from the late 1970's to the mid-1980's. Aside from his last three fights, his bouts essentially took place in Denmark and Norway. Of his only professional wins and one draw (25 bouts), 76% of them went the distance, Wasajja registering 24% as knocks-outs of his opponents. Wasajja stood out as a southpaw, a mostly agile, fast, and stamina endowed puncher who would endure all the rounds other than deliver as a power knockout pugilist.
On September 9, 1978 in Copenhagen, Wasajja technically knocked out legendary former world light-heavyweight Bob (Robert Lloyd) Foster with a retirement in the 5th round. The lanky 6'3" tall Foster, considered one of the world's all-time (light-heavyweights) greats had over the years been in many vicious battles with notable fighters, including epic heavyweights like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and Ernie Terrel. He is regarded as the best boxer to have hailed from the USA state of New Mexico. Foster achieved mixed results when fighting the heavyweight boxers. Foster had also retired several times and made comebacks. When Foster battled Wasajja , he was aged 40 and undoubtedly way past his prime. After one more fight thereafter (a rematch with Bob Hazelton in which Foster was knocked), Foster would retire for the last time. Wasajja was only 25 at that time. Foster lay his gloves down, ending with a marvelous 56 wins (46 by knockout) and 8 losses.
From his professional debut in March 1977 until February 13, 1982, Wasajja achieved a 100% winning streak. It was then that he battled legendary Michael Spinks (later to become World Heavyweight Champion) for the light-heavyweight crown, in the New Jersey Atlantic City in the USA. Wasajja's crossing the Atlantic for a chance at the belt, spelled his demise. Prior to the fight with Spinks, Wasajja, regarded as a mystery man (whose names were difficult to spell) by the American fans and writers became the number one ranked contender for the WBA light-heavyweight crown. Previously, in 1980, Wasajja had become the 3rd-ranked WBA contender.
Subsequently, Wasajja was knocked out by Spinks in the sixth round, and therefore failed to capture the World Boxing Association (WBA) title. In July of the same year, Wasajja lost his next bout (which went the distance) to Tony Mundine in France, and thereafter in Lusaka (Zambia), Wasajja was knocked out by Zambian Lottie Mwale in only three rounds, and thus failing to capture the British Commonwealth Light-heavyweight title. At age 29 Wasajja had fought his last professional fight. Undoubtedly, the last three were bouts were Wasajja's toughest and most significant; they were against game opponents. Sadly, it was in the three that Wasajja succumbed. These three significantly injured and exposed Wasajja's weaknesses. Nevertheless, Wasajja established himself as one of the greatest Uganda boxers, and significantly as one of the greatest among the pioneering Uganda professional boxers.
Of note, Lottie Mwale, who was the same age as Wasajja, boxed professionally until 1994; he stands out as one of the greatest of African boxers. He participated in 53 professional bouts won most of them by knockout and was also an African Boxing Union (ABU) champion. The greatest Zambian boxer succumbed in 2005, at age 53, to Parkinsonism which is the same affliction that legendary Muhammad Ali endures. Zambians, with their love for boxing, apparently harbor an appreciably enduring memory of Mustapha Wasajja. And Zambians, have for decades been traditional boxing rivals of Ugandans. Charles Chisamba, the Zambian light-heavyweight champion, carries the nickname, "Wasajja" ("Wasaja"). On January 24, 2009 in Lusaka, Chisamba outpointed Tanzania's Mbaruku Kheri in an African Boxing Union (ABU) light-heavyweight vacant title and thus became Africa champion. Wasajja has guided young and promising boxers at Mulago Yellow Boxing Club, some of whom have starred as professionals abroad...mainly in Europe, notably in the Scandinavian countries.
In an October 8 2005 article by Moses Mugalu in the Uganda newspaper "Daily Monitor," Wasajja is said to talk about having invested in Kenya businesses (together with long-time boxing counterpart Ayub Kalule) after retirement from boxing, on until 1990. But Wasajja claimed to have eventually been duped by Kenyan business counterparts; a consequence of which he became a poverty-stricken slum dweller in Mulago in Kampala. His five children were similarly struggling, some young and not enrolled in school. Wasajja recounted his memorable amateur exhibition bout with his executive President, Idi Amin, soon after Wasajja won the Africa Championships title in the series held in Kampala in 1975. Wasajja was obligated to lose in that puppet bout. In the "Monitor" interviews, Wasajja is described as weakly, frail, shaky, and occasionally stammering," but that both his memory and speech are quite focused and clear; and he maintains his pride and humor.
In the Uganda newspaper, "Bukedde," dated July 28 2008, an ailing bedridden Wasajja mentions to Ibrahim Katongole that it is his children Rehemah Namuddu, Nakayiwa and Salif Abdul who tend to him. According to a former national boxer, Charles Lubulwa, some of Wasajja's sufferings stemmed from disconnecting himself from the boxing bodies and persons that had employed him and supported him during his boxing career abroad. They had, largely, lost contact with him.
As regards the memorable fight with Michael Spinks in which he lost in 1982, Wasajja strongly suspects that food given to him prior to the fight (in Atlantic City, New Jersey) was tainted and consequently weakened and disabled him: he claimed that foul play was involved in his losing the fight. This was Wasajja's most memorable and most prestigious fight. And who knew? Wasajja fought with the two Spinks brothers who became world heavyweight champions! One of the brothers beat Muhammad Ali, and the other was beaten by Mike Tyson, among other things! Also, notably, Wasajja fought during an era regarded as a golden one for light-heavyweights. These included Michael Spinks, Dwight Mohammed Qawi (formerly Dwight Braxton), Eddie Mustafa Muhammad (formerly Eddie Gregory), Marvin Johnson, and Mathew Saad Muhammad (formerly Mathew Franklin, and born Maxwell Antonio Loach).
Wasajja was a notable amateur Uganda boxing champion, but his wins were not as many or as striking as those of his counterparts such as Ayub Kalule and James Odwori. In the professional ranks he rose to prominent heights, but he did not win that coveted world title. Wasajja's fame is intertwined with his being a mysterious Ugandan champion, one who had shots at both world title and the Africa professional title but came short of winning. Wasajja, Uganda's mysterious champion became outstanding as one of Uganda's pioneering professional boxers, one of those who had the audacity to challenge some of the best boxers on the globe.