Anthony Joshua showed Nigeria can be world boxingSeptember 22, 2018
Long before football became the go-to sport for Nigerians, long before an Africa Cup of Nations title and Olympic gold made legends of the Super Eagles, there was a Nigerian world champion.
A boxing world champion.
Hogan “Kid” Bassey became the first Nigerian international boxing star when he won the world featherweight boxing championship in 1957, defeating Cherif Hamia of France by TKO.
Bassey was followed not long after by Dick Tiger [born Richard Ihetu], who not only became a two-time undisputed world champion at middleweight in 1962, but also moved to, and became world champion at, flyweight in 1966.
Now, Nigerian-Brit Anthony Joshua, who will defend his unified heavyweight titles for a sixth time on Saturday at Wembley, is the latest in a long if broken line of Nigerian boxing talent to show the world what is possible.
And he could still be the key to a full revival of boxing in Nigeria, even without representing the African nation at the Olympics, which he has attempted to do.
Nigerian Hogan (Kid) Bassey (l) and Jean Sneyers from Belgium (r) trade punches during their bout, which Bassey wins by TKO in the 4th round in 1956. Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images
Since Bassey and Tiger, there have been intermittent streams of boxing breakouts by Nigerians, mostly at the Olympic Games. Nojeem Maiyegun was the first in that line, winning bronze at the 1964 Summer Games. Peter Konyegwachi won Nigeria’s first ever Olympic silver medal, and in 1992 David Izonritei did the same.
While this was by no means a tidal wave, it showed a pattern of talent and quality that should have been built on, to identify and groom world champions to fly the green and white flag in international boxing.
Alexander Povetkin says Anthony Joshua is better than Wladimir Klitschko in his prime and Deontay Wilder.
And that talent is not lacking. Boxers of Nigerian descent – a couple with world championship belts – litter the boxing world, even when not flying the colours. Former WBO champion Henry Akinwande, who represented Great Britain as Joshua has done, tops the list.
Ike Ibeabuchi had the talent to have dominated boxing after going 20-0, before entangling himself in serious legal jeopardy, to the point where Nigeria refused to issue him a passport.
And then there was Samuel Peter, who held the WBC heavyweight belt in 2008.
Joshua is the latest iteration of all of that quality. While he may have been born and raised in the UK, Joshua still identifies strongly with his Nigerian roots, down to the map of Africa tattooed onto his bicep.
His rise to the top of the boxing pyramid, and the journey of those before him, offers more than ample proof of what the country is capable of with the right direction and more than a little injection of money.
Anthony Joshua holds three of the four major heavyweight world titles. Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images
Former greats like Tiger, and ex-Olympians like Davidson Andeh, Obisia Nwankpa and Jerry Okorodudu, have become coaches, but they lack the facilities and support to groom and develop fighters who can carry the torch from where they left off.
Nigerian boxing has also suffered from lack of promotion. Fighters train and train and train, but there are no promoters to organise fights, leaving the passion to gradually flicker away, unless of course those fighters choose to move abroad.
That in itself is a big ask for fighters who can barely afford the license fee, as low as N10 000 to N20 000 required to box, let alone the air fare to emigrate. It is why Olympic trials are such fierce contests, the equivalent of gladiator contests.
As Joshua steps out against Alexander Povetkin this weekend, there will be many boxers back home in Nigeria watching that fight and imagining they could scale the same heights if exposed to the same opportunities as their brother flying a Union Jack.
What they need is a few monied people willing to identify, and invest in, their talents. To organise fights for them, to take them to boxing clubs abroad and expose them to great facilities and nutrition and public relations management.
Who knows, perhaps, that might one day be Joshua himself. For now, he has the small matter of Povetkin to dispose of. And all of those potential world champions from across the length and breadth of Nigeria, will be firmly in his corner.