PETER OBOH’S dressing rooms were less crowded than most – ‘God is my trainer’ the self-contained British light-heavyweight champion was fond of saying – and this evening he could be forgiven for being even more focused than normal.
After spending three years in the wilderness, the man widely regarded as the most avoided in British boxing had the showcase he had been craving. Tonight, his title defence against the ultra-popular Tony Oakey would provide the support for David Haye’s heavyweight debut. As the tumult of a Haye fight night filled the corridors and strains of the ‘Oakey Cokey” drifted through from the arena Oboh sat quietly, lost in thought.
Interrupted only by a timely tactical reminder or burst of padwork, even the most confident characters eventually retreat into their own world as the minutes before a fight drag by but Oboh needed no last-minute prompts. He knew exactly what needed to be done. When his moment arrived Oboh picked up his bags, left his dressing room and strode directly out of Wembley Arena.
Thirteen years ago, Oboh’s explanation for his desertion was given to an unsympathetic audience but these days his message reaches far more receptive ears. Nigeria is a hotbed for preachers of the ‘Prosperity gospel.’ Now 51 years old, Apostle Peter spends his life trying to make his voice heard amid the din created by mega churches and millionaire pastors who promise all the health and wealth the heavens have to offer in exchange for as much ‘faith’ as devotees can spare.
“I’m a moving evangelist so I go to different churches but most of the time I’m here in Lagos,” Oboh told Boxing News.
“It is a calling from God. It came while I was in the UK. I was the British and Commonwealth champion but I began to have dreams that I was back in Africa teaching the poor and preaching the gospel.
“At first I didn’t want to accept the calling. I had too much of a passion for boxing. I was very ambitious in the sport. It took me years to become a champion and I fought all of the top boxers in the UK. When I did become a champion, my goal was to remain a champion but the calling was coming.
“That night, I set off to the hall as normal but on my way there I heard a voice. It told me, “Peter, your boxing career is over.””
Oboh calmly made his way home, oblivious to the chaos he had caused. Oakey did eventually enter the ring that night but only to pick up a microphone and attempt to appease his unhappy fans and by the time Haye walked out to headline the show, Oboh had closed his front door on a 14-year long career. Within hours his prized British title would be stripped from him but as he sat alone at home with the pleas and threats from television producers, promoters and Boxing Board officials still ringing in his ears, he didn’t have a single regret.
Oboh didn’t travel the road to Damascus when he made his way from his South London home to Wembley that night. His career may have stalled during the years of inactivity but his devotion to God had gathered momentum. By the time those paths converged at Wembley, Oboh knew which he needed to continue following. If that meant turning his back on the opportunity he had worked so hard for, so be it.
“Whenever a fight was arranged for me, it got cancelled. That happened for more than two years. It didn’t seem like there was an opponent for me in England. Through that process, while I was going to church the spirit of God came upon me. I could pray for the sick and they would get healed. That was a sign. It was so obvious,” Oboh said.
“I knew that if I got in that ring, maybe Oakey could have got injured or maybe me, myself. I heard the voice tell me to go back to the house. I was ready to fight. I love boxers like Tony Oakey. They come forward so I don’t have to look for them all night.
“When I left I went back home to pray. Frank Maloney said he would make sure I never fought in Britain again but at that time my mind was in a different place. I had God to deal with now, not man. His mission was far more important to me at that time. I went to a church. Within a few weeks I became a pastor.”
After turning professional in Italy, Oboh arrived in England in 1995 and settled in Brockley. There is a strong Nigerian community in South London but Oboh chose not to immerse himself in life outside of the gym, eventually becoming an almost constant presence in the Henry Cooper on The Old Kent Road and then Lennox Lewis’ gym in Hackney. Nobody got too close. Partly because Oboh was all business, partly because anybody with any kind of stake in the light-heavyweight division quickly realised that it may be in their best interests to stay as far away from him as possible.
Oboh is a friendly character with a ready laugh but in those days boxing was his job. Those who saw him silently clock in for work three times a day might be surprised to find out that somebody who lived such a private life has chosen a calling which involves meeting as many people as possible.
“I was more to myself. I didn’t spend much time with the Nigerian community while I was there,” Oboh remembered. “I had a few friends from the gym but I spent more time by myself. Every day was all about, ‘How can I be a champion? What do I have to do?’ I was obsessed with boxing. If I’m in the gym just training I could help people but if we were sparring, well, I spar as if I am fighting. I knew that I might not get much notice for a fight [so I had to be ready].
“Sometimes I would have a hard fight on a Saturday night and I would be back training on the Monday. I trained three times a day. Then, most of the time, I would go back home and read my bible. The religion has really helped me a lot.
“I used to tell the trainers that I had conquered three things. One is fear, two is pain and three is tiredness. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink and I had no girlfriends.”
One man was drawn to Oboh. If a gym in London hired a new cleaner, Dean Powell knew whether they handled a broom left or right-handed before they swept a floor. It wouldn’t have taken long for the stories emanating from the Henry Cooper about the rough, tough Nigerian who would pound the heavy bag for hour after hour without wrapping his hands to reach Powell’s ears. With Oboh at a loose end after a short period working with Mickey Duff, Powell took a chance.
Powell – who sadly passed away in 2013 – strictly adhered to Duff’s own belief that the worst crime a boxing manager can commit is not being fully aware of his own boxer’s strengths and weaknesses and although the Londoner wouldn’t have taken on Oboh unless he felt there was business to be done, the relationship the pair developed went beyond that of fighter and manager.
“Because I went through the hard route, I discovered in boxing that there is a system,” Oboh said. “If you go through that system, it’s easier to become a champion. There are managers that make champions and managers that can’t. Unfortunately, most of the time I was with a manager who couldn’t make champions until, one night while I was sleeping, I heard a voice. It told me that I should give an offering to a church. I did this. Within a few days, Dean Powell called me. He asked me if I wanted him to manage me. I said yes.
“God chose Dean Powell to work with me. I knew with Dean I would get to the promised land. Dean was more like a brother to me. We would discuss issues and he was very open with me. If Dean told me something was like this, then it really was like this. I learned a lot of the secrets of boxing promotion from Dean.
“Before a fight would take place, I would tell Dean Powell which round I would win in. After the dream, I knew these things.”
Powell and Oboh began to learn about each other. After an unsuccessful run at heavyweight Oboh finally took his gym form into the ring and scored a spectacular first round stoppage of former European light-heavyweight champion, Ole Klemetson.
Powell was one of the best matchmakers of the modern era but once Oboh had established his reputation and settled at 175lbs, not even his manoeuvring and cajoling could persuade a top light-heavy to fight him.
It took four years for a vacant Commonwealth title shot to materialise and not even winning the British title after a rough brawl with Neil Simpson made him a more attractive target.
In 2007 – nine years after he beat Klemetson, four years after he beat Simpson, and three years after his last title defence – Tony Oakey accepted the challenge.
“It would have been difficult [for any light-heavyweight to beat him]. At that time, I walked through their punches,” Oboh said.
“I punched too hard. I knew that if the fight ends up in the hands of the judges I can be robbed. I only lost to bigger, hard guys [Scott Welch, Johnny Nelson, Terry Dunstan were among those who beat him before he campaigned permanently at 175lbs]. I trained so hard I didn’t get tired, even after 12 rounds. I was so determined to become a champion. I had a black belt in taekwondo beforehand too. I could really punch.
“I sparred Henry Akinwande, Herbie Hide, Ralf Rocchigianni but the mistake I made was due to a lack of experience. I got myself too exposed. Rumours started to go around about me and it became very difficult to get an opponent. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t do that.
“By the grace of God I became a champion. There are a lots of boxers who are talented but because they sign with the wrong camp, they never become a champion.”
One of the bible passages which the Prosperity gospel leans on most heavily is “Give, and it will be given unto you” (Luke 6:38). Oboh still proudly displays the title belts he won during his career but since retiring he has learned that the rewards for his effort and determination were never supposed to be material. Thirteen years after persuading him to turn his back on one dream and follow another, God still has a plan for Peter Oboh.
“Most times when I go to the church I’m introduced as the former British and Commonwealth champion who became a minister,” he laughed. “Being the champion has given me reach. Supporters will listen to my statements. Becoming the British champion in England really has become a big blessing.
“I think I’m the only minister to have a professional record. When I tell them that now I am boxing the devil the people all clap and cheer.
“How many Nigerians – or Africans – have been able to go to England and become a British champion? It’s a miracle.
“I have a story to tell.”