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Why Philip Waruinge is one of the greatest forgotten fighters in boxing history

Philip Waruinge
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You might not know the name Philip Waruinge, but Steve Bunce tells his extraordinary story

IN 2007 an old Kenyan man with a dodgy left eye was deported from Japan with nothing but the rags on his back and a scrambled head of amazing tales. His fighting name had been Waruinge Nakayama in Japan and Philip Waruinge when he represented Kenya at international amateur boxing. This man is a legend, arguably one of the greatest forgotten boxers in our history. I’m not kidding, I’m serious.

Where to start? Well, it has been reported that when Waruinge was a tiny boy of about five-stone, a touring Scottish solider, allegedly on a trawl of Kenyan village schools in search of potential boxers, found a bare-foot Waruinge. Dozens of boys of all sizes were pitted against each other – survival of the fittest – and Waruinge emerged. Who cares if it is true?

Here are the facts: In 1962 Waruinge boxed for Kenya at the Commonwealth Games in Perth and won a bronze medal at flyweight. He was just 17, some said he was younger. Two years later he was in Tokyo at the Olympics. He was 19 and he won a fight and then lost to Heinz Schulz, who took the bronze.

In 1966 it was Kingston for the Commonwealth Games and Waruinge, now at featherweight, won gold. And then his story moves to another level – had Waruinge retired then he would have been a Kenyan idol, make no mistake. However, that was just the start and this, I warn you, is not a fairy tale.

Waruinge went to the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968 as a man of 23, strong at featherweight, fast, elusive, clever. But, he still fought for an amateur boxing backwater, a country with no impact on world boxing affairs, a country where success at Olympic level was unknown. Waruinge was that rare man, that man capable of writing history with his fists.

First up was a French-Algerian called Jean-Paul Aston and he went 5-0, then Morocco’s Mohamed Sourour went by the same score. In the quarter-final Argentina’s Miguel Garcia lost 4-1: Waruinge was Kenya’s first ever Olympic boxing medallist. That was history right there. He was catching the eye, his rise to the semi-final was being noticed.

And then it got ugly, real ugly.

The local fighter, a kid from Mexico City, called Antonio Roldan was in the opposite corner for the semi-final. He had been in some scrappy fights, but the judges seemed to like him. I want one day to ask Waruinge if he knew what was going to happen that night in Mexico. At the end of three rounds the score of 3-2 was in Roldan’s favour. A disgrace, Roldan’s crowd booed, Waruinge dropped his head. It was over and it looked like the bronze was the only prize for the brilliant Kenyan.

In the final Roldan was getting beat again when the referee disqualified the American Al Robinson in round two. Roldan was cut, Robinson was accused of butting the Mexican, but the fight film clears him of the foul. The Americans complained and a silver medal was handed to Robinson after he returned to America. The disqualification was an outrage. Roldan won gold, turned pro and quickly quit. Robinson turned pro, won 11 and then collapsed one afternoon in the gym; he died three years later without regaining consciousness.

At the end of the boxing tournament in Mexico City, at about the time Chris Finnegan found a pint of Guinness somewhere, there was one last crazy act. Philip Waruinge, bronze medal winner at featherweight was given the Val Barker trophy for the outstanding boxer of the tournament.

In 1970 in Edinburgh Waruinge retained his Commonwealth Games gold medal, one of eight African winners.

And then it was the Munich Olympic Games and Waruinge was in West Germany. The kid from Nakura ABC, a boxing baby at the Tokyo Olympics was now a man of 27, Africa’s greatest fighter in any code at that time.      

Waruinge won four fights to reach the final, making more history. In the opposite corner was the sublime Boris Kuznetsov, the Soviet pioneer. A fight between Kuznetsov and Vasyl Lomachenko might have just been the most brilliant tactical, skilful nine minutes of boxing ever. In the final it was 3-2 again, closer this time. I have watched it many times. Boris gets the gold, Waruinge somehow manages to smile; a forlorn figure in his tight green satin shorts, a hero right there and then.

Philip Waruinge
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Philip Waruinge could and probably should be a double Olympic gold medal winner.

A year after the Olympics had finished Waruinge had moved to Japan and he turned professional. His eyes were never good. His record as a professional was bizarre. In 1976 he lost twice for world titles in the same year; he was stopped by Rigoberto Riasco in Panama for the inaugural WBC super-bantamweight title and then in four rounds by Carlos Zarate back in Mexico for the WBC bantamweight title. It was Zarate’s 44th win, his 43rd by knockout or stoppage.

Waruinge fought five more times in Japan, but was a ghost. He left the sport in 1978, blind in his left eye. He ran a bar in Osaka, a bar with a boxing theme. His beloved medals were on display, his status as a citizen in Japan not quite so solid. Inevitably, his story gets messy, confused and unpleasant before he landed back in Kenya in 2007. I have heard that all of his medals are still in Japan and he wants them back. Sweet Waruinge has not told all of his tales. He lives today in his mother’s house – some say a hut – in a remote place called Kabachia. He lives without the medals he won, without the glory he deserves and I just hope he lives in peace. He deserves that.

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