The Sunday News
A FLURRY of blows to the body, a straight left, a wild right hook that punched the open air and a quick succession of other punches were enough to end the night’s boxing bill at Stay Afrique in October of 2004.
That night ended Ambrose Mlilo’s fighting days. There had been an unwritten pact by promoters not to organise a re-match after he had lost to Modicai Donga as the veteran pugilist was hard to tie to a contract. Promoters more often had to break the bank to accommodate him in their bills.
It was closing a colourful chapter of a boxing legend who had ruled supreme in the middleweight division since 28 October of 1992. A technical knock-out decision is how Mlilo exited the sport, allowing Donga to rule the roost in the division for another eight years.
Mlilo who had become every promoter’s eyesore because of his high purse demands wore the Granddad tag in the ring standing against a much younger opponent with his 45 years.
“They had to pay what I thought I was worth. Going into the fight with Donga in 2004, to say the least I was now past my prime. I had lost the desire and urge to keep going, perhaps I should have retired out of the ring than obliterate all the good about me in it in those nine rounds with Modicai, then a promising prospect.
“At one stage I wanted to lift him up and throw him out of the ring. He overwhelmed me and I was just out of contest. I remember getting a warning for unsportsmanlike conduct,” said Mlilo.
Up to the ninth round those that had followed his history thought Mlilo would bounce back and catch Donga with a hook that would send him to the canvas. A sluggish ageing opponent could just limit damage by holding his opponent.
Years earlier in similar fashion Mlilo had allowed Hastings Rasani of the Mau Mau stable to dominate him only to catch the young lad with a devastating right hook in the eighth and ninth rounds respectively.
It all begun during the liberation struggle in 1978 at Mzola 55 when Mlilo found himself strapping cloths on to his hands and punching suspended water bottles.
“How that came into my mind I do not know. I had no idea about boxing. In actual fact even throughout my school days at Insukamini I had been a footballer. Even at home I remember being part of a village team that played Division One side Gwayi River Mine around 1974-75. I was good in the game,” said Mlilo.
The 22 December 1959 born athlete, the fifth in a family of as many boys and one girl, got support from his dad, Kizito Elijah.
“My mum, Clara, a devout Catholic always prayed that I should quit the sport while dad insisted that she prays for me to be tougher as I would be fighting other humans and not beasts,” he said.
In 1980 Mlilo was in Bulawayo when he got a glimpse of the sport through his uncle McVision Mabhena, a light heavyweight boxer.
Mabhena was good and used to dominate light heavyweight champion John “Kid Power” Mutambisi in sparring sessions at Iminyela and Stanley Square. But some day the Black Bullet (Mabhena) lost to Kid Power in a tournament in Makokoba.
“I was inspired by him to some extent though guys like Tom Ferreira would play a bigger part in my career with Jack Schoolboy,” said Mlilo.
Some months down the line in 1980 Mlilo would bounce on Jack Schoolboy doing routine boxing with challengers at Bango Shops in Mpopoma.
“I put on gloves and sparred with him until he got tired. After that he invited me to join him at Iminyela Hall. I would train there on my own and before year end I was in the ring fighting as an amateur,” he said.
Mlilo beat two army fighters in his first tournament. In his second he beat three army boxers at Hellenic Community Club attracting the attention of Tom Ferreira who would invite him to train at a gym in Bulawayo.
“He even got me a job at Hunyani taking me from Renkini where I sold some wares for a living. I was doing well selling more than what my father was earning,” he added.
In 1981 he joined the army, a decision that he has never regretted.
“Boxing gave me a job in the army. When I told my father that the army were keen on me he gave it a thumbs up. He felt there was security within the uniformed services.
“I look back and say if I had not listened to him, what would I be today? The army, police and prison services have a better life path for sportspersons as there is a guaranteed pension and job security. Managers should ensure they help youngsters make better decisions about the destinations of their careers,” he said, adding that a number of sportspersons had been thrown into the mud by greedy agents and managers.
Mlilo fought over 70 times in the amateur ranks representing the country at several international competitions. He dominated the amateur scene for almost a decade.
“Previously before joining Ferreira, I did not bother much about my weight. I would just walk to a weigh-in and get an opponent, beat him up and continue training for fun. Ferreira gave me direction and discipline needed in boxing and I want a notch up in the army where I dominated middleweights until I ran out of competition,” said Mlilo.
He would fight Arigoma Chiponda twice, losing in both instances to a heavy punching opponent in a heavier weight division. Having run out of opponents he was also offered a chance to fight a man who would be king of the middleweights Sipho Moyo.
“Both were heavier opponents, I lost to Chiponda but I beat Sipho Moyo, they were excellent boxers and sportspersons,” said Go Man Go as Charles Mabika, the veteran Zimbabwe sports commentator called him.
Mlilo represented Zimbabwe in international tournaments winning several bronze and silver medals in the Zone Six Championships but falling short in the African Championships, Commonwealth Games and Worlds. He even travelled to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles as a member of the Zimbabwe team.
He recalls the 1982 Canberra Commonwealth Games where his preliminary round opponent was O’Sullivan of Canada.
“That guy had been Commonwealth and World Champion. He knocked me out in the third round for lack of experience but the funny thing is that all his other opponents up to the final in which he met the host country’s boxer were beaten to a knock-out in the first or second rounds.
With big events it’s the luck of the draw and very good preparations and exposure before,” said Mlilo.
In the army he got a push from good boxers like Nokuthula Tshabangu, Ndaba Dube and Duke Chinyadza.
Mlilo grew up in Bulawayo when the city boasted great amateurs like Dube, Tshabangu, Ndafara, Joyful Mahlangu and the late Eddie Ndlovu.
In 1989 Mlilo turned professional.
“I was 30, I had had my time with the amateurs, won everything locally and I needed a fresh break and challenge. Professional boxing was it and by the time I met Gilbert Josamu for the title on 28 October 1992 I had won nine other fights.
“Giro had dominated the division for far too long and had had a stint in Australia. I was the underdog but stunned him with a knock-out in the third round. A new era had arrived in me and the following year I was off to the Commonwealth professional ranks to meet Chris Pyatt who beat me with a third round knock-out,” said Go Man Go.
Up to the time of his retirement Mlilo successfully defended his title against William Mpofu of Gweru, Khumbula Ndlovu, Nightshow Masvingo, Joe Makaza, Gilbert Mambo, Otis Manyuchi and Hastings Rasani whom he describes along Masvingo as very tough opponents he met.
“It was hard to bring Nightshow. His fights and me went the full distance. Rasani was an all round boxer with art and tact, meaning he was well trained. But I was a soldier trained to die fighting and never calling it quits in the ring until victory.
“Twice Rasani dominated up to the eighth and ninth rounds only to lose the next round by knock-out to me. As the Go Man Go I kept going at him until victory knowing his antics would not carry him on to the last bell,” he said.
In one of the fights with Rasani, this writer sat at Raylton Sports Club sandwiched by legendary promoters the late Jeff Dube and Stalin Mau Mau. Both promoters former handlers of the boxer were keen on the younger boxer wrestling the title. Even the two promoters’ henchmen seated around us as bodyguards seemed to enjoy every bit, amplifying their bosses’ remarks and actions as the fight wore on by as much as 10 times as Mlilo was being butchered.
But on that day, 27 February 1999 before a packed hall, Mlilo literally brewed a shocker.
Rasani had demolished everything that came before him in the middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight divisions. Mlilo was coming as the ultimate test.
Young Rasani with good footwork, great jabbing game and telling blows to the target was the clear favourite for a unanimous points division if not a knock-out. Buoyed on a by a gullible crowd he began playing to the gallery in the ninth round and was floored by Mlilo for a knock-out decision.
Between sobs minutes after the fight in an after contest interview Rasani said: “Kana kuri zvemari ne-boxing handicharwi futi ndakusiya, mdara uyu anemushonga. Ndamuuraya but aramba kudonha, manje ndoita sei?”
Mlilo was to soldier on with age catching up with him until he met his match in Donga on that fateful October, 2004 morning when Donga ended his 12-year reign as champion.
Mlilo says he was inspired by greats Ray Leonard, Larry Holmes and Muhhamed Ali.
Mlilo believes Zimbabwe has boxing talent which, however, lacks an economy and promoters of integrity.
“Long ago we had Phillip Chiyangwa, Mau Mau, Paul Murinye, Lorraine Muringi and Jeff Dube doing a great job. Board chairman Richard Hondo was an inspirational figure ever encouraging us not to worry about low local purses but to look at the bigger picture which were fights abroad.
“We have the talent. Our coaches must upgrade but promoters and managers must up the game and not rip off the boys. I was cheated in my career especially when I moved to Australia where I fought the likes of John Mugabi “The Beast” lasting a commendable 10 rounds with him.
“Imagine fighting an opponent who gets paid US$500 000 and you are given a paltry US$6 000 which you later discover was actually US$60 000. Athletes must get switched on agents who will not defraud them but will get them contacts and help them make decisions that guarantee their future and career saving,” said Mlilo a sworn Bosso and Orlando Pirates supporter. Mlilo is a pensioner having retired from the army in 2007 after 26 years of service.