Coming to Airdrie: Martin Bakole interview
Unbeaten Congolese heavyweight Martin Bakole now lives in a quiet Scottish suburb. Danny Flexen meets the gentle giant and his trainer/ manager Billy Nelson to hear about a real-life journey that mirrored a movie script...
The classic 1980s Eddie Murphy vehicle 'Coming to America' seemed as far fetched as many movies of the era and proved all the better as a result. To summarise the plot, a Third World African prince temporarily forsakes the advantages of his birthright and ventures to the urban jungle of New York to find his queen and, in the process, takes a menial job and learns about real life. Accompanying Prince Akeem in a journey both literal and metaphorical is his boisterous and loyal, but not altogether reliable, valet Semmi, played by Arsenio Hall.
Upon first viewing, the entire scenario appeared somewhat fanciful, even to your then seven-year-old author, but a recent interview with Congolese heavyweight prospect Martin Bakole has placed that youthful review in a new light. Bakole’s father is a tribal king in the former Belgian colony, yet the 6ft 6ins vegetarian sacrificed a luxurious upbringing split between the palatial family estate and private school in the nation’s capital, Kinshasa, to live alongside his loyal and forthright trainer/manager Billy Nelson in the sleepy Airdrie suburb of Greengairs.
Bakole is not, however, seeking a wife in Scotland, he is happily married, but would be content to fix a date with even
one world-rated opponent.
Nelson and I have engaged in a long-running, albeit tongue-in- cheek feud on Twitter, centred on the Essex-born Scot’s frequent
proclamations of Bakole’s greatness, assertions that have yet to be supported by much competitive evidence, outside of admittedly impressive sparring performances opposite the likes of Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury.
As I enter the Britannia Hotel on London’s Docklands, a fading façade concealing its salubrious environs, I greet Nelson and immediately suggest that perhaps he should allow his 26-year-old protégé to speak for himself on social media, instead of a verbose Man Friday writing cheques the current learning-stage boxer cannot hope to cash.
Ensconced in a quiet corner of the vast hotel bar, close to a panoramic view of an area synonymous with industry, the unlikely partnership sit in armchairs too small to contain either man comfortably, the giant, ever-smiling African bedecked in branded training garb, gold watch and fashionable headphones, next to his pale, stocky companion, who brings to mind the long-suffering Scottish aide to Bill Nighy’s pop star in Love Actually.
The pair are visiting the Big Smoke so Bakole can spar with another hot prospect in Daniel Dubois at the nearby Peacock Gym, and Nelson remains unsurprisingly bullish about his role as Bakole’s spokesperson. “That’s not in Martin’s personality, nature, so I’ll do it on his behalf basically,” Nelson asserts. “He’s capable of beating anybody in the world. I’m only looking for the best fights for my fighter.
“Obviously I want better opponents for Martin because I know the levels he can perform at, but it’s through no fault of mine, Martin or the promoter that guys get injured or ‘bottle it’ to fight him.
“I like to let his fans know what’s going on in his career. Sometimes they come back firing but I just take it on the chin and get on. I’d rather have somebody who’s got the talent he’s got, and shows it in the ring, than somebody who mouths off on Twitter and is going to get found out quite badly. Bottom line is he’s a top, top fighter and he’ll do all his talking and win world titles in the ring.”
Reserving his statements for the ring is not, however, an option for Bakole today. I had insisted before making the trek from Kent that he answer the majority of my questions himself and, after some initial apprehension about his ever-improving English, he acquiesces and begins to narrate his own backstory in an incongruously soft, muted lilt.
“I was born in Kananga but later was staying in the capital, Kinshasa,” Bakole says, with regular glances at Nelsonto confirm he is using the appropriate words in his second language (after French). “Kananga is where my parents live and I moved to Kinshasa to continue with my studies when I was 15. Kananga was a nice, quiet place... well, for me, it’s a nice place because I was living in a royal palace!
“My father is a king in the Lulua province [of which Kananga is the capital]. We call him ‘Chief’ and he rules all the other chiefs.
“My father didn’t like us to grow up with him because many people wanted to kill us. They want to delete his name because they don’t like him. They want to change the king. But he was clever. When I reached 10, he would always send us to Kinshasa.
“I didn’t stay entirely in the palace, I grew up outside. Even Junior [Makabu, now a pro cruiserweight], my first [eldest] brother, he left my father when he was five years old. My father sent him away because he’s the first born and people wanted to kill him, maybe poison him.
First he sent him to Catholic people far from Kananga. You would pay and they would feed him, school him, everything. “When I was in Kananga, my parents didn’t like me to box and go to school [simultaneously]; they asked me to finish school first. When I moved to Kinshasa, I had more time to do boxing. My brother, Junior, was living in South Africa at that time and he came to visit us in Kinshasa for a couple of days. He found that I had now grown up in boxing and he told me to choose: school or boxing. I said I wanted to do boxing. Then he took me to South Africa. That is where I started my professional career.”
The majority of the 10-strong royal brood moved, at various times, to a big house they all ultimately shared in the capital, the rent provided, of course, by the king. But the threat of assassination was not the only reason the Ilunga offspring (Martin’s full name is Martin Bakole Ilunga) were cast so far from the nest. As a man of means, Martin’s father was always alert to another danger, that of spoiling his children by raising them in luxury and rendering them weak as a result.
“There are five boys including me, five girls; I’m the fifth born,” Bakole continues. “Our father always explained to us that he was born alone and he wanted many kids so he could build a new family. My father would always tell me: ‘My money, my house, it’s not yours. You are a man, you have to fend for yourself.’
“He said after he was not the king any more, it would be Junior, or Junior could choose someone else if he said no. But: ‘Everyone has to fight for his own life.’ I was always thinking about that because my father was feeding me, everything.
“When I reached 15, 16, I decided to do boxing to take my own life in my hands, to be my own man.
“I still speak to my family every day. Just before you came, I was speaking to my father. He is still the chief. My beautiful mother always took care of us and I love her. It’s 10 years now, I don’t ask my father for money, I don’t ask him to help me, I even ask Billy to help me, never my father.”
Bakole laughs while Nelson looks away self-consciously. The coach and manager, a carer by profession as well as character, has clearly invested his own finances in a fighter he cherishes. They have only had three fights together so far, the Airdrie adventure the latest stop on a globe-trotting expedition for Bakole, who debuted in South Africa before relocating to Preston when accompanying his brother to England for Junior’s bout with Tony Bellew.
Junior came up short in an abbreviated but memorable war at Liverpool’s Goodison Park, but Martin stayed to join Johnny Roye. The North West stalwart succeeded legendary South Africans in Harold Volbrecht (affectionately referred to as “Coach Harold”) and the late Nick Durandt as Bakole’s head cornerman.
Indeed, when we discuss Durandt, who died in a motorcycle accident last year, Martin displays a sensitivity rarely seen in boxing’s macho arena.
“Nick gave me a job to train people; personal training. I was with him for two fights, may he rest in peace, he was a nice guy... he meant a lot to me... sorry...” Bakole’s voice trails off and he looks away before dropping his head into his hands. I respectfully shut off the Dictaphone and give him a few moments, until he is ready to continue. “I’m sorry to Damien [Durandt’s son and also a trainer] and to his family, because when he passed away I was here in London.”
Bakole’s show of emotion is refreshing but he has shown ruthlessness in the ring, having stopped eight of 11 opponents. His most recent victim, brave but heavily outgunned DL Jones, was walloped in just 62 seconds. Next up, in Bakole's 12th pro contest, is American Michael Hunter at Cyclone Promotions' York Hall show this Saturday.
Despite having only 17 amateur fights, Bakole displays deft, grace and good mobility for a heavyweight. Although he lacks a high-profile name on his record, Bakole now appears settled with Nelson and promoter Cyclone, so the future appears bright.
Both men believe Bakole is the only person of colour currently residing in Greengairs, the village of around 500 residents in which they live, just a few hundred yards apart. Martin has become not just a local curiosity, but a local hero.
“They love me,” he smiles, proud and unabashed. “My first fight I was there and come home, all people were waiting in their cars: ‘Well done, Martin, welcome back home.’ They all support me. My neighbour before I go running is always shouting: ‘Go champ!’ We talk about boxing and other stuff. It’s a nice place to run. I like quiet. I don’t want noise. I don’t go to clubs.
“I’m a vegetarian, I always eat my African food. The man who owns the [African food] shop in Glasgow comes from the same place in Congo, he knows my language. He told me all about where I come from! One day, my mum told me, when I was small, she gave me meat and I said: ‘I don’t want to eat meat.’
She tried to give me rice with some small soup in it and after [eating the dish] I started to vomit. She had hidden meat in there. I vomit all day and they took me to hospital. The doctor told them: ‘He’s vegetarian. He doesn’t eat meat.’ Even like we are now, if meat was here I can’t stay here. The smell, I feel ill. I can start vomiting, also.”
I nervously pan around the large room and, despite the audible presence of a raucous hen party that has perhaps taken a wrong turn (it is around 12.30pm on a weekday in a rather genteel hotel), I can spy no animal flesh. It is time for lunch, however, so I bid the dynamic duo a fond farewell.
'Coming to America' concludes with (spoiler alert) Prince Akeem marrying the strong, independent Lisa back home in Zamunda. Joy abounds, but perhaps returning to Congo with a prize of a different kind - say, a world title belt or four - will have the same effect for Martin Bakole. A once unlikely but no longer wholly implausible happy ending.
A version of this article was originally published in the September issue of Boxing Monthly magazine