Namibian Glove Affair
Luke G. Williams
As a boy growing up in Namibia, Nestor Tobias watched some footage of Muhammad Ali and it proved to be life-changing. The former professional tells Luke G. Williams how he virtually single-handedly built up boxing in his homeland, to a point where his fighter Julius Indongo, the IBF junior welterweight champion, takes on Ricky Burns in a unification fight this Saturday...
As punches go, the looping left that Namibian southpaw Julius Indongo landed on the chin of Eduard Troyanovsky on
3 December was just about as good as it gets.
The perfectly timed blow terminated the IBF junior welterweight title fight after just 40 seconds, leaving Troyanovsky out cold on the canvas and a shockwave of silence rippling through the crowd at Moscow’s Khodynka Ice Palace.
For the unheralded Indongo, it was a punch that catapulted him from obscurity to the upper reaches of the 140lbs division — and it has propelled the 33-year-old into a WBA and IBF unification fight with Scotland’s Ricky Burns in Glasgow on 15 April.
Indongo is the latest success story to emerge from the stable of Namibia’s leading boxing trainer and promoter Nestor Tobias, the mastermind and founder of the MTC Nestor Sunshine Boxing Academy in Windhoek, the capital of the southern Africa state.
Remarkably, Tobias has built up the Namibian boxing scene from next to nothing to the point where the small nation of just 2.5 million now has nine boxers ranked in the top 15 of the latest world rankings published by the WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO.
Indongo isn’t even Tobias’ first world champion — the 51-year-old Namibian has also, in the past, guided Paulus Moses to the WBA lightweight title and Paulus Ambunda to the WBO bantamweight belt. These fighters, of course, followed in the footsteps of Namibia’s first world champion Harry Simon, who won WBO titles at junior middleweight and middleweight in 1998 and 2002.
Tobias’ life story is inspiring stuff. When he was a youngster, Namibia had not yet won its independence from South Africa and times were tough. “I grew up in a town called Tsumeb amid a lot of poverty in the apartheid era,” Tobias told Boxing Monthly over the phone from Windhoek, to a background of gym activity.
“There were so many divisions at that time — we couldn’t live with whites or with other tribes. I had to fight my way up from the streets. You had to be tough, and there was lots of street fighting. I used to play soccer but then one day I went to see a Bruce Lee movie. After that I tried karate in order to defend myself. But then I saw footage of Muhammad Ali and my life changed. I just loved him. I thought to myself: ‘I want to be like this guy!’ So I took up boxing.
“It was a good sport for me. I trained hard and it made me focus. I grew up on the streets and saw many kids my age go down the wrong path — smoking, drinking, etc — but I wanted to be like Ali and so I didn’t follow that path. Boxing changed my life. It gave me ambition. I fell in love with it.”
A junior middleweight, Tobias boxed as an amateur and turned professional in 1993. “I had a good career,” he said, “[but] I had a shoulder problem and had to retire. I was based in South Africa but I fought all over the world, including the UK [where Adrian Dodson halted him in four rounds at York Hall in 1998] and Denmark.”
After the disappointment of a curtailed professional career, Tobias turned his attention to training.
“There wasn’t much professional boxing in Namibia at this time,” he said. “When I started there were maybe two professionals. But there is a lot of talent here. There were also no real promoters or fight cards in Namibia to start with, so I had to take my fighters to places like Angola, South Africa and Botswana.
“I would ask promoters to put my boxers on their cards and would have to cover their travel costs and everything. I was spending so much money. So I then applied for a promoting licence so I could promote in Namibia myself and cut costs.
“A lot of my fighters were soon fighting for African titles. I built them up. I was training them, managing them, promoting them. Nobody else was doing that in Namibia. I was the only guy. I had to spend a lot of money, and I haven’t made a lot of money because I’ve reinvested it in boxing.”
Perhaps Tobias’ crowning achievement is his aforementioned academy, which he set up in 2000, and which he has had to finance himself and through sponsorship due to lack of government funding.
“It’s taken a lot of commitment,” he admits. “But love of the sport is more important than anything. I love boxing. It’s the only thing I would want to do, and that’s why I have committed myself to it. If you want to achieve something in boxing here, you have to invest a lot of money.
“I’m hoping that one day things will change and that the government will realise the importance of boxing and invest more money. There is a lack of investment in all sports in Namibia. We have a lot of resources but need someone in the government to recognise this.
“After Julius won the world title the coverage and interest have been amazing. If you go on YouTube or wherever, you see that people from all over the world watched and were interested in the fight. That’s good for Namibia, and the government must start to appreciate that. That is what sport can do — it can market a country as well as bring people together.”
There is certainly a need in Namibia, a country wracked by extremes in wealth and social class, for activities that will engage the many youngsters who live in poverty.
“Our academy keeps a lot of kids off the streets,” Tobias said. “We have some very poor people. Many of them have nothing to do — they don’t have jobs and they don’t know what they are going to do or eat tomorrow. Boxing, soccer and other sports attract kids and get them focused. It gives them something to do after school, gives them an ambition to become a hero like Ali or Tyson — or Indongo.”
Work at the MTC Nestor Sunshine Boxing Academy never stops, Tobias said. “Right now we have about 60 amateur boxers and countrywide I promote about 60 professional boxers.
“So we have moved from two boxers to a lot of boxers! We have three sessions a day at the academy, one in the morning when we train juniors. Then we have the professionals, the top guys, who train from 4pm to 6pm, and then the evening session when we train amateurs from 6pm to 8pm.
“We are so busy as boxing has grown so much in Namibia. With all the work to do promoting I can’t spend as much time training, so we now have three coaches in the gym to train these kids. It’s a good programme. We’ve grown and grown and now we have guys who can fight 12 rounds, challenge for titles and get high world ratings. We’ve gone from strength to strength.”
Finances remain a challenge, however, with the lack of government support only partially off-set by sponsorship. “Thankfully we have a great sponsor in MTC, a telecommunications company,” Tobias said. “We get 3.5 million per year in Namibian dollars, which is about £120,000. That’s all we get to promote boxing. On its own, it isn’t enough to put on a world title fight.
“One problem is that we only have one TV channel here. We need the government to create a structure so we can sell television rights to our fights. Normally on NBC [the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation] all fights are shown free. So we have to continue to look for sponsors, and I also have to run other businesses to survive and look after my kids. We will have to see for how long I can keep this going — and also let’s see what happens with our new world champion.”
At which point our conversation turns to the remarkable Indongo. The new IBF title-holder is 21-0 (11 KOs) but was almost totally unknown outside of Namibia before his shock knockout of Troyanovsky.
“Most of our boxers come from the villages in the north of the country,” Tobias said. “This is also where Julius came from. He arrived in Windhoek in 2002, I think. He joined my gym and I started training him in about 2006 as an amateur.”
Indongo’s amateur career was impressive, seeing him represent his country at international level as well as in the Commonwealth Games in 2006 and the Beijing Olympics in 2008, after which he turned pro.
“I’ve trained and promoted him for his entire professional career,” Tobias said. “He’s a great kid. He works very hard. He’s very tall, a southpaw. A very strong boxer. We have faith in him. He’s moved from the national title to the WBO African title and now a world title. He is like family to me. He’s often at my house and is a good friend. He’s very disciplined and has a great future. I don’t think his age is a problem, either. He’s getting stronger as he gets older. I think he’s got a good five more years in boxing.”
Tobias said that Indongo was unfazed by having to travel for his world title shot, even if the cold of the Russian winter was a little off-putting.
“As an amateur this kid fought all around the world, in about 15 different countries,” Tobias points out. “So I said to him: ‘Don’t worry about going to Russia. The atmosphere will be the same that you’ve already experienced as an amateur — you’ve fought in Cuba, England, all over so don’t worry.’”
Tobias said preparations for the Troyanovsky fight could not have gone better.
“Julius was very disciplined and very encouraged by the way he had trained,” he said. “He had never trained so hard. He was well prepared physically and mentally. He had already been preparing for another fight, so when we got the world title shot, two months before he was ready, there were no weight problems or anything. I told Julius that we were going to shock the world — and we did.”
Indongo’s strategy was simple and perfectly executed. “Troyanovsky is a very strong fighter but he’s a bit slow,” Tobias said. “I told Julius he could catch him heavy and early. Plus, I had never seen Troyanovsky in a war, a tough fight. All Julius had to do was stay away from his punches — that was our plan.”
As he describes the fight, Tobias’ voice becomes increasingly animated. “When we got in the ring I told Julius he was ready for this. I looked in the opponent’s eyes and I was encouraged. I knew we could catch him with a big punch.”
And when that left hand landed?
“It was a great moment. The knockout of the year — definitely! I’ve never witnessed a challenger knocking out a champion in 40 seconds. Tyson knocked out Spinks in 90 seconds … I don’t know what the record is, maybe you can check for me?” Tobias laughs. “I’ve now had three world champions, WBO, WBA and now IBF, but this is the first time one of my fighters has won a world title by knockout. It’s been amazing.”
Tobias firmly believes that Indongo can prevail against Burns in April, in what will be his second successive underdog assignment on the road.
“We are excited to have successfully negotiated this super fight,” Tobias said. “It is a fight that the world is waiting to see, and Indongo is up to the task. From all the offers we received, we made the right choice choosing Burns, who is also a respected champion in his own right.
“Unifying the title was definitely the best decision because it increases the value of the bout across the world. The kid [Indongo] has boxing ability, he has power, he can knock anyone out, and he can box, too. He’s the world’s best-kept secret!”