The 12 days of BM Christmas: Master of his craft - Sumbu Kalambay interview
As we celebrate the 12 days of Christmas we will be bringing you 12 of the best pieces of writing from Boxing Monthly magazine over the last 12 months. On the eleventh day of Christmas we bring to you... Luca Rosi's interview with Sumbu Kalambay from our December issue...
Sumbu Kalambay was not only one of the finest middleweights of his generation but one of Italy’s greatest-ever fighters. Known for his skill and technical brilliance inside the ring, he was much loved for his gentle and generous demeanour outside of it.
Adored by his adopted Italy, where he was known as 'Patrizio' (Patrick), Kalambay became a national icon. Kalambay’s career began when he boxed as an amateur in the then Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and took him to a world middleweight title and victories over some of the leading 160-pounders of his era.
“My father was an accountant and importer of Ford cars from Germany, so we were a middle-class family and I had a comfortable upbringing,” Kalambay told Boxing Monthly.
“Like all kids we were into sport, especially football, and my love for boxing started when I went with a friend to the local gym. I was hooked ever since.
“It all developed from there. I started to box for the regional team under coach Ezekele Ilunga and had 90 amateur fights. Ilunga provided me with a fantastic boxing education, the best you could ever wish for. I never did need any other technical coach. I was equipped with all the skills by then.”
A tragic incident helped the now 62-year-old Italian make the most important decision of his life. “At one point, after school, I secured a six-month work placement as an electrician in a copper mine in Kipushi,” he said. “We were 1,600 metres below the ground. As you can imagine, it wasn’t a job for the faint-hearted. [It was] full of risk. I witnessed a friend of mine lose his life when he was tragically electrocuted and sent flying in the air close to me.
“That was a real low point and it made me realise that this wasn’t the future for me and that I wanted to put my heart and soul into boxing. I remember watching the Rumble in the Jungle [on 30 October 1974] from my home and, of course, that made us want to box and follow in the footsteps of the greats such as Ali and Foreman.”
Kalambay was denied an opportunity to represent his country at the 1980 Olympics due the boycott of the Moscow Games. He decided that the time was right to turn pro. But there was a proviso attached. “It would mean that I would have to leave my homeland because there was no professional boxing in my country,” he said. “The US federation at the time had organised a tournament in Kenya for the countries that didn’t go to Russia. I fought well and must have caught the eye, as next thing I know, [manager] Sergio Cappanera offers me the chance to go to Italy. Here I am, at 24, moving to Ancona, where Sergio was based, on the Adriatic coast. It was 1980.”
You’d think that such a move might prove a struggle, yet the future Italian, European and world middleweight champion took everything in his stride. “It’s important to adapt to a different country and language, people and mannerisms, and I settled in a small town [Chiaravalle in the Le Marche region] without too much noise and chaos,” he said. “I had a friend who was already living in Italy, so he helped with the language. But the language of boxing is a great people-uniter in the sense of the
great camaraderie that exists in the fight family, which you don’t get with many sports. It’s all about sacrifice and hard work.
“They could see from the off that I was a true professional, that I trained hard and was dedicated. I had my first fight in Vienna of all places and I also fought twice in Paris. I drew one but that was like winning when you’re in the opponent’s backyard in France.
“I was actually a light-middleweight for my first three fights before moving up to 160 pounds, which then became my natural resting home. I was fortunate that promoter Rodolfo Sabbatini believed in me. I joined his stable and he started to put me in his shows, which got me noticed.”
In 1985, Kalambay finally got the chance to fight for the Italian middleweight title. It proved to be a big breakthrough, against local favourite Giovanni De Marco in Caserta. “I had to wait almost five years for the domestic title shot but I was finally able to showcase my talents and gain national recognition,” Kalambay said. “It was my 40th fight. It’s almost unheard of these days, with fighters getting fast-tracked so quickly. That was the year I also became an Italian citizen.”
Ugandan Ayub Kalule, a naturalised Danish citizen, was the European champion at the time. Kalule won a split decision over Kalambay in Ancona in December 1985. Kalambay had to wait over a year for a second shot at the European title and went in as a huge betting underdog against Britain’s Herol 'Bomber' Graham.
“When I came to London to fight Herol Graham, no one gave me a chance,” Kalambay recalled. “The Italian press had all but written me off. I don’t think there was an Italian journalist present. You have to remember that Graham had been unbeaten for eight and a half years and was 38-0. But I was confident that I could do it and in the end I think I proved I was a worthy winner.”
Kalambay’s unanimous decision win opened the door to the WBA middleweight title, which Marvin Hagler had vacated
to fight Sugar Ray Leonard. Kalambay’s opponent was the much-feared Iran Barkley, who had won his previous 13 fights.
“I think the Barkley fight was possibly my best performance,” Kalambay said. “I found the answers to everything he threw at me and executed my game plan perfectly against a very dangerous opponent. It was a fantastic fight in Livorno. I won by a unanimous points decision and I was literally on top of the world. It was to be the last 15-round fight before they [the WBA] reduced the number to 12.”
Three world title defences followed in swift succession, two of them in Italy, another in nearby Monaco. It was a heady time for Italian boxing. “I fought in Livorno for Barkley and then Pesaro and Ravenna for Mike McCallum and Robbie Sims,” Kalambay said.
“McCallum, who had moved up from light-middleweight, was 32-0 coming into the fight. Angelo Dundee said in [the US TV] commentary that he didn’t realise I was that slick. That was a huge compliment.”
Kalambay’s third defence was a seventh-round TKO win over Doug DeWitt — who won the inaugural WBO middleweight title in his next fight — in Monte Carlo in November 1988. The Italian TV viewing figures for his title fights were, he said, “incredible”, with an estimated six million viewers tuning in for the DeWitt bout. “Such a great feeling to know I had the support of a country behind me — every time I fought it was like that.”
The one serious blot on his copybook, and the setback that still hurts him the most, was Kalambay’s 88-second KO defeat against the rising star of world boxing at the time, Michael Nunn.
Kalambay’s second fight Stateside, in Las Vegas, served as a cruel reminder of how boxing fortunes could turn dramatically. “It was real shame, as I had prepared so well for that fight,” he said. “I had just become a father for the second time with the birth of my daughter Elisa. It was a tough defeat to swallow mentally and I took three months off afterwards.”
Kalambay regrouped and regained the European title against fellow-Italian Francesco Dell’Aquila [then unbeaten in 26 fights and who would later fight James Toney for the IBF title]. It was a real domestic dust-up in the champion’s back yard.
“I knew Francesco as an amateur,” Kalambay said. “He was living in Genoa and managed by Rocco Agostino. I had virtually seen him grow up and helped in his development. He had me in trouble in the first two rounds, I was counted twice, but I knew that I’d catch up with him. I had to fight him in his hometown in Sicily, so it was real carnival atmosphere.”
The second McCallum fight was yet another classic encounter between two world-class boxers. “If only I had had two more minutes — he was tiring badly,” Kalambay said. He remains friends with McCallum to this day and it could be argued that Kalambay should have joined his counterpart and been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
“For sure, it would have been a great honour for me,” he said. “Clearly, Mike must have been more deserving than me, and I’m really pleased for him.”
Kalambay went on to defend his European title against old nemesis Herol Graham, Alfreton’s John Ashton (who had him down) and Steve Collins before having a final world title bout, when he challenged for Chris Pyatt’s WBO crown.
“Graham was a tricky customer but I knew I had the beating of him,” Kalambay said. “Fair play to him, though, I had to overcome two counts and he was docked two points. Collins was as hard as nails [alongside Reggie Johnson and Mike McCallum, Kalambay was one of only three fighters to beat the Irishman] and after the Pyatt fight I realised that it was time to retire, although I thought I had done enough to win.”
Kalambay is still very much involved in boxing, a sport he loves dearly. Although he’s taken nine months off to help his son set up a pizzeria restaurant in Marbella, he’s always eager to impart his wisdom and help new talent develop.
“I’ve recently been involved with a young Rome-based Italian professional middleweight, Ilunga Omar Nguale,” he said. “There are also other good prospects but they’re still raw. Back in the day, I was helping Michele Piccirillo [the former IBF welterweight champion], Paolo Vidoz, Vincenzo Cantatore, Antonio Perugino and Carel Sandon, who is also originally from Congo. We had a good stable and I’m hoping we can build something new to boost boxing in Italy.”
Kalambay was a supreme technical fighter, a ring artist and defensive master who had fabulous footwork. He found a way to win with that customary calmness and ring generalship, for example the way he came back from two second-round knockdowns in the rematch with Graham in Pesaro.
Kalambay, indeed, made boxing look easy. He admits, though, that he tended to start slowly in his fights. “I don’t know quite why I’d sometimes struggle early on,” he said. “It’s still a mystery to me to this day.”