James Odwori – Uganda’s Most Decorated and Most Exciting Amateur Boxer

    James Odwori, born October 23 1951, is said to have been born in Kenya where later as a retired boxer Odwori became Kenya Prisons’ Boxing Team Coach and later became a Kenya National Boxing Team Coach.

    A relatively tall boxer for a light-flyweight, young Odwori established himself as an international boxing phenomenon by winning the Gold medal at the 1970 Commonwealth Games (held from July 17 to July 24 1970) in Edinburgh, Scotland. At the quarter-finals’ level, Odwori beat Anthony Kerr of Scotland, on points on July 20 1970. Odwori moved on to the semi-finals where he outpointed Mickey Abrams of England on July 22 1970. Finally, 20-year old Odwori moved on to the final bout. Here Odwori defeated Anthony Davies of Wales, winning by points on July 24 1970.

    As a boxer in the tournaments between Kenya and Uganda, and in the East African and Central African Championships, Odwori would establish himself as a superb knock-out specialist. In June 1972 the African Boxing Championships were held in Nairobi, Kenya. Odwori won gold in the light-flyweight division, in the final defeating Saad of the Sudan. Uganda would take home five gold medals (won by Odwori, Peter Odhiambo, Mohamed Muruli, Martin Akuba, and Benson Masanda); and two silver medals (won by John Opio and George Mathias Ouma).

    Odwori’s biggest challenge would be the Olympic Games of 1972, where, naturally James Odwori would be considered a major medal hope for Uganda. At 5’7″ (170 cm), young Odwori was quite tall for a light-flyweight. Both his height and long-reach were additional advantages. On August 28 1972, in his preliminary first bout, Odwori displayed his prowess by technically knocking out two-inches shorter Filipino Vicente Arsenal by second round stoppage by the referee in the second round. Next of his bouts came on September 2, and Odwori capably stopped 5′ 2″ Egyptian Said Ahmed El- Ashry in the second round. However, in the following quarter finals’ bout on September 7, Odwori was knocked out by 5′ 4″ Kim U-Gil of North Korea (who eventually won the silver medal), dropping Odwori out of medal contention, just allowing Odwori to settle for a respectable 5th place.

    Relatively fresh from the Olympics, Odwori would next represent Uganda at the All-Africa Games held in 1973 in Lagos, Nigeria from January 7 to 18, again as a light-flyweight (48kg). In the preliminaries, Odwori eliminated Babak Fall of Senegal by second round knockout. At the quarter finals, Odwori hammered Tanzanian Bakari Salamani to a second-round technical knockout! Next, Samuel Eke of Nigeria succumbed to James Odwori by third-round technical knockout. And finally, in the bid for the gold medal, lanky Odwori disposed of Ghanaian Young Chucks by first-round technical knockout. Odwori had established himself as an international force to be reckoned with!

    These were busy and productive years for Uganda boxing! The Commonwealth Games came around, and they were held in Christchurch, new Zealand from January 24 – February 2 1974. Moving on to the quarter-finals, James Odwori ably knocked out Bakari Selemani of Tanzania in round 2. In the semi finals, on January 31, Odwori outpointed Singaporean Syed Abdul Kadir. Of significance is that by winning the bronze medal, Kadir became the first person from Singapore to win his country a Commonwealth Games’ medal. To this day, Kadir remains the most celebrated boxer within Singapore. The next day, in then finals, 23 year-old Odwori would be outpointed by 17 year-old (at only 5’3″ tall) Stephen (Steve) Muchoki of Kenya. Odwori, standing at 5’7″ therefore had to settle for the silver medal, a medal level he was unaccustomed to. Odwori had hence failed to defend the Commonwealth Games’ title that he had won four years earlier. Significantly, Muchoki is by far the most decorated boxer in Kenyan history. Among Muchoki’s accomplishments was the additional gold medal won in the light-flyweight boxing division, at the next Commonwealth Games held in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada, 1978).

    At the World Amateur Boxing Championships held in Havana, Cuba in 1974 (August 17 – 30), light-flyweight Muchoki was defeated in the finals by Cuban Jorge Hernandez and settled for silver medal. James Odwori, at flyweight, was at these championships. This was disappointing for Odwori, Odwori’s team-mates, and for Uganda as a whole. Odwori became one of a couple of boxers disqualified from competing because of exceeding the weight limit! Ironically, Odwori had only recently moved up in weight division, from light-flyweight where Steve Muchoki remained. Odwori’s disqualification enabled his would-be opponent Felipe Rojas of Argentina to smoothly advance to the next round. Skillful Kenyan Muchoki would go on to win light-flyweight gold in Belgrade, Yugoslavia where the next World Amateur Boxing Championships were held. And this time Muchoki outpointed Jorge Hernandez, the same opponent he had faced in the finals of the same tournament four years earlier! Muchoki was scheduled to fight at the 1976 Olympics held in Montreal, but Kenya withdrew from the Olympics for political reasons, leaving the first round as a walkover win for Alican Az of Turkey. Az was eliminated by Park Chan-Hee of Korea in the second round. Jorge Hernandez of Cuba would eliminate Park Chan-Hee in the next round, and eventually become the gold-medalist! The same Jorge Hernandez that would subsequently be Muchoki’s most remembered, and international rival!. Curiously, James Odwori is not listed as having been scheduled to represent Uganda. By 1976, the presiding Amin regime was declining in strength and was being heavily scrutinized and antagonized internationally. Governmental attention to sports had similarly waned, and many of Uganda’s leading boxers were missing from the team, had left the country, were preparing to turn professional, or had become disillusioned because of inadequate training or attention. The political and economic situation became unfavorable for national sports, as it did in other spheres. The Amin regime was toppled in 1979.

    The next African Amateur Boxing Championships were held in November 1974 in Kampala, Uganda; a familiar home territory of countless enthusiasts of Odwori and fellow Ugandan competitors. This time Odwori had moved up to the next division in weight, the flyweight (51kg). The final bout witnessed Odwori outpointing Isaac Kuria Maina of Kenya. Again Uganda overwhelmingly displayed African dominance, gold medals in addition won by Ayub Kalule, Vitalis Bbege, Mohamed Muruli, and Mustapha Wasajja. Meanwhile Ugandans Ali Rojo and Jacob Odonga (who was months earlier in the preliminaries of the World Boxing Championships held in August, knocked out by Leon Spinks who would win Olympic Gold in 1976 in Montreal; two years later Leon Spinks defeated Mohammed Ali in vying for the World Heavyweight Crown) settled for silver medals.

    Based on his national and international appearances and wins, given his skillfulness and style, James Odwori in the 1970s established an excellent amateur trail that has never been matched by any other Uganda boxer. James Odwori significantly stands out as Uganda’s most exciting and most decorated amateur boxer, even after decades have passed.

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