Joseph, a man of many colours - part two
- Credit: Roger Mann
In 1960, I was working in British Cameroons. Each day Amos and Joseph took me to work in a canoe. Joseph introduced me to the local boys and we formed Victoria Rangers football club.
As the weeks went by, Joseph and I became close friends.
We were both 18 years old, and crazy about sport. And yet, that was where our similarities ended.
While I was an educated European accountant, he was an African boatman, who could neither read nor write. But, of course, in sport such differences never matter.
After work, we would kick a football with the other lads, throw stones at the palm trees to knock down coconuts, or simply race each other along the river bank.
Joseph was strong and athletic. He could swim like a fish, shin up a palm tree, or do a back flip in mid conversation. Sport was the only bond we ever needed.
One day, after football practice, Joseph asked me if I had ever boxed.
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I told him that it was compulsory at my school, so I had been taught to box from the age of 13.
He jumped up, and, in his pidgin English said: “I done do this good!”
I smiled, got up, and raised my open hands in front of my face to give him a target.
I will never forget the next ten minutes as he danced around me, ducked and weaved, and peppered my hands mercilessly.
To say that I was impressed would be an understatement! Joseph had the fastest hands I had ever seen.
All his weight was above the belt, he was light on his feet, and completely tireless.
When we sat down, he told me that he had never had a proper bout, but was just doing what an old man in the village had once taught him.
He told me that he had friends who would like to learn to box, and asked me if I would teach them. I told him that my skills were very limited, but that I would try to help.
From that day onwards, each Thursday night, about a dozen of us met in the community hall and did some very basic training.
We had no gloves between us, so we could only shadow box.
I would repeat what my school coach, Gordon Hazell, had taught me about the importance of breathing, timing and distance, and demonstrated what little expertise I had.
Every June, the Cameroons Development Company (CDC) held a boxing tournament for its employees, and, one day, I asked the lads why they didn’t enter it.
They explained that the bouts were hardly ever stopped, and that they had watched their friends end up covered in blood!
I understood their fears, but pointed out that none of them could call themselves boxers, if they never entered a tournament!
In the end, I suggested a compromise. If CDC would allow me to referee the whole evening, would they all take part? Joseph led the unanimous agreement.
The following day, I called in to see the welfare officer of CDC, and he was pleased to be able to add a few more bouts to the evening.
On Saturday night - June 4, 1960 - Joseph had his first official bout. Predictably, it lasted just 30 seconds before his opponent leapt from the ring!
Another of our group, Alfred, won the 'best boxer of the show' award.
Some months later, my tour was over, and all my football and boxing friends waved me goodbye from the airstrip. Joseph hid behind a palm tree, in tears.
A year later, French Cameroons, where Joseph was born, became independent, and Joseph returned there, with his parents, to live in Yaounde.
Joseph couldn’t write, and there were no mobile phones in those days, so we never saw, nor contacted, each other again. He died in 2010, at the age of 68.
A sad story? Not at all! It had a happy ending.
Joseph continued with his boxing.
In 1965, he won the All-Africa Games title in Brazzaville.
In 1966 and 1967, he won the African championship title at welter-weight.
Then, in 1968, Joseph Bessala became Cameroon’s first ever Olympic medallist!
In Mexico City, he won the silver medal, losing to German Manfred Wolke in the Olympic final!
He turned professional in 1969, and fought on until he was 37 years old.
How strange is fate?
Someone up there decreed that I, a boxing nobody, should be the one to give a future Olympic champion his first fight, in the middle of the African jungle!
A million to one, but oh, what a privilege!