It not only threw up the earliest sporting heroes, but was the subject of discussions and impassioned debates in pubs and on the streets.
Boxing champs like Jerry Okorodudu represented Nigeria at the 1984 Olympics while at the 1992 Olympics, David Izonritei won silver in the Heavyweight class. In 1992 and 1996, Richard Igbineghu and Duncan Dokiwari won a silver and bronze respectively in the super heavyweight class.
As at 1963, when football was just really taking shape in Nigeria, Ibadan hosted the first ever world boxing title bout on African soil, which saw Richard Ihetu aka Dick Tiger take on Gene Fullmer at the Liberty Stadium.
The Nigeria Boxing Board of Control, however, reckons that the history of boxing in Nigeria began in 1947. The country’s boxing regulatory body, founded in 1949 through the efforts of Billy Moore and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, was created for boxing to thrive after professional activities began in 1947.
According to Dr Michael Gennaro, a historian, the boxing culture in Nigeria dates back to the 1920s, with its popularity highest in the 1970s.
Then came the slump. Boxing was knocked down to the canvas, as Nigeria discovered football and promoted it frenziedly. Boxing suffered, as government support and corporate backing in terms of sponsorship waned and even wilted. Media interest dipped. So did that of the public. The few promoters available knew they were hitting their heads against a rock, as organisational mishaps, poor funding and dire public interest conspired to drive them out of business. From the 90s, boxing started exhibiting signs of illness. By the 2000s, it slipped into a coma, as promotions dried up, leaving boxers without fights, poorly paid and managed.
Boxers who chose to remain active had mile-high odds against them, with many heading to Ghana, the headline gig of boxing in the West African sub-region. Boxers waited for as many as four years between fights.
ALSO READ: Godwin Emirate challenges Anambra Tiger
Corroborating Gennaro, Jenkins Alumona, of Flykite Sports, promoters of GOtv Boxing Night, said: “There was a time when we had a lot of interest in boxing. In fact, national interest around the sport and then we had fantastic journalists who promoted the sport with such knowledge and quality of language. Then in my teens, I remember we had prominent Nigerian boxers from Joe Lasisi to of course and suddenly, the sport started dwindling and after sometime, it nosedived into having promotions in areas many can’t even venture to attend to near-empty arenas. I was in the know of the situation of the sport at that time.”
Alumona, whose Flykite Sports is currently the only virile outfit in the country, explained that the major reasons for the decrepitude that the sport slipped into were the dearth of organisation, finance and media support.
“It has always been the lack of business support but the organisation was the biggest cause. At a point, I believe there was a lot of in-fighting among those who run the sport, the NBB of C. A lot was going on, people were taking over the administration at will; there were factions and all that but after a while, some sort of stability was achieved,” he explained.
The internal crisis which rocked the Nigerian boxing regulatory body also contributed to the dearth of promotions and ultimately bouts.
The attention of prospective sponsors and the media simply went in other directions, as the regulatory body dealt with its protracted internal crisis.
But Remilekun Aboderin, former promoter and current NBB of C General Secretary General, explained that the dip is not peculiar to Nigeria.
“There is no contesting the fact that boxing is no longer the first love of Nigerians as it used to be in the 60s, 70s and parts of the 80s. But it is not peculiar to Nigeria. The truth is that FIFA was able to organise football properly across the globe and it is the only organisation that runs football.
“With boxing, this isn’t the case. You have numerous boxing bodies. This notwithstanding, boxing is the second most loved sport in the world and it is not different in Nigeria,” Aboderin explained.
ALSO READ: Boxing rave wins N1m in competition
Another issue that has affected the sport is the facility. The Indoor Sports Hall of the National Stadium in Lagos and similar facilities are in grim condition.
Lighting is poor. So are the rings. Promoters are not incentivized because they have to spend huge sums to make the venue fit for purpose. Returns on investments, naturally, were paltry.
Glory from outside
Despite the tide that rocked boxing in Nigeria, more boxers with Nigerian origin ruled the boxing world, most times flying the flags of other countries.
From Samuel Peters, WBC heavyweight title holder to IBF champion, Anthony Oluwafemi Joshua, Nigeria was constantly on the boxing world map in the last two decades.
A report by ThisDay stated that the current IBF (provide specific title) title holder, Femi Joshua, would have represented Nigeria at the 2008 Olympics if not for the denial by some top government officials.
Los Angeles 1984 Olympian, Jeremiah Okorodudu, was quoted to have said Joshua’s hopes to represent Nigeria at the 2008 Olympics were dashed by some of the handlers of sport in Nigeria.
Ray of hope
With some tranquillity back in the NBB of C, a huge financial and organisational backing by GOtv and Flykite Promotions, boxing, which has been on the ropes (to borrow its parlance), is regaining its footing.
With eight editions to its credit, GOtv Boxing Night has restored hopes of domestic boxers.
For every edition, boxers are well remunerated by the sponsors and a sum of N1m goes to the best boxer of the night, courtesy Ogunsanya in memory of his late wife, Mrs Mojisola Ogunsanya.
But the long period of inactivity has resulted in many of the boxers ageing and, naturally, rusty.
This, however, is receiving some remediation. Alumona explained that the process is a developmental one, which has found expression in the GOtv Boxing NextGen Search, an initiative to raise a new crop of boxing talents.
“GOtv Boxing NextGen Search will act as the catalyst. We found the venue, get the NBB of C, top boxing coaches, we advertise and publicise the fact that the activity is holding. All boxers are welcomed, they register, get into the ring and do their thing and the coaches select the ones they feel are fit for the sport. After their selection, we pay their license fees to the NBB of C, so they become professional boxers and from then on, they decide who their coaches, managers are. The boxers that are created by this process go on to fight at the GOtv Boxing Night, which is growing,” Alumona noted.
One of the stars of good old days of Nigerian boxing, Joe Lasisi, said it’s interesting to see that the sport is returning and gradually finding its rightful place in Nigeria.
Known as "Smoking Joe" during his boxing career, Joe Lasisi said: “GOtv has done very well bringing back the sport we all love; the sport that gave me fame. But I also think journalists need to give more attention to this sport. It is worthy to note that during Ali’s days and even Mayweather, the media coverage is so huge that it will draw attention to the boxers and the fight.”
Stage is set
A ray of hope might is already on the horizon, as the boxing regulatory body, NBB of C, has been able to put its house in order.
The emergence of Dr Godwin Kanu as NBB of C President has seen normalcy return.
“We are in the process of reaching out to all the stakeholders of West African boxing, where all decisions concerning tenure and harmonisation of the constitution will be looked into,” Aboderin recently told SaharaReporters.
A speedier recovery looks like it is in the offing with the intervention of the MultiChoice Nigeria Chairman, Adewunmi Adedeji Ogunsaya.
Ogunsanya’s love for boxing has seen his organisation push out the boat, culminating in the huge financial backing and media support that GOtv has provided for sport in the last 18 months.
Alumona explained that GOtv Boxing Night was created out of the desire to revive Nigerian boxing.
While attributing the credit to Ogunsanya and GOtv as the brand, Alumona said the decision to revive boxing through the GOtv Boxing Night was a total package.
“GOtv has revived the sport again in Nigeria after some well-meaning Nigerians led by Adewunmi Ogunsanya threw their weight behind it. It is a full package because aside the funding which was important, the media coverage was also given through SuperSport and the sport is gradually coming out of the doldrums,” Alumona narrated.
Aboderin also noted that the love for the sport had never withered in the minds of Nigerians and with the support from GOtv, it can only get better.
“Our people still love the sport. All they crave for is for it to be well organised and exciting. This can only be achieved with sponsors coming in to make the boxers put in their best. As a matter of fact, boxing has always enjoyed good response and love of Nigerians," he said.
The sport continues its revival, with fans returning in hordes and conditions of boxers improving.