Joseph Agbeko said the children of his native Accra, the capital of Ghana and its biggest city, constantly fight. “Like a game,” he said. Anthony Aidoo, a Ghanaian ex-patriot living in Connecticut, said his people settle issues by displaying greater physical strength than an adversary.
Seems doing battle is in their blood. And the rich boxing tradition in the West African nation bears that out.
From Azumah Nelson to Ike Quartey to Joshua Clottey to Agbeko, who fights Vic Darchinyan on Saturday, Ghana has consistently produced among the most championship-caliber boxers on the continent. Perhaps only South Africa and Nigeria produce more fighters.
“We have a lot of boxing talent,” Agbeko said. “We always believe in fighting. We fight all the time as children. I used to do that a lot in Ghana. Then, when I was 14, I started boxing and was finished with the street fights.
“This is how it is in Ghana, that’s how it starts.”
Aidoo, a math professor at Eastern Connecticut State University but a life-long devotee of boxing, believes the British – which counted Ghana as a colony until 1957 – introduced boxing there after World War II. Today, it is second only to soccer in popularity.
Most of the top fighters are from the Ga tribe, which can be attributed in part to the fact that Accra is the center of boxing and that’s where the Ga are concentrated. Agbeko is from the Ewe tribe.
The first notable fighter from Ghana, then called the Gold Coast, was Roy Ankrah. The featherweight apparently turned pro during the war and fought most of his important bouts in the United Kingdom in the 1950s, during which he became a British Empire champion and a hero back home.
The first world championship contender was Floyd Klutei Robertson, another featherweight who fought many times in the UK but had an epic fight in the Accra Sports Stadium in 1964.
He fought Hall of Famer Sugar Ramos, then the titleholder, to a controversial split-decision loss there. The Ghanaian boxing commission, angry at the decision, first ruled the fight a no contest and then said Robertson won but Ramos left the country with the belt.
Aidoo, who was a child then, will never forget that day.
“I think I was in the sixth grade when they fought for the world championship,” he said. “I remember that everyone expected (Robertson) to be world champion. Even though he failed, he made a big name for himself. There was no TV then. Everyone listened on the radio. Everywhere you went, people listened to the radio that day.
“… Everyone was very disappointed. They said that (Robertson) was robbed. The president at the time even said he was going to make sure the decision was reversed. It didn’t happen.”
The first Ghanaian world titleholder was David Kotei, a skillful featherweight who scored a split-decision victory over the great Ruben Olivares at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., to win the WBC belt in 1975. He had two successful defenses before losing it on a 15-round decision to Danny “Little Red” Lopez in Accra.
Then came the king of Ghanaian boxing.
Azumah Nelson, one of the fiercest fighters ever, went from unknown to major player when he took a fight against ill-fated Hall of Famer Salvador Sanchez on short notice and gave him absolute hell for 14-plus rounds in 1982 at Madison Square Garden.
Bobby Goodman was working for promoter Don King, who staged the card, at the time. Nelson was stopped with 1:13 remaining but left an impression.
“The kid had only (13) fights or so,” he said. “We asked his manager, ‘How tough can he be?’ The manager just smiled and said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ Well, we went through with the fight and it turned out to be one of the greatest featherweight fights ever. I thought during the fight, ‘Oh my god. This is one of the toughest guys I’ve ever seen.
“After the fight, Juan Torres Landa, Sanchez’s manager, came up to me at the press conference and said, ‘Bob, do me a favor. I don’t want no more easy fights.’ Azumah went on to fight for us for many years as a great champion.”
That he was. Nelson won three major titles and went 19-4-1 in 24 title fights from 1982 to 1997.
“We thought of him as invincible,” said Aidoo.
Nelson was followed by a number of talented fighters, including Nana Konadu (three-time titleholder), Ike Quartey (welterweight titleholder), Alfred Kotey (bantamweight titleholder) and many others.
And they keep coming. Only last month, Joshua Clottey, the talented former welterweight champion, lost a controversial decision to Puerto Rican star Miguel Cotto in New York City and Agbeko faces Darchinyan on Saturday in Sunrise, Fla., on Showtime.
Agbeko was given the name Joseph King Kong Agbeko as a baby by his father, whom the fighter said “might’ve had a vision from God.” The name suits Agbeko, who is known for his strength and power (22 knockouts in 27 fights).
The name also might apply to Agbeko’s boxing brethren, tough, fearsome warriors who have the same motivation as many fighters in the U.S. – the desire to better their lives. More than one quarter of Ghanaians live in poverty.
That reality, as well as the boxing tradition, produces determined fighters.
“Any time you see a boxer from Ghana you know they are very hungry,” Agbeko said. “It’s why they work so hard. And it’s not just the money. Yes, they work to get money as a boxer. But in Ghana, when you fight and win, everyone will praise you. If you fight and lose, they won’t.
“There is no room for failure. Either you win or you have nothing.”
That’s also what Goodman has seen.
“They have a burning desire to make it, not just fighters from Ghana but from other African countries too,” he said. “Many of them have very crude beginnings in boxing, some training on dirt floors trying to hone their skills. And, in some cases, they have poor teaching and no one to spar with.
“Then, when they do start to get ahead, they work very hard to get out of their situation. That fuels them. They’re all very strong; they seem to have an inner strength, just great wills