BOXING is one of the less popular sporting disciplines in Rwanda, to the extent that even a sports journalist would struggle to name two boxers if caught off guard.
The sport operated unofficially in the country for nearly five decades until 2016 when it was recognised by the Ministry of Sports and Culture – the same year that Boxing Federation of Rwanda (BFR) was established.
Theogene Gakunzi (centre) is seen here with some of his students during a past training session at Amahoro Stadium. Courtesy.
It is believed that boxing was first introduced in Rwanda by a certain Ferdinand Rutikanga in 1970. But despite management challenges and the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi that devastated the sport, boxing still managed to produce a good number of celeb players.
In today’s issue, Saturday Sportprofiles Théoneste Gakunzi, one of the country’s most decorated boxers who retired from competitive boxing at the age of 26 to venture into coaching career.
Gakunzi, a five-time national champion, called time on his playing career four years ago and has since been a boxing and fitness trainer at Waka Fitness Gym in Kimihurura, Kigali.
Theogene Gakunzi (2nd-right) was part of the boxers who represented the country at the 2011 All-Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique. Courtesy.
Gakunzi’s training follows a five-step process; learning, physicals, boxing, abs, and stretching.
While instructing his classes, he guides his students (youngsters and adults) through jabs, uppercuts, and hooks and also works with them on their defensive steps and footwork.
He started boxing when he was 13-year old for self-defense, and few years later he realized the sport could be more than just about self-defense, until he made a career-path out of it.
In 2005, Gakunzi competed in his international competition before receiving his first cap in the national boxing team the following year. He went on to become the team’s captain until his retirement in 2014.
“Juggling school and boxing was a bit complex,” he says, so he retired from playing and decided to take an International Boxing Association (AIBA) course to be qualified as a coach.
To invest in his budding coaching career, he recently sold his car to acquire modern equipment.
Most of boxers in the current national team hail from his generation including; Hussein Cyiza, David Nsabimana and heavyweight Vincent Nsengiyumva.
Who is Gakunzi?
Born on August 5, 1988 in Ngororero District, Western Province of Rwanda, Gakunzi is the third from a family of four children.
He is a graduate, in accounting, from Kigali Independent University.
“I started boxing at Amahoro Stadium when I was in my fifth grade of primary school. I could have gone to any martial art so as to avoid being intimidated by older students at school. Luckily, I already knew a few people who played boxing and that’s how I ended up there.”
Gakunzi says that he fell in love with boxing while growing up because of the late national boxer Salongo Bushaka who played professional boxing in South Africa and veteran Yusufu Rajab, a retired boxer who he says still admires for his skills in the ring for 18 years.
“I got a call to the national team in 2006, by the former coach Gashugi Kananura, that time I was from Remera boxing club. My first international competition was the Zone V Competition in Nairobi, and I won a bronze medal in the light welterweight (64kg) category,” he remembers.
He further said: “Coach Gashugi greatly impacted my career as a player, he was a passionate trainer and understanding man. I learned a lot from him both as pugilist and coach.”
Gakunzi says that his first medal inspired him to continue working hard. He quickly realised how much he enjoyed it and started dedicating more time in training to improve his skills.
In 2006, he scooped two gold medals in the national boxing championship, both in light welterweight (64kg) and welterweight (69kg) categories to be crowned as a double champion.
He went on to compete at the East African Army Boxing Competition hosted in Kigali the same year, winning a bronze medal for Rwanda.
In January 2010, he made a mark for himself to knock out his opponent in the CNLS sponsored boxing tournament at Amahoro stadium. The pugilist stopped Mustapha Mpakaniye with a left hook in the second round.
In 2011, he represented the country at the All Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique along with former national light welterweight (64kg) boxer Jean Maurice Bikorimana, and current elite national heavyweight boxer Vincent Nsengiyumva.
Rwandan Boxing through his lens
Gakunzi says that boxing in Rwanda is like a ship without a campus, especially because of the power struggle in the governing body.
“Something needs to be done about the sport in Rwanda. Sometimes I ask myself what the federation is doing and it beats my understanding. There is terrible deficiency of local competitions, and we don’t send boxers to international events anymore,” a visibly upset Gakunzi told this publication.
While growing up as a boxing youngster, Gakunzi drew inspiration from retired British fighter Lennox Lewis and former world champion Mike Tyson.
Tyson holds the record of the youngest boxer to win a heavyweight title at 20 years, four months and 22 days old.
Gakunzi says: “I plan to form my own boxing club so that I can continue nurturing young talents and preparing them to be champions who can conquer the region, and the continent.”