The eighties were tough in Ghana. There was a shortage of everything – food, water, jobs, cash, power… sound familiar?
Well, whatever you think you’re going through right now, the eighties were worse. Especially because we couldn’t complain about it. We had a military head of state who didn’t allow a free press, there was no opposition party to go on demonstration. We all just had to sit and bear whatever happened to us and hope that whatever solution our leaders, JJ Rawlings and his PNDC Government, chose for us would work.
In the end, they chose to run to the IMF for help (I’m sure that sounds familiar too), and indeed, after some years, things did improve, but they got much, much worse before they got better.
The IMF years were the toughest. Under military rule, the government does practically everything, provides everything, buys and sells everything and employs practically everyone, so when that government can’t spend, you can imagine how tight a squeeze that is on the people. It wasn’t easy, but eventually, we made it to the other side.
But how did we do it? How did Ghana persevere through these hardships – through these lean years? How did we keep our spirits up? How did we manage to walk with our heads up, without sinking into an impossible fog of national despair? How did we ever manage to smile, laugh, or even pray? Well, it’s simple: we had hope. And today, I want us to remember the man who gave it to us.
Azumah Nelson started off the eighties like most Ghanaians – with defeat. After accomplishing a wonderful record as an amateur boxer (winning 50 fights and losing only one), Azumah had started his professional boxing career with a great deal of promise, winning all 13 of his fights. A sudden opportunity to fight the world champion presented itself in 1982 when the scheduled challenger dropped out at the last minute. Azumah was quickly rushed in as a replacement, and in spite of his unpreparedness, stood toe-to-toe with the champ, Salvador Sanchez, for 15 rounds of excellent boxing, before he was stopped. Sanchez sadly died in a car accident less than a month after that fight.
In a decade like the eighties, this sort of defeat would have killed the spirits of the most hardened fighter, but not Azumah. He just went off and beat up six other boxers in merciless succession, gaining himself a second chance to fight the World Featherweight champion once again. This time, the title was held by the remarkably fast and hard-hitting Wilfredo Gomez.
This was the first boxing bout I ever watched in my life. My entire family crowded around our black and white television in Cape Coast at 2am on a Saturday morning to watch a Ghanaian make a second attempt at a world boxing title against an opponent most believed would be tougher to beat than the previous champion.
For eleven long rounds, Gomez boxed and moved, bobbing and weaving across the ring. Azumah kept his guard up, and just kept coming forward, dropping jab after solid jab on target. Each one stung the champion painfully, and he kept moving, hoping to avoid the next, but, like the Terminator, Azumah just kept coming.
Whenever he got the chance, Gomez would throw a combination of the lethal punches he had used to knock out the previous champion, Juan LaPorte, just nine months earlier. But Azumah just kept on coming, soaking up Gomez’ blows, and returning solid, accurate jabs for ten rounds.
In Round eleven, Azumah unleashed an overhand right which opened up the already battered flesh around the champion’s mouth. Pressing home his advantage, Azumah unleashed a flurry of blows in a follow-up attack which gave Gomez no space to breathe, let alone move. Suddenly, Gomez went down.
A loud shout went up in our house as we all leapt from our seats. We thought it was over. But the Champ was tough, and he bounced back up.
In my living room, it suddenly seemed as if Azumah winning this fight had become the most important thing in the world to us. It was as if our fortunes were somehow tied to his, and if he managed to beat the world champion, we also could beat any obstacle, any circumstance that life threw at us. Azumah had to win. My parents, my Uncle, my sister, my cousins, the house-help and I, all started cheering Azumah on.
And that was when I heard it. At first, I thought it was just an echo, but then I realised, it was a familiar hum, coming from every other house in my neighbourhood. It seemed the whole community was awake, watching our fellow Ghanaian representing us on the world stage, and willing him, needing him to win.
The referee checked Gomez over, and he was fine, so he stepped out of the way for the fight to continue. Azumah was waiting in the centre of the ring, standing very still, with his guard halfway down. Gomez took two steps towards him, and the Professor exploded.
Two quick punches – a sharp left hook, and a straight right to the jaw. Gomez’ knees buckled, his legs folded under him, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he flopped onto the canvas like a sack of cocoyams.
At that moment, the whole nation rose to its feet, shouting in one voice. Our boy had done it. With single-minded determination, dogged perseverance and a desire to win, which had made him impervious to the world champion’s heaviest blows, Azumah Nelson had triumphed, and in that moment, had brought a crippled nation back to its feet. Suddenly, our hardships didn’t matter. Our obstacles were beatable. Our hunger didn’t hurt. We had hope, and there was nothing we couldn’t do.
Throughout the eighties, Azumah fought several more times, and Ghana watched him win every single fight on our TVs – usually because he himself paid for GBC to have the broadcasting rights.
Each win boosted the nation’s morale. Each knock-out made us all believe that we also could persevere until the next fight. To this day, a certain generation of Ghanaians still refers to every fight or contest between two evenly matched opponents as “Azumah and Gomez”.
Today, as we mark Ghana Month on Joy, we celebrate The Professor, Azumah Nelson, one of the Greatest Ghanaians of all time.
My name is Kojo Yankson, and I am a Ghanaian. That means I can take the punches because I know victory is on the other side.
GOOD MORNING, GHANAFO!
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