Going Down Fighting : Wangila, a 1988 Olympic Champion Who Died After Losing Fight, Refused to Quit Even When Pro Career Stalled


Robert Wangila spent six years futilely attempting to relive his one, golden flash.

Sunday, long after most people had written him off, he died trying.

The body of Wangila, who came to America fresh from his scintillating triumph in the 1988 Olympic Games--the first boxing gold medal won by an African--will be flown home Saturday to Kenya. There will be a burial without professional riches, without accolades, without anything he came to the United States six years ago to acquire.

"I don't want to sound callous, but the guy who killed Robert Wangila is Robert Wangila," said Bruce Trampler, the Top Rank, Inc., matchmaker who put together Wangila's early fights.

"The reason I say that is some two years ago he came in the office, and in effect said goodby to everybody here; said, 'I'm moving back to Kenya, I tried to do this, but it didn't work out, thanks. . . .'

"But something happened after that, whether he changed his mind or it was changed for him. . . . For whatever reason, he unretired; whatever happened, he continued to fight and ultimately that led to his death."

After a slow, sad fade last Friday night at the Aladdin hotel here, Robert Wangila, also known as Wangila Napunyi, suffered the fifth knockout loss of his disappointing 22-5 professional career. About 45 minutes later he collapsed in a coma, was declared brain-dead and eventually was taken off life support.

The fatal bout, against top 10-ranked welterweight David Gonzales--who also was involved in a ring death when Rico Velasquez died after a 1988 fight against Gonzales--was stopped in the ninth round. Boxing observers say it was an even fight and Wangila did not appear to absorb an abnormal amount of head shots when it was stopped.

"I didn't think he took a tremendous beating in the fight," said Los Angeles-based trainer Cassius Greene, who worked with Wangila recently and was at the fight. "As far as I was concerned, he was winning the fight--not easily, but he was winning.

"I think probably what might have happened was he might have taken too many heavy shots in the gym. I think he might have been a little soft.

"By the ninth, I think he was a little exhausted. The tide was turning a little bit and he wasn't moving as smooth as he might have.

"We all know he can take a tremendous punch, like he used to, but it just built up over a period of years."

Boxing experts were startled by how awkward Wangila looked early in his pro career and how hard he was getting hit by journeymen fighters.

But according to Cornelius Boza-Edwards, one of the great African fighters and a Las Vegas mentor to Wangila, everybody who knew the quiet, dignified boxer hoped it would simply be a matter of time before he showed his Olympic skills.

"This kid walked through the Olympics," Boza-Edwards said. "If a guy knocks everybody out in the Olympic tournament and wins a gold medal, that's an achievement you don't usually see. You think this guy will be a superstar in the pros.

"First we saw him and figured there'll be a few things to learn. OK, then in a short time he'll figure it out. But as time went on, there wasn't any improvement in his pro career.

"I am sure he was frustrated. But he did not like to discuss it. There were times he came over to my house where we'd discuss different issues and I was always concerned to discuss where exactly he went wrong.

"He did say he had gotten hit by a car when he was a child. But (as for) brain function, he was a normal person."

Wangila last fought for Greene at the Forum on Oct. 25, when he was knocked out by Troy Waters. As is the normal procedure after a knockout, Wangila was suspended for 45 days, but he returned to boxing and won an eight-round decision recently.

"He kept feeding off that gold medal," Greene said. "He kept thinking he was much bigger than he really was. He kept seeing things that weren't there.

"He just didn't have a whole lot of raw talent."

Everybody questioned about Wangila pointed to his heavy feet, his lack of defensive skills and his inability to move around a ring.

Greene blamed Ken Adams, Wangila's first professional trainer and a longtime amateur coach, for not developing the young fighter.

"He was thrown in with an amateur trainer, he had an amateur background and he kept fighting that you-hit-me-I-hit-you amateur style," Greene said. "And it just added up. He started getting hit too often. That's all."

But most boxing observers believe Wangila's limited talent, not lack of training expertise, was the cause of his professional downfall.

So why didn't he retire when he said he would?

"He was such a young man--he died when he was 26," Boza-Edwards said. "A 26-year-old boy and you're telling him it's not there, that the gold medal was a fluke?

"Time and time again, I tell people, yes, he cruised to a gold medal, and yet I see nothing in his pro career that tells me why he should have won a gold medal. Was it a freak of nature? I don't know, I'm not a god.

"Bob Arum called me to find the key, and I used every trick in the book. . . . All the months we spent, it was just not going to be."

Top Rank, Arum's company, which is paying for some of Wangila's funeral expenses, sent Wangila to ballet school, tried everything, but eventually dropped the boxer when he asked for his release.

Recently, Wangila filed for bankruptcy and split from his contract with Greene and Greene's partner, Taras Kiick.

Wangila's financial straits had become so pronounced that the Kenyan community here heard his gold medal had been hocked for cash during bad times. His widow, Grace, apparently has the medal, and will send it with the body to Kenya.

"He was not working, he's not an American, he's a kid only surviving on boxing--and whatever he got was peanuts," Boza-Edwards said. "Once he wasn't with Top Rank, he went to nothing, really."

For his last fight, Wangila earned $2,500. All Trampler can think about is saying goodby two years ago.

"It seemed like he finally said, 'Hey, I can't handle it,' " Trampler said. "He said goodby, and that was it. We all kind of breathed a sigh of relief: 'The kid's going home.' "

Now Wangila's body is going home, two years late, and this time without saying goodby.

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