It wasn’t the love of boxing that made Kenneth ‘Valdez’ Ochieng to take to the sport. Far from it. He did it out of necessity – for self-defence against bullies – as a pupil at Nairobi’s Dr Aggrey Primary School in 1976.
And the former amateur welterweight boxer, who also represented Denmark in the 1986 Kings Cup in Bangkok to claim bronze medal, has no regrets.
Kings Cup (now known as Thailand International Invitational boxing tournament) is Thailand’s main international boxing tournament. He won gold for Denmark in Coppenhagen Box Cup the same year.
Ochieng, who currently coaches Kayole Boxing Club in Nairobi, says boxing has made him who he is today. Born in Nakuru on February 2, 1962, Ochieng, sixth born in a family of eight boys and two girls, relocated to Nairobi’s Eastleigh Section One and started attending the nearby Dr Aggrey Primary School.
“There were many bullies who made our lives miserable in the school. I was in Class Six when I went to St Teresa’s Church one day with my desk mate and friend Joseph Mwema and there were many activities taking place in the church compound. Besides boxing, there was karate. A band, Undugu Beat 75, was also practising there,” he says.
“We were attracted to boxing as we felt that it would help us fight off bullies. We asked the coach if he could allow us to join the other boys in training and he agreed. That is how I joined Undugu Boxing Club. The club was not taking part in competitive events as our coach, Romus Ouma lacked experience. The founder of Undugu Society of Kenya, the late Fr. Arnold Groll, was very keen in boxing and would often say ‘after training boys will go home tired, straight to bed. They would not have time for mischief.’”
“Fr Groll, with the help of veteran boxing coach, the late Eddy ‘Papa’ Musi from South Africa who got us coach Joseph Onyango so we could compete with other Nairobi-based teams. Onyango transformed the club in a big way as it was affiliated to the Provincial body, Nairobi Provisional Amateur Boxing Association (now known us Nairobi County Boxing Association).
“I started competing in junior events then moved to light flyweight. I was adding weight very fast and I moved to the next category, flyweight, then bantamweight and later feather-weight. At that point, Onyango felt that was my appropriate weight category. But he was wrong as I was still growing. My life took a dramatic turn when I was in Class Seven.”
“It was during third term and I was training at Undugu Boxing Club after school when Fr. Groll called Mwema and me aside and linked us up with some French missionaries in Mathare Valley. I left Eastleigh Section One and moved to Mathare Valley and later Mathare 4A with Mwema where the missionaries paid our rent and upkeep. We helped them with translations from Kiswahili to English and in turn they taught us how to pray in French. Meanwhile, we trained in the evenings and did well in the national boxing league.”
Asked how he got his nickname ‘Valdez’, Ochieng said: “Sports journalist, Steve Ongaro named me after former world middleweight champion, Colombian Rodrigo “Rocky” Valdez and it got stuck. Ongaro would assign names to Kenya’s international boxers.”
Ochieng will forever be grateful to Musi who transformed his boxing tremendously.
“In early 1982, I was selected to Nairobi squad for Inter-cities boxing tournament against Kampala as a featherweight (57 kg). I had to shed off nearly 10 kilograms to attain the weight. Musi was our team coach and looking at me, he was positive that I would not make it. He therefore asked Mwema to move from bantamweight (56 kg) to featherweight as I starved myself to attain weight. I became very weak and walking became a problem as I ate very little food and drunk no liquids.”
“Day to the tournament, Musi looked at me sympathetically and said ‘boy, eat! I do not want to kill you. Eat, you are not going to box.’ He sternly told me ‘from today henceforth you will box as a light welterweight (64 kg). Forget that nonsense of cutting weight.’”
He warns boxers against cutting too much weight to fit in a category. “I had no problem moving to light welterweight. I just lived a normal life, ate three meals a day and took plenty of water.”
“Boxing-wise, 1982 was a good year for me. When Zimbabwe toured Kenya in July, with a team of five seniors and same number of juniors for a boxing contest against Nairobi at the City Hall, Musi gave me a chance and I did not let him down. I was one of the senior boxers and I made my international debut with victory.
“In the national league, we did well with the late Mwema in our respective weights, upsetting established pugilists that did not go unnoticed by teams like Kenya Police and Kenya Air Force. We were approached by both sides to leave Undugu Boxing Club and join them. We chose Kenya Air Force Boxing team. We were to join Armed Forces Training College in Eldoret on Monday August 3, 1982 but that was not to be. “
“We were given the weekend off to bid our families farewell on August 1 and 2. However, on the night of August 1 and morning of August 2, some cadres of the Air Force staged an unsuccessful coup d’etat and that shattered our dreams of becoming soldiers. We had already surrendered our national identification cards to military officers and we had no way of retrieving them.
Shaken by what had befallen us and with no national IDs that could distinguish us from soldiers during the swoop that followed to mop up mutinying Air Force soldiers. We turned to Fr. Groll for help and he was sympathetic to our situation. He came to our rescue and provided us with student identification cards for Undugu Village Polytechnic and that put us out of harm’s way.
Meanwhile, coach Onyango had been hired by the late Harrison Kilonzo as the Kenya External Telecommunications Boxing tactician and he moved there with a good number of boys from Undugu Boxing Club. Mwema and I trained with Onyango’s boys for eight months, after which we were taken in by Kilonzo.
Later on Kenya External Telecommunication was dissolved and its services taken over by Posts and Telecommunications. Onyango was retained as Posta’s boxing team coach and was retained with his boxers.
Boxing for Posta, I took part in the 1982 Kenya Open Championship and won in the light welterweight berth. The following year in April, I was part of a squad of five pugilist that made history for Kenya by winning the prestigious Kings King’s Cup, in Bangkok, Thailand. I was eliminated in the quarter finals along with light flyweight (49kg) Ibrahim ‘Surf’ Bilali.
However, bantamweight (56 kg) Hussein ‘Juba’ Khalili, featherweight (57 kg) John ‘Duran’ Wanjau and heavyweight (91kg) James “Demosh’ Omondi won gold medals.
“During celebrations for the 10th anniversary of Kenya’s Independence in 1983, a boxing tournament that brought together teams from Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia took place and I won in my welterweight category. The following year, I competed in the trials to pick Kenya’s Olympic boxing squad at the then Desai Memorial Hall and won in the welterweight (67kg) category, but I was not part of the squad that travelled to Los Angeles following miscommunication”.
“Early in 1984, I represented Posta in the Kenya Communications Sports Organisation (Kecoso) games and won in my weight category. The other teams with boxers were Kenya Railways, Kenya Airways and Kenya Ports Authority. We contested in 11 weight categories as there were no super heavyweight pugilists. For a treat, all the 11 winners were taken for a Scandinavian tour that took as to Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
When we returned home after the tour, I received an invitation from a Danish armature boxing promoter, Borg Anderson, to box as a semi-professional. I left for Denmark in April 1985 and as I was in the plane heading to Copenhagen, I noticed that Hussein ‘Juba’ Khalili, who was boxing for Kenya Breweries, was in the same flight. I later learnt that we were heading to the same place. From that time, I became a regular visitor to Denmark and I stopped going there in 2014.
I would have represented Denmark in the 1988 Seoul Olympics but I preferred to return home and take part in the trials to pick Olympic squad. What I did not know when I entered the ring was that the whole thing was a sham. The names of the boxers to represent Kenya in Seoul had already been sent to Olympic organisers. Therefore, when I defeated Mohammed Orungi, both of us remained in the ring for several minutes as officials discussed the way forward. I learnt later on that Orungi’s name was already in Seoul.”