One evening in June 2013, Coach Tipo, a former boxer-turned-trainer in Egbeda, Lagos, sat outside his apartment, eating cashew with his brother, his boxing kit on the ground in front of them, when a child, passing with his mother, left her and ran to the kit. “He started picking my gloves without taking permission,” Tipo recalls to me. “He put on the gloves and started hitting small-small kids around. I stopped him. He said he wanted to box, he wanted to fight.”
The child, Sultan Adekoya, was only five years old. When his mother came to pull him away, he began crying, refusing to give back the gloves. “We never see him do this before,” his mother, Mrs. Bilikis Adekoya, remembers. “What we see is he is always watching boxing; anytime they are showing it on TV, he doesn’t want to go away from there. When we off the TV, he will on it back.”
That evening, Mrs. Adekoya asked Tipo for the training requirements, and the following morning, her husband, Mr. Tosin Adekoya, returned with Sultan, with a full kit, ready to enroll him.
Although he had doubts about taking in a five-year-old, Tipo was impressed by Sultan’s passion and began training him, shaping him, over seven years, into the sharp mover who, now 12 years old, went viral last month after a training clip of them both surfaced online.
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At 40, Tipo, whose real name is Taiwo Adegbite, has been training boxers for half his life. His father was a boxer, and he himself, after apprenticing as a barber, vulcanizer, and artist, chose the path. He found some success as a teenager in the late ‘90s, traveling for fights to Benin, Togo, and Ghana, until he suffered a shoulder dislocation. It was a terrifying moment in his life. “I said, how can I do now? I have the sense, I have the memory, I have the talent. I say, let me put what I have in my head into these children. What I have for them is the dream.”
At Tipo Boxing Academy, he currently trains 48 young people, aged five to 27, all influenced by boxers on TV. Some cite Floyd Mayweather, the American, or Canelo Alvarez, the Mexican, but mostly Anthony Joshua, the Nigerian-British boxer who at 31 is one of the most recognizable faces in global sports: a two-time unified heavyweight champion, holding the World Boxing Association (WBA), International Boxing Federation (IBF), World Boxing Organisation (WBO), and International Boxing Organisation (IBO) titles.
But before Joshua, in the last half century, Nigerians already carved out a place for themselves in professional boxing history. In June 1957, 25-year-old, Calabar-born Hogan “Kid” Bassey became the first Nigerian to win a world title, in the featherweight category. In 1962, 33-year-old, Amaigbo-born Dick Tiger (real name: Richard Ihetu) won the World Middleweight Championship and, in 1966, the World Light Heavyweight Championship. Widely regarded as Africa’s greatest boxer, Tiger was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991 and voted, in 2002 by The Ring, the 31st best fighter of the previous 80 years.
After Dick Tiger came Bash Ali, who at 29 became Africa’s first World Boxing Federation (WBF) Cruiserweight Champion, and until this year sought a Guinness World Record for oldest boxer to win a world title. At the 1996 Summer Olympics, 23-year-old Duncan Dokiwari was a bronze medalist for the Men’s Super Heavyweight category. In 1997, 24-year-old Ike Ibeabuchi began an undefeated five-year run, going 20-0 with 15 knockouts. In 2008, 28-year-old Samuel Peter took the World Boxing Council (WBC) Heavyweight title. Superstars continue to emerge, like 26-year-old Efe Ajagba, record holder for fastest victory in boxing history after his opponent was disqualified after one second.
In a country that only started a Nigeria Boxing League in 2019, this history signifies hope for the trainees at Tipo’s academy, which has also produced professionals.
“[West African Boxing Union, WABU] welterweight champion, Babatunde ‘Babyface’ [Rilwan], I trained him from childhood,” Tipo says. “My captain, Makinde Israel, is a gold medalist in youth game; he represented Kwara State.” There are promising talents among the trainees, too: “Kehinde Owueye, Sultan’s set, very fast, 8 years old. A female, Joy, very good. All my boxers are really good. I train them with the same pattern. I believe in all of them.” In July 2019, Tipo travelled to Oman to train a then 29-year-old boxer named Saeed Jafarian, who now works in the US.
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Sultan, though, was the one who stunned Tipo from the start, winning his first fight in Round 2 and his second in Round 1. The boy, Tipo saw, was a special talent. “I say, let me focus on him, you never can say. Maybe he’s the one that God sent to his family. So I take him outside, doing base work. Before I know, small thing I teach Sultan, Sultan will grab fast. Even those that have been a very long time in training, they have not been hitting my coach pad; the first time I taught Sultan, he hit it well.”
After 64 fights in his 35kg “catch-weight” category, including in Ghana and Togo, Sultan remains undefeated, winning 60 and drawing four, and becoming champion of a 2018 contest organized by Brilla FM.
“Lomachenko, Mayweather, Anthony Joshua,” Sultan lists his favourite boxers. He spends hours watching them on TV, mimicking their moves. He watches football and tennis, too, and can play both, which is why he hopes, when time for university comes, to “study something like sports.” At training and at Merry City Secondary School in Egbeda, where he is a JSS2 student, they call him Small Cola, due to his tough manner. “I want to be a worldwide champion,” he says. “Coach Tipo knows how to train people.”
It costs N3,000 ($7.75) to register at Tipo Boxing Academy, a small amount for two-hour evening sessions six days a week. Registration forms are signed by parents, Tipo explains, because “boxing is a risky game, you never can say.” Tipo leads the training sessions, alongside a trainee coach. “I trained someone to be a coach before,” Tipo says with pride: “Riliwon.” That pride, faith, and love are what primarily supports the academy. But those are not money.
“I have been trying for 20 years but I’ve never seen anyone who wants to support,” Tipo says, “except BBM, when he has.” (BBM, Babanla Boxing Management, manages the academy.) “Assuming we have two or three people helping like that, I know it will be easy to encourage children. Some, because of canvas, they can’t come to training. And we need a bigger gym.”
After the video of them went viral, the Minister for Youth and Sports Development, Hon. Sunday Dare, tweeted that they “found him in our talent hunt. There is gold in this kid!”
Meet 10-year old boxing sensation Sultan Adekoya with his trainer, Coach Tito. Served from Egbeda, Lagos. Sultan has won some great fights. MYSD has found him in our talent hunt. There is gold in this kid ! pic.twitter.com/JbJToYogp1
— Sunday Dare (@SundayDareSD) September 6, 2020
But so far, nothing has happened.
“Everybody thinks we have gained things from the Minister,” Tipo says quietly. “People now come to us to give them something, not knowing we didn’t get anything. I don’t know what will be tomorrow, but for now, nothing.” There is pain in Tipo’s voice. “I’m so sorry for that,” he murmurs, ached, as if my question were another responsibility he had already emptied himself trying to fulfil. I realize then how much disappointment he shields his trainees, “my children,” from.
Tipo credits Sultan’s attitude for the boy’s successful run. “Sultan is a very strong person. He teaches people his own pattern. He doesn’t give me stress. He’s a very talented, a very fast learner. I pray that his wish, God should help him.”
But Tipo has his own great wish, too. “I promised myself,” he repeats, “I’m going to give us a world champion that is going to take our nation up.”
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a Nigerian writer, editor, journalist, and curator. As Editor of Folio Nigeria, he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: business, art, photography, music, activism, health, food. He has extensive experience working in the African literary scene. He is currently the chair of judges for The Gerald Kraak Prize, Africa’s only award for social justice, sexuality, and gender, and he was a judge for The Morland Scholarship, Africa’s biggest grant. He was an editor at 14, Nigeria's first queer art collective, and Curator at The Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. From late 2016 to early 2020, he led the transformation of the literary blog Brittle Paper to a standard platform, creating and administering The Brittle Paper Awards, the first by an African publication. His work in queer visibility advocacy has been profiled in Literary Hub. In 2019, he won the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. He completed a collection of short stories in 2016 and his novel in 2020. He has an MA in African studies from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. From 2017 to 2018, he taught English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.