- Many stars came calling. Back in the day, Kenya was in a state of mind where we could actually think of staging a Muhammad Ali fight and nobody thought that ridiculous. It was all so normal. Premiership and Bundesliga sides toured here routinely and the world’s best rally drivers were with us here every Easter holiday.
There used to be a Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) television show called “You Asked For It”. It ran in the early 1980s. In it, viewers sent requests of something they wanted to see on television. Some of the requests were outrageous, like a man wrestling with a crocodile. The show always ended with the catchy punchline: “You got it because…you asked for it!”
I can’t think of a better phrase to define an era, even as that era was deep into stoppage time. The whistle blew on it on August 1, 1982. From then on, Kenya changed. Before that, as sports lovers, it appeared as if whatever we asked for, we got it! Consider this audacious introduction by Daily Nation feature writer Wade Huie in July 1978:
“So what if Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks or Larry Holmes won’t be coming? Kenya is to have a professional championship bout anyway. This earth-shaking event came about Wednesday night at the Kenyatta Conference Centre when “Gold-Belt” Maxine was goaded into putting his British middleweight championship belt on the line this Sunday against Mick McMichael, after McMichael handed Maxine – according to promoters – his first loss in seven years.”
The country was in a state of mind where we could actually think of staging a Muhammad Ali fight and nobody thought that ridiculous. It was all so normal.
If English Premiership and German Bundesliga sides toured here routinely and the world’s best rally drivers were with us every Easter holiday and the King of Football, Pele, also came to inspire our teenagers, why not Muhammad Ali? Anyway, he still did come, although not on the kind of mission we would have preferred.
That was the reality then. I won’t be surprised if in today’s era of alternative facts and reality, I read a survey showing that Kenya has the fifth best stadiums in the world and that it is one of two African countries most likely to host the Fifa World Cup and the Olympic Games within the next 15 years. I won’t be surprised if that report is based on the city’s smooth public transport system, its garbage-free neighbourhoods, clean rivers and bustling malls.
We are living in an entirely different reality. The difference between then and now is that then, we just did it and moved on to the next project. Today, we tweet and blog about what we imagine we are capable of doing and move on to the next fantasy. And while at it, we flood God with an avalanche of prayers to save our country because we are not sure we can hold it together anymore.
Wade Huie was writing about the goings on at the KICC when the world’s greatest wrestling stars came calling. It was one of two tours and it seemed as if whatever we fancied after watching it on television, we could get it in flesh and bones. I was a cub reporter then and found myself thrown in the deep end of the pool for being assigned to report to Kenyans on the performances of so imminent a cast of celebrities.
I had more personal interactions with the wrestlers during the second tour than the first. It was headlined by the return of a man whose girth made you think of a baobab tree. He was the wildly popular “Honey Boy” Zimba from Trinidad and Tobago. He was nicknamed “The African Hercules” because of his hulking size and had a way of winning his bouts that made me cringe: he head-butted his opponents like a champion ram.
When I was a little boy, I loved to watch rams fight. After every reverse movement to gather momentum followed by a sprint that ended in the sound of a dull thud as the two animals collided head on, I always wondered whose head would split first. None ever did. The loser signalled his acceptance by simply walking away and leaving the tougher boy standing in readiness for the next round. In the wrestling at KICC that those of us who witnessed will never forget, “Honey Boy” Zimba almost always was the tougher boy.
Because of the din in the arena, I never got to hear the thud of the head butt that sent his opponents sprawling on the canvas. But I could tell by the look on their faces that they had just taken something like the round of a mortar shell. It was over. But by that time, I had outgrown my fascination with fighting rams and all that remained was a terror about getting my head hit. That is why “Honey Boy” Zimba’s winning ways made me cringe.
I had a long conversation with Gill “Tiger” Singh. It took place in the office of the tour promoter, a gregarious man called Chagger Singh. “Gill comes from the Valley of the Tigers,” was the headline of the story I wrote for The Nairobi Times.
It was taken from what Gill had told me. He was a native of Bengal in India, a place where tigers roamed the forests. From an early age, he showed a courage to match the ferocious cats and so when he took up professional wrestling, it was natural that fans nicknamed him “Tiger.”