THE QUIET MAN
What you didn’t know about Walter Kautondokwa, by Springs Toledo
“POWER IS NOT THE KEY, BUT THE GRACE OF GOD”
ATALL, gaunt figure stood in Monk Foreman’s gym in the Seaport district of Boston, peering out from under a hood at the chattering conviviality a few steps away. Fans snapped selfies with Freddie Roach and mingled with world-class boxers, writers tapped away on laptops, cameramen adjusted lenses. It was Wednesday, and the event was a public workout before Saturday’s big fight card at the TD Garden. The silent figure was half the main event, but no one noticed him. He might have stood there all night had an organiser not beckoned him, twice, snapping him out of a trance and prompting him to hoist his gear up over a shoulder and follow.
His name is Walter Panduleni Kautondokwa. A native Namibian, he never left Africa before last weekend. He would be there still had he not been beckoned by Billy Joe Saunders, a top middleweight with a predilection for dumb decisions. When he heard that he would take Saunders’ place, that he would face Demetrius Andrade seven thousand miles from home and be introduced to the whole world, he cheered. Then he got down on his knees and gave thanks.
“How tall is he? Six two, six three?” I asked trainer Nestor Tobias as Kautondokwa got ready to perform for the crowd. “Six two,” came the reply. In a few minutes, he stood in the middle of the practice ring and made the sign of the cross. Then he kissed the crux of his first finger and thumb, raised his eyes to the rafters, and began skipping rope. When he finished, he handed the rope to Tobias, blessed himself again, and began shadowboxing.
“Are you a Catholic?” I asked him afterward. “Yes.” At Thursday’s final press conference he sat with his handlers; hood on, hands folded, and never said a word. He was likely the only person in Fenway Park without an iphone. When he stood at the podium, he had one thing on his mind and it wasn’t his 94 per cent knockout ratio. “Power is not the key,” he said, “but the grace of God. I thank God for this opportunity.”
Matchroom Boxing USA’S Boston debut had something for everyone. Kazakhs made their presence known with flags, Lancastrians with ditties. The Irish virtually took over the Garden as their forebears had the city itself during the days of John L. Sullivan; Micky Ward joined “Spike” O’sullivan and Kevin Mcbride at ringside, and when Conor Mcgregor showed up at 10.30, the roof almost fell in. Belfast’s James Tennyson sported a Mcgregor haircut and a Mcgregor beard and was in against Philadelphia’s Tevin Farmer, who wore furry clown trunks that recalled Floyd Mayweather’s bad taste. Farmer toyed with Tennyson and terminated the contest when boredom set in. Mcgregor had a flashback. Given this sport’s continuing dalliance with absurdity, Matchroom and co-promoter Murphys Boxing can be forgiven for false advertisement. Touted as a night of champions, there were only two in attendance if we’re honest: Tony Demarco, 86, shook a lot of hands and Sugar Ray Leonard, 62, provided colour commentary for DAZN.
Kautondokwa, 33, is of lowlier stock than Demarco and Leonard, but the Namibian flag he wore like a cape into the ring showed aspirations. I watched him head to a neutral corner and pray fervently on his knees. He was smiling, assured, when he gazed up at the glittering lights and scanned a crowd larger and whiter than any he’d ever seen.
He went down in the first round. He tripped and was crouching when Andrade threw a rogue left hook that tipped him over on his ear. He got up, blessed himself, survived that round and won the next. In the third, he missed a right and Andrade cracked his profile with a left off a pivot. The shock of it lurched him forward and sprang him backward into a sprawl. The crowd roared. Andrade raced to the turnbuckle with a glove raised in triumph, then turned around to see not Kautondokwa out and on his back, but Kautondokwa already standing up.
By the end of the fourth round, he went down a second and a third time under the weight of violence. His body was buckling, giving way.
Referee Steve Willis, often seen bug-eyed and beaming during a good exchange, was not enjoying the view on this night. It’s an unenviable question that must be answered at such times – stop the carnage and violate the fighter’s spirit or stand aside and risk a medical emergency?
Most times the answer isn’t much more than a roll of the dice. Willis stood aside, but watched him like a mother hen and asked the ringside physician to examine him. Willis did it right. Kautondokwa kept trying. In the sixth round someone hollered, “Kill him!” In the ninth someone else hollered, “Put him in a body bag!” In the 11th, the same, drunker still, stood up and said, “Kill this f**kin’ turd!” And then a choir of Namibian students, no more than seven deep, rose up and waved their flag and chanted his given name, as if they knew him. They kept at it as he found his feet and trudged along his own Via Dolorosa. “We held him up,” John Kahwadi told me. “We are few, but we are here for him.”
When the final bell rang and ended the ordeal, he walked wearily to his corner and made the sign of the cross.
I didn’t note the scores against him and didn’t much care. I’d just overheard an unsettling scrap of information in press row – his mother had recently died.
Tobias, towel in hand, was heading into the walkway under the stands when I caught up to him.
“Is it true?”
“Yes. It’s true. She died this month, October.”
She died on the first. He buried her on the sixth, a week before he left Namibia for Boston.
I looked over Tobias’ shoulder to see his tall, gaunt figure receding into the shadows. He never looked back.
O Springs Toledo is the author of The Gods of War (2014), In the Cheap Seats
(2016) and Murderers’ Row (2017) – available at Amazon and Amazon UK. For autographed copies, see www. Springstoledo.com (free shipping in contiguous US).
DOWN: But Kautondokwa would rise and continue the ght with Andrade
FIGHTER: Kautondokwa held the funeral for his mother the week before he left Namibia for Boston