Skip to main content
Original Issue

This Beast Is A Beauty

Newly baptized John Mugabi wants to rid himself of a nickname and Marvelous Marvin Hagler of a title

In the parish of the Sacred Heart in Nogales, Ariz. on the Mexican border, the schoolroom is poverty plain: the ceiling stained with big damp patches, bookshelves merely planks set on cinder blocks. In all of Santa Cruz County, it is the last place you would seek out John Mugabi, the Beast, so-called, who on March 10 in Las Vegas fights Marvelous Marvin Hagler for the middleweight championship of the world.

But it is here you will find the 25-year-old native of Kampala, Uganda most evenings, his gold chains, heavy gold bracelets and diamond watch—all of a boxer's off-duty trappings—contrasting sharply with the austere surroundings. Before him, his coach gestures and chalks words on a blackboard with a fancy, slashing style. He wears a sweat suit, but he is, in fact, Father Anthony Clark. And the words that explode on the blackboard are GOOD, SIN and EVIL. On Feb. 16, Mugabi's training—or, more properly, instruction—resulted in his being baptized a Roman Catholic, whereupon, he fervently hopes, the sobriquet the Beast, which has haunted him for three years, will be shucked and he will become simply John Paul Mugabi.

However, Hagler should not assume that John Paul plans to go gentle into the ring on March 10. How Mugabi spends his evenings bears little relation to what he does in the afternoons in the ring set up at the Sheraton Hotel in Rio Rico, a village 10 miles north of Nogales. He started training there in early January, after the original Nov. 14 bout with Hagler was postponed because the champion suffered a broken nose in training, and he has been going through sparring partners at a ferocious clip.

On a recent Monday he began with Roger McCane, a middleweight from Tacoma, and put him down twice. On Tuesday, McCane would not leave his room ("I'm too bruised up"). By Wednesday a local lad from Tucson, James Williams, had been drafted. He lasted into the third round, when a swelling the size of a kiwi fruit blossomed alongside his right ear. For Thursday, one Harry (Heatwave) Daniels, said to have a 13-3-1 record, was flown in from Atlanta. Early in the third round Mugabi let go a terrifying barrage to the head with both hands, and Daniels went down. Later, Heatwave said, "I never came looking for nothing like this."

"Beast! Beast!" they yelled in Rio Rico as Heatwave was felled, and an observer in a straw sombrero declared to another in a white Stetson that Mugabi was the best thing that had happened around Nogales since the day they devalued the Mexican peso.

But Beast is a word Mugabi can do without. "Why they call me this?" he asks plaintively. "I am a quiet man. I like to do correct things. If somebody calls me Beast, I ask, 'Gosh, what is he doing to me?' I am a quiet man and a good man too, I think."

It is doubtful if this feeling is shared by the 26 opponents Mugabi has knocked out in his perfect 26-0-0 pro career, in which he has had to go more than six rounds just once. That was against James (Hard Rock) Green in Tampa, in February 1984, and the fight, say Beast fans, was prolonged because Mugabi took a thumb in the eye in the second round. He couldn't see for the best part of the third, and he took a lot of punishment before gradually coming back to knock Green out in the 10th.

Mostly, though, Mugabi's opponents fall fast. In his first televised bout in the U.S., he knocked out Roosevelt Green in the opening round. "For his next fight," his manager, Mickey Duff, recalls, "I got him on as the main event in NBC's SportsWorld, fighting Gary Guiden in Tampa. John had Guiden out on his feet in the first round, and then he just walked away from him. He finally knocked the guy out in the third round, and afterward, on camera, Ferdie Pacheco wanted to know why he had backed off in the first. And there I am squirming with embarrassment as John innocently tells the truth: 'Mr. Duff says, "Don't take him out in the first round this time; show you can fight a bit." ' "

Duff is a mercurial Londoner who, as manager, matchmaker and promoter, was in virtual control of boxing in Britain for much of the last decade, not always to the approval of a large section of the sports press and the public there. Recently, he has been quietly moving his operation to the U.S., and Mugabi is the lever with which Duff is prying his way into the U.S. fight business.

Uncharacteristically, Duff came close to being cut out of the action when the young Mugabi first attracted attention as a welterweight in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Duff had caught one of his early bouts on TV and was impressed enough to "call the BBC to see when they were showing his next fight. I followed him through to the end." In the bout for the gold medal, Mugabi lost on a dubious decision to Andres Aldama of Cuba, rated No. 1 in the world.

Well before that, though, Duff had phoned Jack Edwards, a retired tea planter, in London. From colonial times until he was dispossessed by Idi Amin, Edwards had run a boys' club in Kampala, with the emphasis on boxing, and one fighter he produced, Cornelius Boza-Edwards (who took the name of his mentor out of gratitude), went on to win the WBC junior lightweight championship. Edwards remembered Mugabi well. He had watched the lad since Mugabi was 10, and says he had been a real spitfire even then. Edwards recalled that Mugabi had been adept at wriggling through the kitchen windows of colonial bigwigs known to be giving parties and stuffing himself with p√¢té de foie gras. But he was good-hearted; every time, he would come out with a shirtful of delicacies for the other kids.

Even as Duff was scrutinizing Mugabi's Olympic bouts, so was a West German promoter, Wilfred Sauerland, and he got to Mugabi first. Eventually the two men worked out a deal, which still applies, giving Sauerland and Duff equal promotional rights. As a result, Mugabi fought seven of his early professional bouts in places like Gelsenkirchen and Kiel, where, to Duffs outrage, he was billed as the Brown Bomber. Having explained to the Germans that this title had already been preempted, Duff suggested the Beast, a name Duffs trainer, George Francis, came up with after working with Mugabi.

Following those early fights in West Germany, Duff brought Mugabi to the U.S. and settled him in Tampa. And the honeymoon that commenced between the city and the Ugandan shows no signs of flagging even now. When Mugabi fights at Tampa's Egyptian Temple Shrine, the crowd treats him like a favorite son. At a Sunday brunch last August in Tampa, Mugabi, now in the role of guest of honor instead of petty thief, slyly recalled those kitchen raids of the past. "When I was a baby," he laughed, "I must steal my dinners. But now John Mugabi walks in by the front door. Oh, I like this place better than home."

Well, for sure. Kampala has precious few shopping malls, and on shopping malls Mugabi is deeply hooked. "Hey," he said one day in Tampa, "we got a nice mall right around the corner. You want to go? I love to go there, spend a little money, get some nice karate video, or a nice hat or a saxophone."

This brought a groan from Duff, who knew what trouble can follow a simple Mugabi mall trip. "He has no real idea of cash," his manager said. "He'll ask, say, for $500, he'll take a cab to a store, buy a big cowboy hat, just leave his wallet on the counter and walk out. He gets robbed all the time, he says, though probably he's just spent it or lost it. I'll say, 'John, you've spent $30,000 or $40,000 in the last three months.' 'No,' he says. 'How could I have put all this money in my stomach? I did not eat it. You take all my money. I do not want to be a boxer anymore.' "

The big trouble breaks out, however, when Mugabi periodically decides that what he wants most in the world is a car. "He came into my office one day when Mickey was away," recalls Phil Alessi, who promotes Mugabi's fights in Tampa, "and asked me for $18,000, like right now, to buy a car. I explained to him, as I always do, that he needed a driver's license. I told him he could have a limo and a chauffeur if he needed to go somewhere. 'No,' he said. 'You buy me my own car, then you put a chauffeur in it.' "

Before he left Tampa to train in Arizona, Mugabi had freely confided his No. 1 dream to a visitor. "I want to drive real bad," he said. "I want to go around. In America it is too far to walk into town to buy some food. Also I would like to go to the beach and have some barby-chew and dive in the water." He is not unaware of his license problem. "I did not go to school a lot," he says disarmingly. "I know the road signs, what they mean. But they tell me, go read the book, go read the book. But the book is in English, and it is too hard. I must have a car. I like Mercedes best. Not sports car but a car for a gentleman. Maybe somebody can bring me a license from Uganda, and I can change it for an American one. I want to drive real bad."

Mugabi's awareness of the world around him does not always set well with Francis. "Normally, with a title fight, you'll block out everything extraneous and go ahead. With John, that would be a miracle. He has days when he won't do this, won't do that. He just can't block out the world. Honest to god, I wish he was a horse. Then I could put blinkers on him."

In fairness to Mugabi, there's one place in the world that he can't block out: his native Uganda, and the seemingly endless waves of bloodshed that have overwhelmed the country in the past decade. Shortly before President Milton Obote was overthrown last summer by Tito Okello (who himself was overthrown in January by Yoweri Museveni), Mugabi had gone home to visit his mother in Kampala. It had not been a happy trip. Or as a Ugandan friend of Mugabi's who lives in the U.S. said, "Would you believe that when John goes home, this world championship contender, he's afraid to go out after dark? A 15-year-old punk in a soldier's uniform wouldn't care who he was."

Mugabi remembers despotic President Idi Amin as a benefactor of his sport, though personally a terrifying figure. "Amin liked boxing," Mugabi recalls. "He come into the Lugogo gym in Kampala when I am a teen-sized boy, play with the speedbag. He say, 'I am heavyweight, come on, come on, nobody want to fight me?' He say to me, 'Hey you, put on the gloves.' He is real big and mean and my hair feel tight and funny. But he just pretend to jab at me, bim, bim, bim. He says, 'How is your program? What, you got no money? I must go and check with my bank to see if there is money for you.' He laugh. He sent a team of us to Japan in his private jet. He buy us equipment. When I went to Zambia to fight I am sorry for the kids there. My opponent has no gloves but rags tied round his fists. But when Amin run away he take the money with him, and in Uganda now the kids have nothing."

When Mugabi returned from the trip to his homeland in 1985, he feared it might have been his last. "A little bit sometimes I hear from my mother," he said. "I would like to see her again face to face. But I cannot go because they may think I am a big enemy. They have terrible killings, terrible killings. If the soldiers come to your door, you know you are going to die, but first they make you load their truck with what you got. They think their life is big party that God has give them. Their eyes are red, like animals'. They are the beasts, not me."

Francis thinks Mugabi's spending habits stem partly from his brooding about the fate of his country. "What is the use of saving money," he would ask his trainer, "when people die so quick?"

It was shortly after Christmas that Mugabi and Francis left Tampa for Nogales to resume heavy training for the Hagler fight, and the change in geography has caused a change in the fighter. "When we were first training for the Hagler fight we were at the Eden Roc hotel in Miami," Francis recalls, "I said then I would rather train John in Alcatraz. Well, this is a deluxe Alcatraz, with no people underfoot and perfect weather."

And there have been no shopping binges, perhaps because of the lack of temptation. That tends to be limited to the Casa de Video, where Mugabi can pick up Bruce Lee cassettes, and to the clothing store, where he bought some cowboy gear to wear on an excursion to Tombstone, Ariz. "They all buried there, all the John Waynes," Mugabi tells you. He fast-draws an imaginary six-shooter and with magisterial inaccuracy yells, "Make me a day!"

It was on his first Sunday morning in Arizona that Mugabi noticed a man in the open door of a church wearing a maroon sweat suit, the back of which identified the owner as belonging to the Nogales Boxing Club. When Mugabi and Francis followed the man into church, they saw him strip off his sweats and reveal clerical garb. Father Anthony Clark is from Davenport, Iowa, but on loan to Sacred Heart with a special responsibility for delinquent boys on both sides of the border. Father Tony, as the kids in Nogales call him, recognized Mugabi at once. "I was tongue-tied," he says, "but I went over to him after the service."

The priest's motive was straightforward. Father Tony, who had been a high school boxer himself at 145 pounds, used the sport, as many have before him, as a means of rescuing embryonic criminals from the streets. Nogales is a city split as neatly as a restaurant avocado between the state of Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora. Turn your back on the U.S., the K Mart and the Roy Rogers and pass through the border post, and abruptly you're in the Third World and the poverty which dogs it, about which John Mugabi knows much firsthand.

For that reason, perhaps, the fighter, as soon as he was asked, agreed to climb into the back of Father Tony's battered pickup and head over the border to talk to the kids. "We spent a nice hour," Francis recalls. "John showed the boys some moves, and they loved him." That nice hour, though, almost led to a second postponement of the Hagler fight, because when Mugabi tried to get back into the U.S., he was denied entry.

His visa, which had run out, was back in Tampa with his lawyer, being renewed. The problem might have been solved with a phone call, but Father Tony got in the way. He is one of the 11 defendants in the "Sanctuary" trial, now in its 16th week in Tucson, in which priests and nuns are accused of sheltering illegal immigrants—refugees, the defendants call them—from El Salvador. "Father Tony started arguing with the immigration authorities," Francis says, "and I had to tell him to back off. Then John got mad."

"I am angry," recalls Mugabi, "because I have not had my dinner yet. I say, 'I am John Mugabi and I have come to fight Marvin Hagler.' They say, '——.' I tell them I am a real people and I do not speak lies. They say I am threatening them. Four more men came running out. I do not think they could have put me in the jail, but I am glad Duff is there to call the lawyers up out of their beds. These policemen want to keep us all night, but in three hours they let us go."

A richly farcical evening that must have been, but it left Mugabi with an enduring respect for the turbulent Father Tony. That led to the schoolroom in Nogales for religious instruction, which in turn has led to the christening of John Paul and the banishment of the Beast.

"His whole attitude has changed. I don't have to push him anymore," says Francis, who eventually joined in the instruction sessions himself and was baptized a Catholic on Sunday along with Mugabi. "I was worried that his relationship with Father Tony would make him a meeker person. But did you see the way John's sparring, have you seen the way he runs up those hills? He is more aggressive than ever. He is convinced that God is on his side, and also that Hagler is a fool to fight him."

Be that as it may, Hagler is a 3½-to-1 favorite. There is no disputing the champion's ring craft and strategic brilliance, and it seems clear even now that Hagler will not come out banging as he did against Hearns. He will surely try to capitalize on that arrogant, Ali-like habit Mugabi has of keeping his hands held low on defense.

However, Hagler's own defense is hardly total. "Everybody who has fought Hagler has hit him," says Duff. "If Mugabi catches him, he'll go. Please God," he adds devoutly.

Mugabi himself sees no problem. "I was studying him a long time, but not now," he says. "I know how he fights. He is a slow fighter. I am hungry for my title. I beat him up."



Father Clark gave Mugabi a preview of what he could expect at his christening.



Mugabi cuts up with a promotional cutout on one of his frequent forays for new videos.



Billy Bradley hit the canvas in the fourth round last August to become Mugabi's 26th victim.



Mugabi has no objection when horsepower comes in the flesh (above), but he longs to have it in a Mercedes Benz of his own.



[See caption above.]



No sweat, no gain has become Mugabi's new credo while training in Nogales.