Mponda Kalunga, seen here performing at the Nelson Boxing Club, wants to be the first world champion with a platinum record. Photo: Tyler Harper

VIDEO: Mponda Kalunga’s search for glory

A former refugee reflects on his life in and out of the ring

A Tanzanian sun was setting over the refugee camp as the boy slipped into the loud, smoky hut.

Inside, adults sucked on cigarettes and shouted over beers. It was the only place in the camp with a TV. The store’s owner charged people to watch the tiny screen, which usually cycled through viewings of Rambo or Commando and little else.

The boy had spent the day watching sheep graze, which earned him one shilling from a local farmer. That money, he’d decided, would be spent on a Coke and screen time.

When the TV turned on, the crowd went silent. The boy peeked through bodies at the screen, which on this January night in 1999 wasn’t featuring Sly Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Instead, the boy watched two men stalk each other around a boxing ring.

He’d never seen a sport on TV before. Soccer was played in the camp, but that was just another game for children. This was different, and when a short punch by Mike Tyson knocked out Francois (The White Buffalo) Botha in the fifth round all the tension in the hut exploded into ecstasy and joy and fist pumps.

That was the moment then 10-year-old Mponda Kalunga knew what he desired from life.

“All these people, they forgot everything,” he says now. “They were in the camp, but they forgot everything. I went home and I remember in my mind, from that time, was I would love to do something. Not I want to be a boxer, just I would love to have that glory.”

***

Jesse Pineiro isn’t a fan of professional boxing.

Pineiro, the owner of the Nelson Boxing Club, declined to go pro during his years as a fighter because of a deep distrust of any scenario that mixes boxing and money.

“Somebody paid you $20 to get a boxing ring, you’re a pro boxer,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you’re any good at it, it just means you’re being paid.”

So he was skeptical when Kalunga, now 28, walked into the club earlier this year and told him he was looking for pro fights. There are no professional fighters in the Kootenays, and once a fighter goes pro they can’t return to amateur boxing.

Kalunga also didn’t initially pass Pineiro’s eye test. He couldn’t get a sense of how good Kalunga was sparring against Nelson’s amateurs, in part because Kalunga was clearly taking it easy on the more inexperienced fighters.

But in June the club travelled to North Vancouver to compete in a tournament. Pineiro called some of his contacts and set up sparring sessions for Kalunga against veteran boxers and former national champions Robert Couzens and Darcy Hinds.

What Kalunga did next made a believer out of Pineiro.

“He came out and dropped Darcy Hinds in the first round,” says Pineiro. “Darcy is a big guy, he’s 180, and he’s been around a whole lot. He was national champion when I was boxing. He’s been around forever. That was impressive.”

Maybe, but it was nothing new to Kalunga. He’s been fighting in and out of the ring his whole life.

***

Mponda Guirguis Kalunga was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1989. His father Jeik, an Angolan musician, had travelled to the country with his band when he fell in love with a belly dancer named Karima Khalifa Thabet, who caught his attention by tossing a garment on his face.

The pair married and had four children, Mponda being their only son. But when he was three, Mponda and his sisters were taken out of the country by Jeik. The majority of Egypt’s population is Muslim, which was Karima’s religion. But Jeik and the children were Christian — Mponda still has a tiny cross tattooed to his wrist that marked him as a child — and the father said he was concerned about religious tensions.

His son has doubts about that story.

Jeik and the children travelled south until money ran out and they ended up at a refugee camp in Tanzania. That place became their home for seven years.

It was there Kalunga learned how to take care of himself. His father would leave for several months at a time trying to get the family out of the camp, so it was on the children to adapt. Kalunga learned how to speak Swahili (which he still speaks fluently), hunt and farm. Most importantly he learned how to fight in a place that respected individuals who defended themselves.

It wasn’t a bad place to grow up.

“When you are in there, you don’t realize there’s another life that’s beautiful outside, that’s full of easy things,” he says. “You’re just in it. Everything to me seemed, as a kid, everything is wow, is new to me.”

That part of his childhood ended when the Kalunga’s were granted refugee status in Canada. They moved to St. John’s, N.L., in Dec. 1999. Kalunga remembers running back into the airport out of fear of the cold outside.

Kalunga was placed in a Grade 5 class at a public school. He didn’t speak English and had no formal education. He was also, unsurprisingly, the only black kid at the school. On the first day he got into a fight. More followed, and it wasn’t long before he was expelled.

His father suggested he start calling himself George, an anglicized version of his middle name. Kalunga kept the name until adulthood.

“At least in the refugee camp I had no other life to reflect on,” he says. “[In Canada] I found myself just reflecting back on my life in the camp, being free, learning from actually being out in the woods, learning from actually hunting, learning from listening to people, elders who have done it as professionals, not just someone who tell me from a book.

“I was in the classroom, I didn’t know what the heck they were talking about. They were giving me mathematics, there’s just no relevance to my life, I can’t even do anything with it, I can’t calculate.”

At his next school, he started selling drugs and skipping classes. But that didn’t sit right with him. When he was 16, Kalunga walked by a boxing gym in St. John’s, looked inside and remembered the feeling he had watching Mike Tyson all those years ago.

He went into the gym, demanded a fight, then promptly got his ass kicked so badly that he vomited all over the ring.

“I was still smoking weed and stuff. I was out of shape. But within two weeks, I went back, I started sparring, I went through that getting in shape phase, but it strengthened me. I could focus on people’s body language again. I didn’t have to talk to anyone. You didn’t have to like me, let’s just get in there, fight, get it over with.”

He gave up selling drugs — his dealer, a man named Crackers, actually sponsored him for a time — and started training. A year later Kalunga travelled to Whitehorse for the 2007 Canada Winter Games. He left with a silver medal.

***

It took losing his way yet again for Kalunga to discover the other passion of his life.

After the Games, Kalunga moved to train and fight in Montreal. He spent two years in Canada’s boxing capitol, but tired of amateur fights. So he relocated yet again to Toronto, where he gave up fighting for a time in lieu of a human rights and equity degree at York University.

But without boxing, Kalunga again lost direction. He started doing drugs and rapping, which in itself was a callback to his childhood when he was expected to like Tupac and not, he was embarrassed at the time to admit, the Backstreet Boys.

In time, though, he started branching out. He began covering singers such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and wrote Doo-wop and Motown-influenced music about his own life.

“I know a good song when I hear it,” he says. “I like Johnny Cash, he’s got good lyrics. I love stories. I like song with stories, nice melodies. I love some Bollywood music, the way the emotions are in their voice. All their music is so emotional. That’s for a reason, that’s the vibes, that’s a way to communicate. Even if they’re not saying any words.”

Kalunga also reluctantly returned to boxing. He was broke, and opted to go pro to pay the bills. There were no fights for him in Canada, so he signed up for a bout in Detroit. He lost his first appearance in a decision, but his performance impressed the promoter.

Nearly two months later he returned for another fight and won, albeit too convincingly. This time the promoter decided he didn’t want Kalunga showing up his own boxers. That was in 2014. Kalunga hasn’t fought a pro bout since.

Ready to move on yet again, Kalunga followed his girlfriend Jasmin to Whitehorse where she had taken a job. He took a job working with youth and taught himself guitar. Kalunga also discovered a spiritual side. He found peace in the nature of the Yukon, and a connection to local First Nations’ history.

The pair stayed there until last year, when Kalunga decided to give pro fighting another shot. This time he got serious, moving to Sheffield, England, for 10 months of training at the same gym that’s home to former IBF welterweight champion Ezekiel (Kell) Brook.

Kalunga worked in the ring every day and played music at night. But, unable to leapfrog the gym’s stable of fighters, there was no easy way to get a fight. So in February he decided to move back to Canada, this time to Jasmin’s hometown of Nelson where she had re-settled.

***

These days, Kalunga’s time is divided up in three places.

He currently works as a program outreach co-ordinator at the Nelson and District Youth Centre, where he comes up with events, finds funding and promotes what’s happening at the centre.

Kalunga is also working on a demo at Kootenay Sound Studios. He’s got five songs finished with plans to shoot a music video soon. And, of course, he’s at the boxing club every day. Pineiro is hoping to have a Kalunga included on a pro card scheduled for the fall in Edmonton.

“Ninety per cent of the kids in the gym right now are not going to be pro fighters,” says Pineiro. “So it’s nice to have a pro fighter. It’s also nice to have a good human in the space and showing people how to be a good human. I think he’s got a lot of skills outside of boxing that I’m taking advantage of by having him down there.”

Those skills include an adherence to dedication and craft, words that drive Kalunga now. He wants to be the first world championship boxer with a platinum record, and he double dares you to doubt him.

“I love it, man. I love boxing,” says Kalunga. “It’s heart. It makes you feel something. You’re like, ‘I am Kalunga. That’s who I am. You can’t tell me to do nothing.’”

 

Kalunga immigrated to Canada in 1999 after spending seven years in a refugee camp. Photo: Tyler Harper

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