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 pâté 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."