The meteoric rise of an overweight kwaito-singing boy from a sprawling township to an African heavyweight boxing champion has given Zimbabwe a new sporting hero.
When Fanie Dube took his overweight teenage son, Thamsanqa, to Phillip ‘Strikerâ€ Ndlovu’s gym in 2001 little did he know that he had started the journey of an African champion.
The 143kg boy wanted to be a boxer. Today he is the new Pan African Heavyweight Boxing Association champion after he pummelled South African hopeful Jake Els in Johannesburg two weeks ago to win the vacant belt. But his meteoric rise to fame has been far from rosy.
Growing up in the high-density suburb of Pumula East in the city of Bulawayo, he was mocked for his chubby frame to the point where he sought revenge with his fists.
He remembers other children calling him ‘uNkomo waBantwanaâ€ or ‘Mafukufukuâ€.
Clearly, boys from the neighbourhood saw a younger version of the late burly Zimbabwe vice-president Joshua Nkomo in Dube.
Every time they teased him, a chase would ensue and Dube grew up a feared teenager.
Yet behind the fierce punches he is a soft character who loves singing as much as boxing.
‘One of my treasured dreams is to make it big in music,â€ said the 26-year-old fighter. The big Zimbabwe pugilist confesses to being caught up in a quandary at times about whether to continue boxing or try singing.
‘I love music and have a hip-hop pantsula group called Dube Train. Sadly, singing doesn’t pay much for new artists.
‘I will not give up on my music and I will hopefully save enough money to record an album before the end of the year,â€ he said.
Music may need to take a backseat to his talent in the ring as he won the Zimbabwe heavyweight title in less than two years of being introduced to the sport. He has now moved even closer to putting himself in contention for a world title with the victory over Els.
The Pan African champion is not only destined for bigger purses than the paltry R20 000 he received for defeating the South African, but has also become an instant hero at home.
Suddenly everyone in Zimbabwe is talking about boxing. Dube was paraded before a big crowd at Barbourfields Stadium in Bulawayo on his return to his home town. People took turns to greet their new hero and ask about the Els fight.
Dreams of being a champion
The Zimbabwean champion told his adoring fans that he dominated with consistent jabs before unleashing a flurry of blows at the end the fight. He grew up idolising Mike Tyson, who once ruled heavyweight boxing, and pictured himself lifting a world title one day despite having to hone his skills in a less-than-ideal environment.
‘I have always dreamt of being a champion, although I train with other aspiring boxers in a gym with hardly any standard training implements for a professional. We make the most of the little at our disposal,â€ said Dube.
Still, this humble gym, situated in Makokoba, Bulawayo’s oldest township, has produced several champions. Ambrose Mlilo, Sipho Moyo and Nokuthula Tshabangu were high on the Commonwealth ratings and challenged for world titles.
Dube said winning the Pan African heavyweight belt is a culmination of many hours of hard work in the Makokoba gym.
‘It has been a long journey with my coach, Phillip Striker. He has been a big factor in Zimbabwe professional boxing for the past 18 years. I thank him for putting the first pair of gloves on my hands.
‘Striker nursed my dream as a teenager to be a big name in boxing. My target is to be known all over the world by the time I am 30 years old. I think I will do that before I reach that mark.â€
The taunts of peers in his early years and poor training facilities are not the only hurdles the champ has faced: professional boxing in Zimbabwe is considered a hobby and boxers are paid a pittance.
In February, Dube entered the ring on the promise of a mere R1 500, only to get R1 000 after the fight. ‘Would you believe it, that even at this amount I was the highest earner on the night?â€
Other boxers who aren’t regarded as crowd-pullers got between R100 and R300 in a country where a doctor’s consultation fee costs R300.
In December he was forced to defend his Zimbabwe title against Smart Nkomo for Z$160-million. The money was worth R70 when the fight was booked, but with the country’s galloping inflation the figure was worth R20 on fight day.
Dube also struggled to get regular fights. ‘I did not defend my title for four years because there was no competition and that is the reason why I accepted the R20 bout.â€
Life is still tough for Dube. ‘I jump on to a bus to look for old tyres in Botswana that can be retreaded,â€ he said. It’s a weekly routine he endures to support his family.
‘I have learnt that boxing is not about money in my country. One has to love the sport because if it was about money, I would have quit a long time ago and I would not be a champion today. I want to be world champion and will not rest until I achieve that,â€ he said.
Striker believes the best is yet to emerge from his fighter. ‘He has skill and can take punishment. Thamu [Dube] is a brave kid in the ring and is lethal on the attack. Given the right platform and sponsorships, he will be a big name boxer,â€ said Striker.
The Pan African title has paved the way for recognition. ‘With Rodney Berman and other top South African promoters now aware of him, I have no doubt that something big will come up. We will continue to work hard to realise our dream,â€ said Striker.
Zimbabwean journalist Lovemore Dube, who was with the boxer for a full week in South Africa, is also convinced that the best of Dube is yet to come.
‘He is bad news and will be a sensation in the world of boxing in the near future. He only needs people to help him reach his obvious potential.â€