Conquering the boxing world

The Botswana boxer with an international punch

Veteran boxer Khumiso Stephen Ikgopoleng is a man of many firsts.

10 years ago, the Lobatse native became the first (and to date only) Botswana boxer to win an Olympic fight when he made it to the quarter-finals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, losing to the eventual Gold medallist, Mongolia’s Uugan Enkhbat.

The 39-year-old is also the first local pugilist to coach an international team.

In 2015 he went to the United States of America (USA), where he took up the head coach position for The Corner Boxing Club in Boulder, Colorado.

The International Boxing Association (AIBA) Three Star coach recently ended his contract with the USA club and is now in the Middle East where he has started training the Bahrain Boxing Club.

The medals in his decorated trophy cabinet include a Bronze and Gold from the African Championship, a Bronze from the All Africa Games and a Bronze from a China Pre-Olympic tournament.

In 2012 he was the head coach for the national team, helping Oteng Oteng qualify for the London Olympics.

Voice Reporter Portia Ngwako-Mlilo caught up with the star of the ring to discuss his glittering career and exciting new role.

Q. What inspired you to take up boxing?

A. Fitness. I initially used it as a vehicle to shed weight and fell in love with the sport. Growing up, I was fat and my friends used to tease me.

This was just a way of losing weight, nothing else. Little did I know it would take me far! I had a view that boxing was more of a violent fight than a sport.

After six months of intensive training, I was selected to join the Botswana junior boxing team and I became serious about the sport.

Q. How does it feel to be the only Boxing Coach from Botswana coaching abroad?

A. It’s good to be recognised internationally, it shows how seriously other countries value what one has achieved and use this to their advantage.

No country or company can hire someone that has no value to them! Now the sad part is we can’t keep our own people to develop our sports – rather we let them leave to develop sports in other countries.

At least I am selling Botswana with what I am doing.

Q. How has being an international coach changed your life?

A. I have become a better coach. As you know, learning never stops. I have met different people from around the world and learnt about different cultures.

Q. What makes a great athlete?

A. Discipline, Dedication, Determination – the 3Ds. Also, refrain from things that can put your career at risk.

Q. After finishing High School, you famously considered quitting boxing – what changed your mind?

A. I really thank God because I would not have achieved half of what I have today. It is true that I felt like quitting but I had to finish what I started.

When I saw how far I came and how close I was to finishing my race, this motivated me to keep moving.

It wasn’t easy but I managed!

Q. What do you enjoy most about sport?

A. Sport educates and teaches the spirit of sportsmanship.

It also has the power to unite, through meeting and making friends with people as you travel.

What I enjoy most is selling my country, being an ambassador and making Batswana happy by winning medals.

Q. Do you miss being in the ring?

A. Yes a lot. At times when I see boxers in a fight I just feel like I could be part of the game.

Q. What would you say was the defining moment of your career?

A. Olympics 2008. It was the first time a Botswana boxer won a fight at the Olympics.

In this case it wasn’t just one but two fights and improved my rankings.

I was in the top five in the Olympics and the world.

Q. You studied boxing in Cuba, do you think this contributed to your success?

A. Cuba has done more than I can tell for my boxing career.

If it wasn’t for what I learnt in Cuba, I could never have achieved what I did in 2008 Olympics.

Career wise, if you mention Cuba in your CV, clubs become interested in your service.

Q. What made you quit teaching and focus full-time on coaching?

A. Coaching is my passion, I didn’t work by that time and teaching was another thing I could do.

Q. Did you have any difficulties balancing the two?

A. I didn’t have difficulties, it’s only that I like focusing on one thing to achieve the best possible results.

Being a teacher at Tlogatloga Primary School and coaching was a challenge and sometimes affected my preparations for tournaments.

Q. Any regrets from your career, such as a fight you wish you could have again?

A. No regrets but I wished I could fight the guy who defeated me in my last fight in the Olympics again; that fight was very important.

Q. Do you have any intentions of coming back to Botswana to help develop our future stars?

A. Going back home is not a problem; the question is who is going to hire me?

I have done that before, coached our national teams, both youth and senior, and you all know the results.

Mind you, I was doing that as a volunteer and this shows how much I cared about my country’s development in boxing.

Q. What is your opinion on the current state of Botswana boxing?

A. I am sorry to say this but our boxing standard has declined.

There should be improvement and increase in quality of boxers, coaches, officials. Countries are advancing and we are going backwards.

In the last Rio Olympics we did not have a single boxer qualify for the Games!

Q. Boxing has been excluded from the International Olympic Solidarity. How do you think this will affect its development?

A. This is going to affect us badly.

The fund was helping to develop our athletes, getting scholarships and help them prepare for the major games.

Q. Who is your inspiration?

A. France Mabiletsa.

He is my former coach and he believed in me.

When I was thinking of quitting he did everything to make sure that I train and he was strict.

He inspired me throughout my boxing journey.

He has been my mentor, brother, father and was monitoring my performance even when I was in Cuba.

Q. What advice can you give to the upcoming amateur boxers?

A. Sports in general are tough, so whatever you want to achieve go for it.

There will be obstacles but these should make you even stronger to achieve what you want.

If you have passion, you will make it!

I fought many competitions under the Botswana Integrated Sports Association (BISA) and never won a medal but I never gave up.

Q. Thank God it’s Friday, what are your plans for the weekend?

A. I am new in Bahrain so I will have a mini tour and travel around to familiarise myself with the place.

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