He could have found himself mining for cobalt in the sweltering region of Southern Katanga, working up to eighteen-hours-per-day in a constant battle against the nation’s malnutrition epidemic.
He would have perhaps been more comfortable gasping for air on a colourful, yet treacherous public railway travelling through Ubundu. The only thing keeping it on track is the overspill of bodies, spread symmetrical on either flank. Every man rushing, but getting nowhere fast.
Instead, Martin Bakole (10-0, 7KOs) finds himself in Airdie, Scotland. Far from home and far from normality.
Travelling in Airdie poses completely different challenges to travelling in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). As he makes his way to the gym for another gruelling session, he does so by car. A luxury lost on most Westerners. Growing up though, was different.
“I lived in a small village in the Congo and needed to travel to the capital for my education.”
This ‘journey’ takes on a different meaning in the DRC. They limp in at last place when looking at paved roads and travel routes judged to be in good condition. They have a staggering 35km of paved road per 1,000,000 population. A strange tid-bit, I know. But compare it to Zambia or Botswana at over 700km per 1,000,000 and it should start to resonate.
It’s a far cry from FirstBus or Glasgow’s simple Underground rail system. I was keen to understand how Bakole had landed in Airdrie. Coach Billy Nelson played a big part in the relocation, as Martin told me,
“I previously trained in Preston with Johnny Roye who is a very good coach. I spent time at Billy’s gym for sparring and felt a good atmosphere in the gym. I returned to DRC and in February of last year I contacted Billy. I explained I was a free agent and asked if he’d be interested in coaching and managing me. Luckily he said yes and has managed to get me a fantastic sponsor in Engage Partners Ltd, Watford.”
The rest, as they say, is (fairly recent, fast-moving) history! Nelson, himself no stranger to success operating from Scotland’s most successful boxing gym, has been banging Bakole’s drum ever since. His confidence in his charge has been unwaivering, calling out all-and-sundry in a respectful fashion. Billy told me they had offered various top domestic heavyweights the fight with Bakole – none had stepped up to the plate.
The fighter told me, “I feel I am making major improvements under my coach Billy Nelson, we gel well together and he gets me excellent sparring.” The pair had travelled the country, taking bold steps through the doors of some well-renowned gyms. Every step, moving forward towards titles.
Undefeated currently, the Congo-born Bakole shared fan’s frustrations over a lack of top British clashes. He’d sparred some of the best, yet it seemed their introduction to his quick feet and savage body-work had cast him as the bogeyman of the division. Close enough to trade punches behind closed doors, yet as far away as ever from his own breakout performance.
“I have sparred Chisora, Gorman, Dubois, Hughie Fury & David Allen. I would feel very confident if I were to fight them. I know my manager has asked for the Allen and Joyce fights but Allen had a fight lined up and Joyce’s management said I’d need to bring more to the table, I was surprised, a guy with one fight saying such things (laughs). Maybe that’s their way of not wanting the fight?”
Hunting opportunities within boxing’s inner circles can be draining. Martin knew only too well of the sport’s issues at a higher level. He had witnessed it first hand with his brother fighting for a World title on British soil in what would become a historic night for one of our own.
Tony Bellew finally struck gold when boxing at Goodison Park for his WBC cruiserweight World title. The victim of a third round knockout? Martin’s brother – Ilunga Makabu.
“My brother Junior (Ilunga Makabu) lives in South Africa and still fights, we are a very close family and stay in touch on a regular basis. Junior and I spent years in the gym together both in DRC and South Africa.”
I’d heard him talk of revenge, with Bellew now at heavyweight and still plying his trade in the United Kingdon under Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom banner. With only two or three fights left until the Scouser’s retirement, I doubted Bakole would get the chance to level the score.
After watching him capture his first title, the IBO heavyweight intercontinental, it had dawned on me how fortunate Martin was. We were in an utterly chilling Royal Highland Centre for Cyclone Promotions’ card in November with thousands in attendance. The big, slick heavyweight faced Ali Baghouz, also undefeated. He remained undefeated for less than a round however, as Bakole chopped him in half, stopping him in the opener.
Cyclone had seen him sparring a few months prior, in sessions with Chisora, Ian Lewison and Tom Little. Martin fought for nine-and-a-half rounds, displaying excellent ringcraft and impressive power. He used the minutes break in between rounds to throw up into a bucket, normally used for water, after eating something on his way to the gym. Despite the sickness, when the buzzer sounded for the next session, he was up and causing chaos for established opponents.
“Billy introduced me to Cyclone Promotions. Barry McGuigan came to watch me in Don Charles’ gym in London where I sparred Chisora, (Ian) Lewison and (Tom) Little. He was very happy with what he’d seen and contracts were drawn up. It’s great, boxing live on TV on big shows and I’m sure people will enjoy my style of boxing!”
Backed brashly by Glasgow’s Billy Nelson and promoted by one of boxing’s living legends in McGuigan and his son’s outfit Cyclone, it seems we are approaching something of a public announcement for Martin Bakole. Sparring with Anthony Joshua for his bout with Carlos Takam (originally Kubrat Pulev), travelling the country to beat up top contenders in the shadows and now – a belt of some description proudly hugging his waist. It’s been a good start.
The danger is that boxers or managers continue to avoid him. A former World title challenger recently turned down a fight with the DRC destroyer, he was 33-1 as a professional. It’s those types of decisions that can chain a fighter’s progress to the wall. Was the money right? Who knows. But one thing I was certain of was Martin’s determination to climb the ladder in a destructive fashion.
“Billy and myself have spoken about many opponents, especially UK heavyweights, I believe I’m above the UK domestic scene, so I’d like European or fringe World level fighters very soon. I know I’m more than ready.”
Now an adopted Airdreonian (that’s a thing – trust me), Martin Bakole is destined to win titles for his family and his nation. The DRC toils daily, as do memories of living there in Martin’s thoughts. Home is where the heart is, where the heat is and where his family are. But to fulfil what he and Billy feel is his destiny, they must demolish all obstacles in their path here in the UK.
To face the competition he believes he can beat, he may have to become the ‘away fighter’. But as he looks out from his bedroom in a cold and gloomy Glasgow, Scotland – one could say he always has been. Violently defying odds: the chaos from the Congo.
Written by Craig Scott