Anytime reference is made to Nigeria about the Olympics, there will always be the mention of the first man to win a medal for the country at the 1964 Games in Tokyo, Japan. Nojim Maiyegun etched his name in history when he fought his way to a bronze medal finish in the men’s light middleweight boxing event and broke the jinx of futile outings for Nigeria at the Olympics.
Born in February 1941, Maiyegun, famously called Omo Oloja by fans, has spent more than half of his life in Austria where he decided to settle down in 1971 in order to attract more international fights.
“I was too excited to realise I was the first Nigerian to win an Olympic medal; all I was thinking was that I had a chance to fulfil my dream of being the world’s best,” the bubbly 71-year-old says.
Boris Lagutin of the Soviet Union won the gold at that event while France’s Joseph Gonzales won the silver. Maiyegun and Poland’s Józef Grzesiak settled for the bronze. It was enough to make him a legend.
Maiyegun had won his two fights before the semi-finals in outstanding fashion. He had a bye in the first round but in the second round he faced Great Britain ’s William Robinson. The one-sided bout lasted one minute 59 seconds before the referee stopped the contest.
The quarter-final round was even more dramatic. Famed Danish boxer Tom Bogs was virtually rescued by the referee 58 seconds into the contest when Maiyegun would not stop battering him.
The semi-final fight with Gonzales was one of Maiyegun’s best contests. He believed he could steamroll the Frenchman but Gonzales returned every punch with equally devastating ones. In the end, two of the five judges favoured Maiyegun as Gonzales won the fight on points to advance to the final.
Besides winning the Olympic medal, he won a bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Kinston, Jamaica in 1966 and a few more medals which included an African Championship gold and a medal from the 1960 Independence celebration tournament.
He says, “I don’t recall getting anything special as a reward when I won the medal at the Olympics but former Head of State Ibrahim Babangida gave me an award in 1989. The award was eventually retrieved by the sports ministry the following year for no reason at all. I was thinking the award would belong to me forever but they took it back.”
Although he has no medals or awards left to show for his success in the ring, he remains boastful of being the first Nigerian to win an Olympic medal.
“All my medals have been stolen while I was in Nigeria. But I believe a good name is better than gold or silver, so I’m not worried. I reported the theft to the sports ministry back then and asked if there could be replicas but nothing could be done,” he says.
“I’m the first to win an Olympic medal, a trailblazer. No one can take that away from me. You don’t buy that with money.”
Maiyegun’s dream of winning a world title was cut short by blindness. He was fast losing his sight but he stubbornly went on to fight Domenico Tiberia in December 1973 in a World Championship contest. He lost the fight on points. It was his fourth career loss, and the last. He wept bitterly, knowing he would never be able to make a comeback to the ring.
Maiyegun had to take up menial jobs to survive after his boxing career ended in Austria . He was employed as a street cleaner and janitor but had to be accompanied to carry out his duties. He worked for 28 years before retiring.
He says, “I’m not sure what could have caused the blindness but doctors thought it could have been from punches on the head. It started partially, and at a point I had to fight a world championship title bout with the sight problem. I lost the fight on decision but it is on record that I am the first blind boxer to fight for a title. I could see with one eye then.”
Maiyegun is also on record to be the first completely blind man in Austria to climb a mountain 1,700 metres high and jump with a parachute. In his attempt to keep fit after retiring from boxing, he engaged in some form of extreme sports.
His mother still lives in Lagos and he sends money to her on a regular basis.
His last visit to Nigeria was in 1994 but at 71, he wishes to be back home to spend his last days.
“I’m afraid of coming to Nigeria because I’m not sure I will get the kind of honest assistance I get in Austria. I’ll need a trustworthy person to accompany me all the time, especially withdrawing money from the bank. It will be like starting from the scratch if I return home, but I really want to come back. I hope the government can be of help in this regard,” he says.
Maiyegun lives alone and despite being blind, he is still able to cook and carry out some chores in the house. He needs assistance, however, in moving around the neighbourhood and getting groceries or withdrawing money from the bank.
His wife and his daughter live in London while his three sons are based outside Austria.
“Sometimes people doubt if I’m truly blind when they see what I can do for myself. I still go to the gym to train and I take strolls on the street. The women are more sympathetic when they see me because they assist me most times in crossing the streets,” he says.
How it all started
Maiyegun recalls how he came to know the sport that made him popular. “I was 16 when I first knew about boxing. It started when I went to fetch water at Bamgbose in Lagos. There was a boy at that time who bullied everyone whenever he got to the public tap; he beat me a lot then. When I later learnt he was a trained boxer I sought out Bonny Ade who secretly trained me for six months until I was able to face the boy and beat him at the public tap.”
When his parents learnt that he was a boxer they were angry with him. He was punished several times but each punishment only made him stronger.
At Tinubu Methodist School, where he attended, his classmates began to dread him and give him his way in every faceoff. His newfound skills turned him into a bully though.
He says, “It wasn’t long before I began to see my name in the newspapers as the next big thing in Nigerian boxing. I was excited, and that was when my parents reduced the criticism of the sport. They never really liked boxing because they believed it was for hooligans.”
His first international fight was against Ghana ’s Joe Blackey in Accra in 1960, just three years after learning boxing. He won the fight.
“The first time I was in a plane was in 1962 when I flew to Cairo, Egypt for an African championship contest which I won. That moment marked the beginning of my ambition to be a world champion,” he says.
His most memorable fight in Nigeria was with Gilbert ‘Gilly Joe’ Osoba. Gilly Joe worked with the Nigerian Ports Authority, while Maiyegun was with Constain West Africa. Both boxers were clearly the best in their category back then but when Maiyegun beat him twice there was no question about who the real king was.
He adds, “The press gave me the nickname Omo Oloja after I said in an interview that facing Gilly Joe in a rematch would be a good marketing campaign for boxing and it would attract capacity crowd. Unfortunately, the police did not understand what Omo Oloja meant. They thought I got the name as a hard drug peddler which prompted them to arrest me on the Carter Bridge once. But it was a brief encounter.”
His wife, whom he married in 1962, was always at the ringside whenever he fought, except for the Olympics.
“There was a time I was fighting in Austria and she was urging me on to beat my opponent. She was repeating what Bonny Ade would say at the ringside, saying ‘kill the body, kill the body.’ The other spectators thought she was telling me to kill my opponent so they were angry and started throwing bananas at her. It was after the fight they understood she wanted me to weaken the body with body shots. Four policemen had to protect her throughout the fight.”
Maiyegun was considered the most dangerous boxer in the middleweight class in Austria at that time. There was a cartoon in one Austrian newspaper which depicted his gloved hands as guns, meaning he ‘killed’ all opponents with deadly punches. That picture was popular after he defeated famous American boxer, Denny Moyer, in a world championship fight in Vienna in January 1973.