It has been a lonely few months in Mozambique. In the dim dawn, before the sun grips the rugged streets of Maputo, Juliano Maquina, runs in the hope of Olympic glory.
In many ways Maquina feels left behind, the last man standing. He is the only Olympic athlete who has trained in the meagre gyms of Mozambique–while his compatriots tone up in well-heeled countries around the world. If he can fight to become the last man standing in London, it would all have been worth it and could boost boxing in the land of his birth.
Maquina is the first boxer from Mozambique to qualify for the Olympics for nearly 20 years. He weighs 49kgs and will fight in the light-flyweight division.
The fight for Maquina began long ago. Every morning, six days-a-week, he trains in a basketball court in Maputo with no ring, no ropes, not even a punch bag–the lot of a sport starved of cash. Against the odds, the boxer with the baby face stays fit and tries to improve his technique ahead of being thrown to the finest young fighters in the world.
“My dream is to make it to three Olympics and three world championships and take silver in two of them. My family have supported me and I hope that a successful boxing career will provide for them,” says Maquina.
At the very least, the 18-year-old southpaw has time on his side and clearly the stomach for a fight. Maquina had to battle hard at the qualifiers in Morocco to make it to the Olympics. Three boxers fought for Mozambique, Maquina was the only one to qualify in Casablanca; by contrast Angola sent six boxers, none qualified; South Africa sent nine, two qualified. One hundred and fifty four boxers competed from 30 African countries.
Maquina also has a good man in his corner, Lucas Sinoia, who fought twice for Mozambique at the Olympics.
Sinoia, aged 45, was born in the rural Mutarara Province in Tete in the remote north-western corner of Mozambique, and fought at 67kgs in the welterweight division. He was the champion of Mozambique between 1985 and 1996 and worked in a bread factory, to keep boxing, because the pay was so poor.
The answer to penury came from the barracks. Sinoia joined the army, which gave him the money and facilities to train. The army has long been a cradle of the sweet science. Legend has it that Mozambique’s first president, Samora Machel, used to punch sandbags for fun, on visits to his troops and was ringside at the big fights.
Sinoia thrived in the army and won a bucket load of medals leading to his qualification for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, as the youngest member of the national team, aged 22. He lost in the second round of the welterweight tournament to Spaniard, Javier Martínez, after getting a bye in the first. Robert Wangila, of Kenya, won the gold–the first Kenyan to win gold for his country in a sport other than athletics. Wangila, who fought 22 professional fights, died, aged just 26, from his injuries after a severe beating in the ring in Las Vegas in 1994.
Sinoia also qualified for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta where he built his reputation as a highly disciplined boxer.
The glory days in Atlanta were few, as Sinoia was beaten 11-6 in the first round by, Vadim Mezga, of Belarus. He retired in 1998.
Nearly 20 years, later Sinoia has put his own money up to start the Academia de Boxe Lucas Sinoia, in Maputo, where he coaches aspiring boxers, as young as eight. He is looking for the next heavyweight sensation, but has spent the last few months training the young Maquina.
“I have great hopes for Juliano, but fear that he will have a hard time. Apart from a small trip to Cuba and to Morocco for the qualifiers, he has no other international experience,” says Sinoia.
Together with trainer Braulio Montiel, from Cuba, Sinoia shares the job of coaching the national boxing team.
The Cuban connection is an old and powerful one. It began when Joao Caldeira, a businessman and President of the Mozambique Boxing Federation, went to teach Portuguese in Cuba in 1978. He stayed for five years and arranged for three Mozambicans, including Sinoia, to be trained in the Caribbean country which produced Olympic gold medallists such as the late Teofilo Stevenson. All three returned to become Mozambican champions.
The Cuban dash in the ring appears to be rubbing off on the young Maquina. He says his role model is the former Olympic gold medallist featherweight, Yuriorkis Gamboa, who is now unbeaten in 21 professional fights.
Sinoia and Monteil want to concentrate the meagre money, given by government to boxing in Mozambique, on training a small group of determined and talented fighters. They are looking to business for money to help the impoverished sport that could bring medals.
A successful international boxer could help coax this money from companies and revive what was once a glory game in Mozambique and a way out of poverty for many of the country’s poor.
In the 1960s and 70s, boxing pulled huge crowds and money in Mozambique. The hotbed of boxing with the seaside town of Beira and thousands took trains from all over Mozambique, as well as South Africa and Zimbabwe, for the big fights.
Money flowed through Mozambican boxing. The bets were big and boxers from across southern Africa travelled to reap the rewards of the ring.
These days of money and thunder may be a far cry from the quiet build up to the Olympics, on a shoestring, for Maquina, but there is hope. Already the victory in Casablanca has been hailed for putting Mozambique back on the boxing map.
Maybe the slender teenager, with the baby face and the sneaky jab, could stun the world in London. After all, the oldest saying in the history of boxing is the bigger they are the harder they fall.