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Baleke beats the odds to become boxing's poster girl

By Faith Kiai

Added 6th September 2019 07:52 PM

Baleke’s memories of her early years in the sport are unpalatable precisely because they never got the same respect as the men.

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Hellen Baleke before All Africa Games in Morocco

Baleke’s memories of her early years in the sport are unpalatable precisely because they never got the same respect as the men.

Hellen Baleke’s women’s middleweight bronze medal at the just concluded All Africa Games in Rabat Morocco is a testament to the blood, sweat, and tears she has poured into women’s boxing for the last 15 years.
She has brought back a semblance of pride in women’s boxing as she broke an 18-year jinx to become Uganda’s first medallist on the continent since 2001, bringing her journey in the sport in focus.
She was thrown into the sport because of circumstances she deemed combat worthy in order for parity to be realised.
“I never joined the sport because I love the sport of boxing.  I only started boxing because I sought revenge after a boy touched me while in Katanga (one of Uganda’s largest slums) where grew up. In anger, I tried to fight him and he ended up beating me rather badly so I joined the sport to prepare for a rematch.”
The rematch never happened instead the boy became a good friend but slowly and surely, a bigger love story was writing itself.
“I don’t know how it happened but I fell in love with boxing and it’s the kind that I did not see coming,” she said.
Subsequently, she started training and joined Rhino boxing club under the tutelage of Innocent Kapalaga who was like a father to her.  His encouragement kept her in the sport even in times when she was disappointed by the system and lack of competition.
Baleke’s memories of her early years in the sport are unpalatable precisely because they never got the same respect as the men. She would work her body within an inch of her life preparing for tournaments and on arrival at venues, she would take part in a special contest because of the lack of competition.
“There is nothing as painful as preparing well getting to a venue and you are told you will take part in a special contest or that you have no opponent on competition day,” she lamented.
With the constant disappointments at local tournaments came self-reflection. In 2008 three years after she first picked up her boxing gloves, Baleke decided to take her game to the next level and that could only be achieved outside Uganda. 
She went to Kenya were she took part in countless contests and she was unbeaten. Some challengers came to Uganda where she took care of business.
At the start of the decade, Baleke and her coach made the decision to change clubs because her situation at Rhino had become untenable so she moved to KCCA Boxing club.
While at KCCA, she got the stability she sought and was able to travel with the national team for the World Championships in Jeju South Korea in 2014.
Her experience from the world championships was not the best because her first-round bout in the tournament ended in 12 seconds because her corner threw in the towel. To this day she doesn’t know why they did it because she spent two months there preparing for the tournament.
Although this was one of her biggest regrets she has tried to move on quickly and get back to work.
In 2017 KCCA boxing club got new management and with new management, the tide changed for casting Baleke out the organisation.  She was a little older and possibly well past her sell-by date so it did not come as a surprise.
Subsequently, she joined Zebra boxing club where she has been since then. Her hard work paid off and she became one of 2 women to make the Africa Championships team in Morocco.
While there, she raised her game channeled her inner warrior to win her first major title for Uganda bringing all her sacrifices into focus. With this, she has been vindicated for taking a chance on a sport that she never intended to fall in love with.
“I am happy that I have been able to pick up this medal because it shows hard work pays. We were received well unlike our experience from Jeju South Korea were we were not received at the airport and had to source our own transport. We were rewarded well which makes me very happy,” she concluded.
Fourteen years on, Baleke still spends most of her time in the slums of Katanga where she hopes to impact the lives of girls in the slum. She has a tailoring school where she is skilling girls and she is also training the young girls in the sport. 

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