Thomas Essomba: ‘I won’t give up. I’ve got to write my story in Britain’

Thomas Essomba: ‘I won’t give up. I’ve got to write my story in Britain’

April 13, 2022

Thomas Essomba in 2012 following victory in his first bout at the Olympics

Almost 10 years have passed since Thomas Essomba walked out of the athletes’ village with nothing but a small bag of belongings and the possessions of fear and hope. The sunrise every morning reminds him of the survival act he undertook that day and the thousands of miles that separate his new life from the old one he left behind. He struggles at times to put the resilience it has required into words, after a decade spent buffeted along the breadline and around the country, but it is written in the scars on his skin and explained by the smile he somehow keeps in spite of it all.

It is hard to comprehend how all that fight is contained within the small figure now sitting quietly in the locker room of the Steel City Gym on the outskirts of Sheffield. Essomba almost shrinks into the jackets and bags cluttered on the wooden benches, safe among the smells of sweat and old leather that engulf him, not out of retreat but because this is where the away fighter has finally begun to feel at home. It has been an uphill battle of endurance, where politics and profit have never completely cut him loose and kept a ceiling over his success. But all these years later, the hope has stayed, the fear has evaporated, and Essomba is still fighting as hard as ever. The third act of his career has only just begun.

“Nobody is forcing me to keep boxing, to live the way I do, to suffer,” he says. “But I accept it because I still have the chance to do something, to be something. I’m not going to give up when I still have a chance because I want to write my name and story in this country.”

***

They didn’t escape under the cover of night, over fences or past security guards on the day that would change their lives forever. When Essomba, Abdon Mewoli, Serge Ambomo, Christian Adjoufack and Blaise Mendouo left the athlete’s village in Stratford on 5 August 2012, a balmy Sunday afternoon, they simply crossed an entrance into another world without anyone’s second glance, oblivious to the storm that would follow.

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The decision itself, though, had still been taken in secrecy after dark. Essomba had been the fourth seed in his weight category and had made it furthest of the five Cameroonian boxers, reaching the last-16 of the men’s light-flyweight competition. He says he refused to entertain thoughts about what might happen after the Games while he was still in contention for a gold medal. Only after he had been eliminated by Ireland’s Paddy Barnes did the team sit down to decide whether their lives would be more endangered by remaining in the UK or returning home. “That night we had a meeting about what we were supposed to do,” he says. “It was difficult, some weren’t as convinced. I said it was the only way we can survive but if you want to take the risk to go back that’s fine. All of us decided to stay here.”

Within two days, their disappearance had become international news. Cameroon team officials told the press the boxers had “defected”. Authorities were quick to confirm the athletes had “economic reasons” for staying in Europe, even though the Home Office had confirmed that competitors could “freely leave the Olympic Village if they wish” and had granted them visas lasting until November. Back in Cameroon, Essomba’s uncle sent him pictures of the headlines. Their vanishing act had been portrayed as a cynical scheme. One newspaper dubbed it “the race for asylum”.

Essomba insists the team really did fear for their lives and that acrimony between them and the country’s boxing federation had been brewing for months before the Games. He was the team captain and had been named Cameroon’s sportsman of the year after winning a gold medal at the All-African Games. Essomba’s celebrity status had given his words as much power as his punches and, after falling short in Beijing in 2008, he began challenging the federation to improve their training facilities and accused them of withholding funds. “I wanted to win a gold medal,” he says. “I just needed a good environment, good preparation. The government promised to give us that but they didn’t. The problem became big because I didn’t like what the federation was doing.”

The team were supposed to receive funding to attend training camps in Cuba, Italy and Wales before the Games in London. “The federation took the money but we never went,” he claims. Meanwhile, the boxers were training at home, without any funding for transport. After Essomba began to protest, he says the federation tried to send them to Italy despite the fact the training camp they were supposed to join had already finished. They refused to go and insisted on heading straight to Cardiff. “Everyone agreed with my idea,” he says. “But it became worse because we said no”.

Things came to a head when Adjoufack, the light-heavyweight on the team, was defeated early in the competition. Essomba says the president of the federation tried to send Adjoufack back to Cameroon straight away, instead of allowing him to stay and support his teammates. After the team refused to hand over Adjoufack’s passport, Essomba says they began receiving threats. He also claims they were told their bonuses had been halved. “After the meeting, the president said to me: ‘It’s me who made you who you are today, it’s very easy to disappear you. It’s like eating a banana, you just put the peel on the floor and then,” he says, as he mimics someone stamping their foot. “He was trying to intimidate me. I knew he had all the power and I was scared about what he would do when we got back because he was very mad at me.”

The group of boxers initially took refuge in an apartment in south London. A friend had allowed all five of them to share a single room in her building in New Cross, took them to a nearby boxing club so they could continue training, and contacted a lawyer who could help stake their claims for asylum. But their first application was rejected. “Nobody slept that night,” Essomba says. “We were so scared, fearing the very worst.” Arguments broke out amid the fear and stress, the threat of being deported pushing them to a breaking point until their case was accepted on appeal. They were given right to remain in the UK for five years. “I only started to calm down once I had the document,” says Essomba.

Essomba is knocked down at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing

But that relative freedom only went so far. The boxers were directed to different areas of the country, with Essomba and Mendouo sent to Sunderland, where they found their way to a boxing gym owned by Phil Jeffries. A trainer and manager, Essomba had seen Jeffries’ son, Tony, win a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics. “He paid for my ticket every week to go to the gym,” he says.

Essomba entered the English national championships and lost a controversial split decision in the final. It was the first time he’d felt the undercurrent he’d have to fight against while also staving off a tide of punches in the ring. “In the beginning I didn’t realise it would be so difficult,” he says. “I thought if I won I could make the national team. I feel like the judges were telling me that you’re not from here.”

***

Some people won’t believe the five boxers genuinely feared for their safety. It may well be impossible to prove either way but the fact remains that their case was convincing enough for the Home Office. But their lives in Cameroon prior to leaving do offer an insight into both their possible motivations for staying and the sacrifices that it would entail that still weigh on them so heavily now. Essomba had already started a family of his own and has three children back in Cameroon. He is a proud Christian and says he can still remember the misery of his first Christmas in England like it was yesterday. “I was used to having lots of family around me,” he says. “Then I was completely alone, crying to myself in my room. I’ll never forget that day.”

On the surface at least, Essomba’s quality of life is now far superior. He was raised in a remote village in southern Cameroon and grew up believing his grandfather was his real father. His mother lived in the city and on the rare occasions she came to visit he believed she was his older sister. “She gave love, she was happy to see me, but I didn’t have that feeling that she was my mum until I was older,” he says. In spite of that, Essomba never saw his life through a lens of poverty or injustice. It was simple but rewarding, trekking through the jungle, surviving off a diet largely consisting of fruit, and selling animals for a small but steady income. Essomba’s grandfather lived until the ripe old age of 78, long surpassing the national life expectancy of 59, and only afterwards did he begin to feel the weight of the struggle he’d inherited. “He had taught me everything in life,” he says. “I had nobody to send me to school from the age of 11. I looked after myself, worked on a plantation, doing small things to survive. I didn’t have happiness when I was young. I never celebrated my birthday. I didn’t even know stuff like that existed.”

Essomba began smoking and drinking odontol, a strong, cheap alcohol made from palm wine or corn kernels to combat the grief. He became aggressive, regularly getting into fights during football games in the village, and after word got back to his mother about how he was behaving, she took Essomba with her to the city. But with six children already sharing a single bedroom, he couldn’t settle and left after a couple of weeks. “I became homeless,” he says. “I would sleep in a stadium in the town. My mum would see me but I would say don’t worry, I’m fine. I washed cars and carried things in the market, anything to survive. I got into fights but I never stole and I started giving money to my mum too, even if it was just like five pounds.”

He didn’t even know boxing existed when he was shown to a gym by a friend from the street. After his mother found out, she went there of her own accord to tell the coach not to let Essomba back in. But the coach promised that boxing would change his life, even if he never could have imagined quite how drastically. Whatever the truth is that lies behind their decision to walk out of the Olympics Village, the boxers were leaving as much behind as were heading out for. “I had my family, my friends, my life back home,” Essomba says. “When we decided to stay here, we struggled, we missed our families, we missed everything.”

***

There were few doubts that Essomba had the ability to succeed as a professional boxer, the problem was in fact that his talent could actually become an obstacle. Small hall boxing shows are sustained by fighters who sell a large number of tickets. Not only did Essomba have no fanbase in the UK, he also had the quality to derail those who did. That’s exactly what happened in his sixth fight against Waleed Din, an unbeaten local prospect from Sheffield. Essomba knocked Din down three times in the eleventh round before the fight was called to a halt and he was crowned the Commonwealth champion. Things were going better than he’d dared to imagine. Outside of the ring, he fathered his first child in the UK and drained his fight purses to provide for his family in England and his mother and children back home.

But success in boxing is fragile and years of sacrifice can be shattered by one punch. After Essomba suffered the first defeat of his professional career against Scotland’s Iain Butcher, he was dropped by his manager. “My life changed again after that,” he says. “It really hurt me because he was really close to me, I was shocked.” Essomba moved from Sunderland to Middlesbrough, then Wolverhampton to Sheffield. His relationship with his partner started to unravel as the strain pulled them apart. He stopped boxing in patches and worked as a security guard to stay afloat. When offers came for fights, they were often at just two weeks’ notice, while his opponents would have been preparing for up to three months. In a sport where scheming and subterfuge are as much a part of the storyline as what occurs in the ring, Essomba effectively barely had anyone looking out for his interests.

Even once he made it to the ring, the scales still felt tipped against him. Essomba had been transformed into a high-level journeyman, a name to test and bolster the records of British prospects but by no means curtail their rise. He lost close decisions to Jay Harris and Kyle Williams but couldn’t afford to complain about the verdicts. But the worst result came against Thomas Patrick Ward in 2019. Ward was previously unbeaten in 29 fights and victory would have propelled Essomba’s career to new heights, but after the bout was stopped early due to a clash of heads it was controversially ruled a draw by the three judges at ringside. “They don’t have to do that because someone is selling tickets,” he says. “They are judging the fight. They hurt me but nobody was going to make me lose that hope.”

Essomba lost a close bout against Jay Harris in 2017

And hope can still be salvaged from the depths of defeat and emerge thanks to the unlikeliest coincidences. One of the prospects Essomba was pitted against in 2020 was Sunny Edwards. A prolific national champion as an amateur, he had been selected as one of the flagbearers at the London Olympics and walked out the ring with Barnes for his fight against Essomba in 2012. The result of their own bout was conclusive, even if Edwards himself admits the scorecards were a little wide, but he was so impressed that he invited Essomba to train at the Steel City Gym in the build-up to his world title fight last year. The pair forged such a close bond that after Edwards was successful, he decided to buy Essomba out of his current managerial contract.

“I’d followed his career ever since the Olympics,” Edwards says. “He gave me my toughest fight as a professional before my world title. If he was an English two-time Olympian, his career would have been completely different. I owe him a lot because every time I asked Thomas for something in training, he did it for me and now I can use my platform as a world champion to get him opportunities. Before if he beat someone, there were no more fights. Now if he wins, he can keep going.”

It was an accident of fate but few could begrudge Essomba that. He was able to turn down fights at short notice and instead put everything into a proper camp to face Danish prospect Michael Nielsen. He might have still been in the away corner on Saturday night, but when the verdict was read aloud, Essomba had won every round on all three scorecards. His ambition is to become a British champion, not only for prestige but because of what it would symbolise. “If God gives me that possibility, it would be special,” he says. “My life is here. I’m happy and that’s why I want to do well to show the UK people firstly to thank them for what they did for me and the freedom they gave me.”

***

All five of the Cameroonian boxers attempted to build their lives here through boxing. Essomba was always the most talented but still waited almost a decade for a helping hand that would keep the foundations in place, ending a cycle where it always seemed destined to deteriorate brick-by-brick. The other four haven’t been as fortunate.

The biggest victory of Ambomo’s flourishing career was tragically overshadowed when his beaten opponent, Jerome Wilson, had to be rushed to hospital and placed in a medically induced come after the fight in 2015. Before paramedics could enter the ring, Ambomo leaned over and kissed Wilson’s head while he was unconscious on the floor. It was hideously disrespectful, even if Ambomo wasn’t aware of the extent of the damage. He was fined and effectively blackballed and without the resources to pay, his life unravelled. He is able to fight again now but has been reduced to a journeyman losing in leisure centres of a relative pittance. He has struggled with his mental health and often wishes he could rewind time. “After the fight with Jerome, I wasn’t the same person,” he says. “I didn’t want to hurt anybody else. When I looked at myself, I saw a monster, a killer.

“I’ve never been back to Cameroon because of the problems we had but I love my country. I suffer to be here. I don’t belong here.”

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Adjoufack lives in Scotland with his family but his career never progressed and he has lost all his eight professional fights. Mewoli persevered for a while but now works at a hospital in Liverpool and doesn’t want to speak about the life he left behind. Mendouo was perhaps the most successful after Essomba. He fought and lost valiantly against some of Britain’s best talents, including current cruiserweight world champion Lawrence Okolie, but he stopped boxing in 2018, hasn’t spoken to Essomba in even longer, and his former manager didn’t respond to requests about his circumstances.

It is to say the story of the Cameroonian boxers mirrors the patterns and divergence of building a life anywhere, especially a distant foreign country. Opportunity, ostracism, asylum and abandonment are taken with the same hand and the feelings conflict, intertwine and become almost impossible to separate. Nothing was guaranteed when the boxers walked out of Statford into a new world and the bouts they’ve had in the ring are only a small portrait of the joy and struggle that lies beyond it. And as he sinks back against the wall in Sheffield, Essomba lets out a large sigh. The pride won’t always mask the pain but, all these years later and as another chance dawns, he’s still fighting. The truth is he may never be able to stop.

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