Boxing

Never back down: How boxing helped save aspiring actor Mosa Kambule

Boxing wasn't in his thoughts until Mosa Kambule was jumped right outside his front door. That attack took a heavy toll but after battling back from depression and anxiety, the 22-year-old now feels like anything is possible. He talks to Neil Loughran…

Mosa Kambule moved to Ireland from South Africa, via England, when he was five and only took up boxing after being attacked outside his home as a teenager. Picture by Hugh Russell

DREW Welsh has a nose for a decent story. After years stationed behind UTV cameras filming the great and the good, you would expect nothing less. Since retiring, he has thrown himself into the world of boxing.

Welsh first got involved with Holy Trinity when daughter Louise showed an aptitude for the noble art.

Around a decade on, Louise has recently called time on her ring career, but Drew is still going strong.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck he was an integral part of the coaching team the Turf Lodge club, and will continue to be when the doors finally reopen.

While life has moved in a different direction though, occasionally the nose still twitches.

“That young lad there,” he says, nodding discreetly across the Ulster Hall as the crowds filter in for elite finals night, “it’d be worth your while speaking to him some time.”

The nod was in the direction of Mosa Kambule, Holy Trinity’s sole representative in the late-February deciders.

Kambule has just walked through the doors of the famous old venue and will, in a couple of hours’ time, take on Rory Lavery for the lightweight title.

In his first major competition at elite level, Kambule had impressed in victory over Teo Alin at the Devenish six nights earlier, but it wasn’t to be in the big one.

After flying out of the blocks and landing a huge right hand inside the opening five seconds, he found the Holy Family man hard to pin down.

Just as the exchanges were beginning to heat up, Lavery picked up a nasty gash to his right cheekbone as a result of a head clash.

Ringside doctor Michael McKenna inspected the wound at the end of the first round before signalling that the fight shouldn’t continue.

By virtue of edging the only round of action, it was Lavery’s hand that was raised amid mooted celebrations.

“It was a tough way to lose a fight – like, ‘what happened? What was that?’ I would’ve understood more if the cut had been above the eye… maybe just one more round. But hey, it was a learning experience for me.

“I’ll come back stronger and smarter. Don’t you worry about that.”

This was Kambule’s take just a couple of weeks later, those words delivered with disarming sunniness in the wake of such disappointment.

There are plenty of fighters who - before a full house under the bright lights, the BBC cameras rolling - would have been eaten up for months by a sense of injustice at having their spotlight moment cut short.

But then, the more you speak to the 22-year-old, the more you realise this guy is a little bit different. Model, aspiring actor, ninja warrior and Will Smith wannabe - fight night at the Ulster Hall wasn’t the first time Mosa Kambule had graced the screen, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Mosa Kambule lost out to Rory Lavery in the Ulster Elite final after the Holy Family fighter sustained a cut in the only round of the lightweight contest. Picture by Mark Marlow

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BEN Shephard and Chris Kamara can’t help but roar their support as the plucky 18-year-old sizes up the ‘Warped Wall’.

“Mosa has sprinted through the course, can he do it?” asks Shephard, his voice barely audible against the din of the excited crowd.

“Go on Mosa, beat the wall,” wills ‘Kammy’, “you can do it.”

Almost 14 feet tall, it takes considerable speed and agility to even get within touching distance of the top, never mind the strength required to pull yourself up. Welcome to Ninja Warrior (TV’s modern-day equivalent of Gladiators for those old enough to remember).

The ‘Warped Wall’ represents the final stop on an at times brutal obstacle assault course but, Daniel LaRusso bandana still in place, Kambule is a dead-eyed ball of energy as he sizes up the challenge.

Like several of his fellow contestants, he falls marginally short at the first attempt, then nails it at the second time of asking.

“I had watched the show and just decided I wanted to challenge myself and have a go,” he smiles.

“I went for the audition and they loved what I brought and asked me to come and film for the qualifiers in Manchester. I smashed the whole course, got over the ‘Warped Wall’ and then through to the semi-finals.

“Unfortunately when I got there, at the obstacle right before the ‘Warped Wall’ my body just froze and I fell in the water. I was so annoyed! I don’t know what happened.

“But I’ve always wanted to go back ever since. A reappearance might happen, who knows?”

Giving up isn’t in his nature, you see. This is where boxing comes in, though there is a bit of road to travel before the ring comes calling.

Kambule is originally from Komani - formerly known as Queenstown - in South Africa. When he was four the family moved to England where they stayed for a year before relocating to Ireland, eventually settling in Lisburn.

There were some teething problems, though these were largely kept away from Mosa, big sister Lebo and younger brother Lelo.

“My parents came here for better opportunities - for them, but also for us. Now they own a cleaning business and do some support work too.

“We were probably one of the only black families in Lisburn at that time and at the start they were a bit edgy because of some things that happened, like our windows getting egged, but they stuck with it and I’m happy they did.”

From the same city as the legendary Jomo Sono - known as ‘The Black Prince’ in South Africa - soccer was Kambule’s first love, and soon he was banging in goals for Hillsborough Boys. Basketball, running, swimming, tennis, he loved them all too.

Boxing didn’t come onto the radar, however, until he felt there was no other choice.

“I played football all my life, everything was normal really growing up, but then when I was 13 I got jumped by three older guys right in front of my house.

“I actually only knew one of them - that’s the reason I went out of my house in the first place, because he knocked on the door and called me outside. He said he wanted to talk to me about something.

“I went out and as we were talking and walking up my street, I saw a familiar face behind a fence – it looked like another one of my friends. I was calling out to him but he wasn’t responding… at that point I thought something was a bit fishy.

“I call him for the last time and he doesn’t come, then all of a sudden this guy, he looks angry, he’s walking towards me. I turned back to walk to my house but the footsteps are getting faster and faster behind me.

“I started running but just as I was about to pull into my house I felt something getting hold of my collar, dragging me towards the ground. I don’t remember anything much after that.”

Eventually dad Lunga heard the commotion outside, and his son’s attackers scarpered when he ran out the front door. Any physical pain disappeared with time, but the mental scars took longer to heal.

“I had always been a confident, bubbly kid but once that happened I kind of went into a shell. I had a lot of mental issues as a result – depression, anxiety. It was the fact it happened right in front of my house, you just think that if something like that can happen there, it can happen anywhere.

“I stopped going out with friends, probably lost a couple of friends, just shut down basically. If it wasn’t for my faith I don’t think I would have got through it. Scriptures in the bible like ‘the lord has not given me a spirit of fear but of power, love and of sound mind’ - I read that over and over again.

“Words of affirmation like that can give you such a boost in difficult times, because it affected everything really, even my performance on the football pitch. The last year before I finished with Hillsborough Boys I got invited to go and train with Glentoran.

“I was meant to go up to The Oval but I never did – I went to boxing instead. I watched a movie called Never Back Down, and exactly the same thing happened to the lead character in that as what happened to me. I know it’s only a film, but it showed there was always a light at the end of the tunnel.

“And if he could find a way out of it, maybe that could happen to me.”

Kambule learned the ropes under Marty Laverty at Lisburn ABC, falling in love with the fight game straight away. Session by session his skills improved, and over time the confidence of his younger years began to flow back.

“I was feeling like myself again, and coach Marty was great with me.

“Before I started boxing I couldn’t look anybody in the eye. Even when I was walking in the street, I would always have my head down. When my parents asked me to go to the store for them, I wouldn’t want to go out of my room.

“Now it all felt different. A couple of years after starting boxing I saw those boys who jumped me - I looked at each and every one of them in the eyes, and they couldn’t look at me. At that moment I was like ‘yeah, I’m where I want to be’.

“Now, I feel like getting jumped was a blessing in disguise – it was a negative experience but one which led me to boxing. For that reason I wouldn’t change what happened.”

After moving to Holy Trinity, he started to realise what it would take to go further in the game.

“I thought that if I surrounded myself with champions,” he says, “I could become one too.” Between the ropes, therefore, Kambule’s ambitions are typically uninhibited – he wants to go to the next Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, then represent Ireland at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

Outside of boxing? Anything and everything is on the table.

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'Ever since I used to watch Fresh Prince of Bel Air, I always wanted to be Will Smith' - Mosa Kambule dreams of one day starring opposite his boyhood idol

“ACTING is something I always wanted to do. Ever since I used to watch Fresh Prince of Bel Air, I always wanted to be Will Smith. It went from that to wanting to act in a movie with Will Smith – as much as I’m pursuing a career in boxing, I would love a career in acting.”

The warmth and innocent ambition with which these words are delivered make it hard not to root for Mosa Kambule. In his world half measures simply do not exist, and already he is making moves in the right direction.

At the end of last year he was signed up by Global Artists, one of London’s leading talent agencies, and has already built up a CV that includes a part alongside Game of Thrones star Michael McElhatton in the 2017 short film ‘Guard’.

Kambule has also popped up in BBC drama Line of Duty, which is largely filmed in Belfast, and earlier this year was cast as the young version of Ulster Rugby star Robert Baloucloune (even though the pair are actually the same age) in an advert for Openreach.

“I’ve never had acting lessons; I’m fully self-taught.

“I’ve done a lot of extra work, got a lot of on-set experience and watched closely how directors work with all the different actors, how they all communicate.

“I worked hard, built a showreel and sent it to loads of agents. I was on set with Stephen Graham when he was filming Line of Duty, and he told me not to be discouraged if I got rejections - it was just about getting it out to loads of people.

“‘The one that does get back to you,’ he said to me, ‘they’ll stick with you and they’re the ones who will count’. I did exactly that and in December I got signed to Global Artists, which was a nice way to finish the year.”

That said, boxing and a career in front of the camera are not natural bedfellows.

And one almost got in the other’s way during February’s Ulster Elites when Kambule picked up a nick above his right during that semi-final win over Teo Alin.

“The day after the Ulster elite final I had a commercial to shoot in Dublin – I was quite scared in case I got in trouble for showing up with a cut, because when they saw me first I didn’t have one.

“They could tell you to go home or fine you because you’re wasting their money; you’ve signed a contract to go there and do a certain job. That was the first cut I ever got in boxing, and it had to happen then.

“It was bad timing to say the least, but thankfully they weren’t too upset when I got to Dublin.”

In these uncertain times, he has no idea what is next. Kambule does shifts in care homes and supported living facilities where possible, and has worked right through the current pandemic.

If ever there was a time to appreciate all that you have, and all that the future may hold, it is now – whether that is in boxing, acting, even Ninja Warrior.

“The sky isn’t the limit when you are shooting for the moon,” he says with a broad smile.

“I want to go and try and get as many things as I can when I’m young. I don’t want to look back when I’m older and say ‘I wish I did this’.

“That’s not how I’m going to live my life.”

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Boxing