FEATURE: Joseph Agbeko: A career inspired by King Kong

BY: Bernard Neequaye

So many things influence people’s decisions in life, especially having to make a career choice. In Joseph Agbeko’s case, bearing 'King Kong' as his middle name forced him into the fistic sport.

Agbeko felt superior among his peers, knowing how deadly it was to be called King Kong due to the popular epic monster adventure film with the same title.

To him, the quest to prove his might pushed him into the ring. Agbeko saw fighting as the only means of utilising the name 'King Kong' on his birth certificate.

“I was pushed into boxing by my name. My peers were always afraid to associate themselves with me because of the name King Kong and I felt superior,” Agbeko narrated to Graphic Sports in an interview.

“The constant referral to the famous adventure movie by my mates convinced me to enter into boxing as a means of proving my strength,” he added.

Agbeko, a former International Boxing Federation (IBF) bantamweight champion, needed courage to kickstart his boxing career and could only find one by approaching a boxer with the Ghana Fire Service. That, he said, was the beginning of a lifetime boxing career.

Boxing life

Born on March 22, 1977, at Shukura in Accra, Agbeko trained under so many coaches as a juvenile and amateur boxer. Training with the Ghana Fire Service and moving to Accra Central to train under legendary Godwin “Alloway” Kotey at the Attoh Quarshie Gym was no easy routine.

However, Agbeko later found solace at the Fit Square Gym at Kokomlemle in Accra where he was nurtured by Coach Lartekwei Lartey. The young Agbeko had a problem choosing boxing as a career over education. The pressure was so intense that he considered quitting the sport.

“When I started training as a boxer, it affected my education and my mother wasn’t in favour of me choosing boxing ahead of school.

“I had to stop training for a while because my mother was furious and said he won’t allow me to jeopardise my future through boxing,” he recalled.

With time, Agbeko was able to convince his mother by moving to Fit Square Gym, where he sometimes stayed with trainer Lartey for weeks, before returning home.

Soon his amateur days drew nearer to an end under Coach Lartey. It was a fine opportunity to experience regional, national and international competitions and he was ready for the challenges ahead.

“I was a juvenile boxer for a long time and that helped me a lot during my amateur career.”

Amateur days

Agbeko entered into the amateur ranks at age 18. He made tremendous impact during regional and national competitions which caught the attention of many boxing lovers.

His exploits led him into the national amateur boxing team, Black Bombers, where he featured in international competitions such as the West African Games, African Games and notably the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Malaysia. Agbeko’s participation in the Commonwealth Games remains his favourite moment at the amateur ranks.

It was an impressive debut at the tournament for him despite missing out at the quarter-final stage.

“I was determined to make a significant impact at the Games but malaria destroyed everything for me and I exited the competition,” Agbeko recounted to Graphic Sports.

“I was really down by my inability to reach the medal zone and decided to turn professional when I returned home from the championship.

“So many people within the boxing circles, including my colleagues in the Black Bombers, advised me against turning professional immediately but I decided to follow my heart,” he noted.

Professional career

After some consultations, the 21-year-old Agbeko made his professional debut on December 16, 1998 against Agaitor Yao and won by a first round stoppage. It was the beginning of greater things to come.

He won his first 21 bouts with 19 knockouts by 2003 to announce himself in the bantamweight division. His impressive record helped him secure the national bantamweight title and the African Boxing Union (ABU) crown, among other belts.

“I knew I would be a world champion right from the onset. When I turned professional I felt closer to my dreams and I vowed to work harder to realise it.

“Winning my first 21 fights was a big statement in my young career and I knew it was just a matter of time for me to become a world champion,” he said.

On his 22nd ring appearance in 2004, Agbeko lost by a majority decision to Ukraine’s Volodymyr Sydorenko in Germany. His first professional defeat was a painful one, which, he said, motivated him enough  in subsequent bouts.

Agbeko returned home to challenge for the Commonwealth bantamweight title and decisioned Sumaila Baba to win it that same year. In 2007, two victories over Baba Nsor and Fidencio Reyes earned him a shot at the IBF strap.

“I was expected to fight a Filipino in an eliminator for the IBF title but the fight fell through. It happened to be a blessing in disguise when I got the chance to fight for the world title.”

Agbeko was announced as a surprise opponent to challenge Luis Alberto Perez for the IBF belt. The Ghanaian went in as the underdog but managed a seventh round knockout win.

“It was a three-week notice for the fight but I needed to take my chance so I did and became a world champion. It was the best feeling in my entire career,” an elated Agbeko stated.

After that triumph, Agbeko made two successful defences before losing the title to Yonnhy Perez in October 2009. A year later, Agbeko came back stronger to avenge his loss with an emphatic unanimous decision win.

His next defence was against Abner Mares and he lost by a controversial majority decision in August 2011. Four months later, he failed to recapture his title when Mares earned a unanimous decision win.

Since then, Agbeko has failed to win a world title despite fighting Cuba’s Guillermo Rigondeaux for the World Boxing Association (WBA) and World Boxing Organisation (WBO) super bantamweight titles in 2013.

He has been on an eight-fight winning streak since the Rigondeaux defeat and targetting another world title shot at 43 years. Only time will tell.

He currently holds the WBO African title and is rated third by the sanctioning body.

“I still have a lot to offer boxing and I’m looking forward to another title shot. I have a lot of confidence in me that I will win a world title again.

“And it’s going to be the very next time I’m called upon to challenge for it,” the Ghana King Kong assured.