Late Chief Okon Asuquo Bassey was Nigeria’s first and Africa’s second world boxing champion. In this interview with OLAOLU OLADIPO, one of his children, Frankie Hogan- Bassey, talked about the life and times of the national icon. Excerpts:
People know your late father as a boxer of note and a competent administrator who made the country proud in sports, particularly boxing; as a son, who was Hogan Bassey?
Hogan Bassey as husband and a father to his children was a very protective man. He was very loving but like I said, he was also very protective of his family. He showed care to all his children without any bias whatsoever. He taught the fundamental things regarding respect, who we are as a people. Wherever we went, he taught us how to conduct ourselves. To him, it was very important that we mustn’t forget who we were. He taught us the value of being humble despite who he was. He loved his wives and his eight children. There are numerous things that I can recall that I learnt from my father. His actions spoke and he was not a man of many words but it was about his actions. I have a fond memory of him doing his duty as a father and husband.
You talked about him being protective of his family, does that suggest that he was a disciplinarian?
Oh yes! We are talking about someone who was in charge of men. He was first and foremost, a professional at what he did. He didn’t become the chief coach of the boxing federation of Nigeria if he never had any form of discipline. He had it (discipline) in him inherently. He instilled discipline into all his children. If that was what you meant, yes! He was a disciplinarian but I wouldn’t describe his as strict.
Was there any time he had cause to wield the big stick on you?
I am one of the very fortunate children or perhaps, we his children are very fortunate that he never really had any cause to beat us though he had reasons to do so sometimes. We were lucky because his profession never allowed him to hit or strike anyone in and outside the ring because of the consequences that could follow, which could lead him to lose his professional license. In that sense, my father never really touched us physically. He expressed his anger in words by trying to talk to us. Occasionally, he would raise his voice which is quite understandable. His engagements with us helped to sharpen my interpersonal relationship skills with people.
He must have been a very busy man; could you let us into what his typical day was like?
He was very busy indeed as the chief coach of the federation. Most of his time was within the National Stadium in Lagos. He was awarded a car and a driver by the Federal Government. He was accorded the status of a senior civil servant. The day-today running of the boxing segment of Nigeria’s sport rested with him. We usually saw him after we would have gotten ready for school in the morning. It was a time that he too would be getting ready for work. He was very diligent in his work. He never liked playing with his time. He believed that time was very valuable for everyone. He was very punctual and busy but the time that he would come home late in the night he never stopped checking up on us. He usually had a word or two with us on how our day went. Such was the concern and the love he had for his children.
Was there any occasions when you and other children went with him to work?
Me and a few of my siblings had to go watch training at the Bar Beach. Maybe one or two of the weekends when he would take us to the stadium. There were times when they took the boxers on what is called legwork for them to be able to muster the right strength on their legs. Yes! It was hectic for him but he combined that well with his family duties.
What was his relationship with the boxers that he coached and could you give us the names of some of the boxers that eventually passed through him?
He was a father figure to them. We mustn’t forget that my father left the shores of Nigeria in the early 1950s. He brought a lot that he had learnt in England where he was awarded the M.B.E by the Queen after his big feat in Paris in 1957. Coming back home, he was well equipped. His reasoning skills and his care and love for boxers was very deep. He was such a man who wouldn’t put his boxers in danger. For him, boxing was a sport that you had to enjoy. There was a boxing club called The Nationals which was staged inside the National Stadium in Surulere at the Shell Building. We used to have the likes of Eddie Ndukwu, Christopher Ossai but one boxer that I was very close to was Davidson Andeh. I think he was one of my father’s favourites. He had a brother called Anthony who had to retire due to injuries. My father was a very caring man and that accounted largely for why the country was producing quality boxers in those days. They felt the love that he showed them in and outside the ring. They could come to him when they had personal matters or domestic issues. My father was someone who believed that all was well with the mental wellbeing as well as the environment of any boxer to be able to get something good from them.
Did he tell you about the circumstances surrounding his victory against Frenchman Cherif Hamia in 1957 and its attendant fame?
If I may recall, I asked about that bout on numerous occasions when I tried to get into his head so to say. He noted that his success was down to hard work and preparation. He trusted his camp. He always believed that a boxer needed a clear head which his camp was very much aware of. The camp took care of things, so his preparation for that fight went well. We will put it down to preparation and dedication. One thing I remember that he told me was he was very happy to see eminent Nigerians such as the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and a few others at the ring side.
He started in Nigeria before he proceeded to the United Kingdom to further his career, did he ever tell you what prompted that decision?
He once told us that he developed a flair for boxing when he was very young. He said he was always bullied by bigger boys in his native village whenever he went to fetch water. He was very small physically when he was young. He had to learn how to box to defend himself quickly. Yes, he had to leave the country to go overseas. He was lucky to discover that those people around him were nudging him on. An expatriate whose name I can’t recall now spotted the trait and flair in him. Through the help of a Portuguese who was a close family friend his movement to England was facilitated. He announced his arrival in England by winning the Empire Belt. That made the British people discover that they had something good in my father.
So he developed interest in boxing because of being bullied by his peers…
People who noticed that he fought for his rights, saw that he could defend himself decided to nudge him on to take boxing as a profession. This is what is lacking in Nigeria now when many talented kids don’t have mentors to nurture them. We have a lot of talents in Nigeria that are wasting away. This is not taking away the fact that he too had the drive to succeed in life.
Your father had a settled home and income in the UK, what prompted his decision to return home?
After he hung his gloves, losing twice to Davey Moore he felt he was not enjoying the sport anymore. But because of the love that he had for his people and after feeling that he had put Nigeria on the sporting map, being the first Nigerian to make the impact in the boxing profession, he wanted to bring his experience and expertise into the country to help Nigeria; that was the main reason according to my father. His return home coincided with the attainment of independence for the country. I had people telling me story of late Sir Ahmadu Bello giving my father a rousing welcome home. Students were lined up in the streets of Lagos to welcome him. He had a dream which was to propel Nigeria into world acclaim. He saw the potential that the country had. I said to some people that my father will be turning in his grave to see that the country is performing poorly in global competitions.
What was the relationship between him and the late Dick Tiger?
I believe that they came back home together. From the stories that I have heard from people, I think late Dick Tiger had an issue with the weather in England. He never liked the food and the culture. He didn’t enjoy his stay and had to return home. I believe that the two had an excellent relationship while alive. Dick Tiger was another Nigerian great. My father once told me that fighting in a ring with spectators of about 15 to 20 thousand could be very scary most times. Many of the spectators were whites because not many black people could afford to watch boxing bouts at that time. He told me that he felt more at home when he saw Ambassador Mathew Mbu and his wife at the ring side during one of his fights.
Are there any of his children and grandchildren taking after him?
No! He never encouraged any of us to take after him. If there was ever going to be one, it would have been me. He thought we were all lazy. I believe that he didn’t want us to for the love he had for us; so he never wanted any of us to venture into it.
What was your last encounter with him like? Was there any form of premonition to suggest that the encounter would be the last?
The last time I saw my father was 1989. I was 20 years old when my school was closed down indefinitely. There was nothing to suggest that it would be my last encounter with him. I went to see him at his home in Apapa to tell him that I would be travelling to London. I never ever thought that would be the last time I would see him alive. While in England, we spoke on the phone from time to time, I remember the last conversation that we had was about becoming a father. That was in 1996 and he passed on in 1998. That was January 26, 1998, a few days after my kid sister’s birthday. It’s a day I can never forget.
What about efforts to immortalise him? We are not happy, how can we be happy?
We mustn’t forget that this was the first Nigerian individual in the whole of Nigeria to become a world champion. Yes, he had been given a national award and burial and I commend late Air Commodore (Emeka) Omeruah for deeming it fit to accord my father a national burial but every other obligation had been given back to the children to handle.