Marians open the doors for boxing pros in Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Marians open the doors for boxing pros in Sri Lanka

26 September, 2021
Bandula Rathnapala and Dunstan Rozairo with the WBA Asia and WBO titles which were at stake during the event in Dubai
Bandula Rathnapala and Dunstan Rozairo with the WBA Asia and WBO titles which were at stake during the event in Dubai

One of the 10 events in the ‘Countdown to the Middle-East Crown’ series could be held in Sri Lanka:

St. Mary’s College, Dehiwela ruled the roost in the schools boxing arena during the 1960s and 1970s and produced several national boxing stars such as Chavo de Kauwe who won a silver medal at the Asian Boxing Championships in 1973.

Apart from the Van Cuylenberg brothers, there were the Tisseras, Van Heers, Foulstones, De Zilwas and Rozairos to name a few, who made the little-known school from Dehiwela a force to be reckoned with. The majority of the former Marian boxing stars have now migrated to countries like Australia in search of greener pastures.

Two former Marian pugilists Bandula Rathnapala and Dunstan Rozairo have banded together to reignite the fortunes of their school where boxing died a natural death because of lack of patronage after that golden era.

At the same time, the two boxing enthusiasts have opened the doors for Sri Lankan pugilists to turn professional as organisers of the ‘Countdown to the Middle-East Crown’ series. A former Kingswood boxing star Tharindu Madushanke made an impressive professional debut in the second event of the series earlier this month in Dubai.

Initially Rathnapala, owner of Jersey Boy Gym in New Jersey, USA, and Rozairo were planning to open a boxing gym in Dubai. Some Marian old boys domiciled in Australia like Chavo de Kauwe, Bernard De Zilwa, Desmond Foulstone and Douglas Pereira also pledged their support as they came together to do something for their school and because of their love of boxing.

This was the spur needed to ignite the spark burning within Dunstan Rozairo who wanted to take boxing in the Middle East and Asia to a different level. A long-time resident of Dubai, his ambition is to make the city the hub for boxing in the Middle East.

“Dubai is the central location where most Europeans and Asian travel through. It is one of the main hubs where tourism is developing and everybody’s eyes are on Dubai,” said Rozairo, inspired by the ‘rags -to-riches’ life story of Filipino boxing legend Manny Pacquiao.

“I had a chat with Manny Pacquiao when I brought him here to Dubai. He was telling me his life story and how he was fighting in the streets for money for his food. That inspired me to think that ‘okay if he could have done that and reached this level, he had got an opportunity to reach to this level.

“What can I do to help the Asian boxers, especially when they don’t get an opportunity on the big stage. So, I thought since I am here in Dubai and been here for a long time, I said let me start by having boxing events here so that I can bring in boxers from around the world and host them here and give the Asians an opportunity,” said Rozairo, the brain behind the series which has attracted boxers from Russia, Argentina, Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan and USA.

Asked about the popularity of boxing in the UAE in comparison to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), he said: “I am trying to make Dubai as the boxing hub of the Middle East. Unless you start promoting boxing people don’t know much. We are trying to promote it. Bring about awareness to people and create a demand.”

His dream came to fruition with the ‘Countdown to the Middle-East Crown’ series organized by his event management company DJMC after successfully staging two events.

“I thought let me start something and started the series. It is going to be a series of 10 events. I am going to have a belt for the Middle East Crown. Once I finish five events, then we start bringing back the boxers who won those events for the next five. The semifinal and final will be 11 and 12 in the series. We will put up prize money on it,” said Rozairo, who is working as managing director for Sheikh Mohammed bin Obaid Thani Al Maktoum, one of the members of the ruling family in Dubai.

“The series has brought fighters from Asia like Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Middle East on the same stage. I want to bring fighters from Europe because when they see it from the US, this is where TV channels come on board. When you put Asian fighters on the same stage, they will also get publicity,” said Rozairo.

He is planning to take the series to India and Saudi Arabia as well. “If Sri Lanka is going to support us, we will bring one series there also,” he said.

On the invitation extended to Madushanke, Rozairo said: “We brought him to give opportunity. Let’s see how we can get a few Sri Lankans on the card.

“He fought very well. Unfortunately, he didn’t have stamina in the last round because he is not used to fighting four rounds. He went on to knock the guy out. He gave a nice uppercut but didn’t follow it up with a right,” said Rathnapala who trained him for a few days in Dubai in the lead up to the contest.

“It was a good fight everybody liked. He is the first Sri Lankan to fight pro in Dubai. Now we open the doors to Sri Lankans who have a good amateur record to come and fight here,” said Rathnapala who extended the invitation through Olympic referee Nelka Shiromala whose late father was his contemporary in the Navy. Shiromala was an honoured guest being felicitated for her achievement of becoming the first female Sri Lankan referee at the Tokyo Olympics.

Rathnapala fought when some of the best exponents plied the trade, reeling off names of reputed boxers from other schools such as Royalists Jayalath, Samaratunga, Dharmadasa, Ismail, Mohideen, Sirisena Wijetunga, Somapala Perera of St. Michael’s, Polwatte; Zahirians Ikram, Halaldeen, Samsudeen; Sylvestrian Reyal, Hassan and Marians Chavo de Kauwe, Bernard De Zilwa, Douglas Pereira, late Godfrey Van Heer, Adrian and Rodney Van Heer, Elsworth Felsianes, Milroy Byrde, Andre Vanderwert, Wendell Mack, Sandy Kellar, Millon De Kauwe, Andrew and Paul Daniel, Lucien Jansz and Bunty Van Cuylenburg to name just a few.

When he arrived in America in 1989, Rathnapala worked hard to find his feet in Brooklyn, New York. Almost a decade later, his move to Passaic, New Jersey paid dividends. Police detective Mark Whitling, a boxing enthusiast involved at the Passaic Athletic Boxing Club encouraged him to obtain his US boxing coaching license. In 2015, Rathnapala bought over the Passaic Athletic Club and converted it into his own gym, naming it the Jersey Boy Boxing Club.

“Now I have renamed it Straight Jab Boxing Club,” said Rathnapala who has in his stable an accomplished American professional Glen Tapia ‘Jersey Boy’, a native of New Jersey. There are about 70 amateurs and eight pros in our club.”

Rathnapala empathises with Sri Lankan amateur boxers who struggle to make a living once they hang up their gloves.

“They have only medals or certificates to show after taking part in the SAF (South Asian), Commonwealth or Asian Games. After their amateur career is over and they age, they are driving an auto rickshaw or work in some garment factory. That’s happening. They should make some money before they retire,” he said.

“As a pro one can make 50,000 to 100,000 dollars and retire. Then they can build houses or do some small business if they don’t want to continue. We want to help them,” said Rathnapala who had approached a couple of former sports ministers during his visits to Sri Lanka. “Everybody talked, but nobody did anything,” he said lamenting the fact that outstanding Sri Lanka boxer Sumith Prasanna went to America but nobody helped him to be a pro.

Rathnapala claimed that he tried many times to get Sri Lanka’s leading woman pugilist Anusha Kodituwakku to be trained in America long before her bronze medal winning feat at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

“They (officials) were not prepared to pay the ticket money or for lodging. How am I going to do that? The sports ministry did not help either,” he said.

He was happy to see a former Air Force boxer Nuwan Jayakody turning pro in Washington DC. “I was proud as a Sri Lankan to see him fight in Madison Square Garden,” said Rathnapala who urged Rozairo to invite Sri Lankans for the ‘Countdown to the Middle-East’ series.

He wants to bring three or four good fighters from Sri Lanka to train in Dubai once they open a gym. “In Sri Lanka nobody is there to do professional training which is different. After that, I will bring them to the USA to train in my gym,” said Rathnapala who hopes to feature two more Sri Lankans in the third event of the series on December 11 in Dubai.

He has given a training schedule for Madushanke. “I have asked him to reduce the weight. He is like a bodybuilder,” said Rathnapala, the only Sri Lankan coach with a US boxing license.

“We want to promote our school (St. Mary’s) which was one of the best boxing schools. At the same time, we want to help boxers from the Army, Navy and Air Force,” said Rathnapala who feels the pulse of poor Sri Lankan boxers.

“Boys have been talking to me for a long time to help. They are working for 30,000 to 40,000 rupees but after their career is over, they only have certificates and medals. When they walk in the street, people don’t know who they are,” he lamented.

He lauded the Boxing Association of Sri Lanka president Dian Gomes for keeping the sport alive. “Thanks to him we have amateur boxing. If Dian did not get involved, we wouldn’t have boxing in Sri Lanka. I want to invite him to the table. We want to do one event in Sri Lanka if the Sports Ministry or somebody gets involved,” said Rathnapala.