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A Grudge Match With the Big Man

My flight to Nairobi, Kenya, landed before 6 a.m., but even at that hour the pulsating heat hit like a sucker punch. Half awake, I was struck by the frenetic activity on the tarmac, a blur of uniforms, crowds, cameras and bustle. I assumed there must be a preening bwana mkubwa, or big man, at the front of the plane, readying himself to be met with pomp, chaos and a convoy.

It took me a few moments, blinking into the piercing African sunlight, to pick out the words on the banners and the T-shirts of a small crowd of enthusiastically ululating women. But they came into focus with a jolt: “Fletcher Goes Home on a Stretcher.”
This was not the diplomatic language I was getting schooled in as a second secretary, in 2001, three years into a posting at the British High Commission in Kenya. As far as I knew, I hadn’t made any terrible diplomatic faux pas or particularly antagonized any big men. I had quietly explored the country in a Land Rover, eating goat with politicians, opening schools and immersing myself in the riotous beauty of this corner of Africa.
My mistake had been naïveté. Several weeks earlier, the deputy mayor of Nairobi, Joe Akech, who was a former professional boxer with a reputation for felling his rivals in the ring or the council chamber with swift knockouts, had told me over a large breakfast that he was planning a comeback bout in aid of a local orphanage. I jokingly agreed to fight him, banking on this being a political check that would never be cashed.
How wrong I was.
Two months, much pain and several thousand situps later, I stood alone in the ring as night fell. More than 3,000 of the deputy mayor’s Kenyan fans had taken up the “Fletcher on a Stretcher” chant, backed by a bass drum that pounded with increasing intensity. From the back of the stadium, an entourage gyrated and gesticulated around my rival as he swaggered toward the ring.
Never mind the charitable cause, the media had built the fight into a grudge match, a chance for the local hero to avenge decades of colonial rule. Some 40 pounds lighter than my pumped-up opponent, I tried to focus on my training and not on the soggy banner held up by my small band of worried-looking supporters: “Fletcher: Floats Like a Bee, Stings Like a Butterfly.”
My coach had given me the ring name “Lion of Lions.” Trust me, it sounds better in Swahili. But as the dancers, drummers and palm tree wavers left the ring for the fight to start, I felt anything but leonine. I had asked a Dutch doctor friend to be my corner man, a sensible precaution. He seemed ready for action, perhaps anticipating that his skills would be more useful than mine. Earlier in the afternoon, I had signed a disclaimer, at the High Commissioner’s rather disapproving insistence, taking sole responsibility for the whole escapade, including any injury I might incur.
All those boxing films you’ve seen are right about this: As the seconds count out before the bell, time slows, your limbs feel heavy, and you hear your heart beat drumming in your ears. A primitive instinct for survival takes over: It’s him or me.
Finally, the bell brings you back to the moment.
I had too much adrenaline flowing, and was keen to take advantage of my relative youth, so I bounced about like a diplomat possessed. The deputy mayor, more schooled in tactics, planted himself solidly in the middle of the ring, and waited, glowering at me. The first round was pretty tame, as we sized each other up. My plan was to go for his guts, but I couldn’t land any big blows.
In what seemed like seconds, we were back in our corners. I was breathing heavily and my coach harangued me for dancing too much. But I was still standing, and if I could just get through the four rounds intact and without humiliation, anything else would be a bonus.
The second and third rounds were tougher. I later learned that the big man’s two wives had vied with each other during the break to psych him up, and he came out strongly. I walked into a big blow to the head, lost self-control and flew back at him with playground punches.
My trainer was screaming at me to back off. The deputy mayor and I fell onto each other’s shoulders, panting. The sweat was cascading off me.
I have no memory of the fourth round. Watching the TV footage later, I could see that we were more wary, more disciplined, back to circling each other. I landed one great upper cut on his chin that sent him staggering backward toward the ropes. I followed up with a flurry of blows. The bell came too soon.
A BBC journalist ringside told me later that I had implored the referee to give us longer. But the fight was over. Gradually, the world outside the ropes came back into perspective. The sound came back on. The Kenyan fans seemed to be having a party. The Brits looked less demoralized than before. The stretcher, mercifully, was untouched.
At its best, boxing is a sport of raw, rare beauty and control. No other sport can match it for the balance between grace and violence, between head, hand and heart. I had been obsessed with the drama of the ring since I first saw the documentary “When We Were Kings,” the extraordinary account of the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire in 1974, known as the Rumble in the Jungle.
Boxing and diplomacy, though? On the face of it, not an obvious fit. Diplomats tend to feel we’ve failed when fights break out. We are more velvet glove than iron fist.
Yet in my time as a diplomat, boxing has figured more often than any other sport. As an ambassador in Beirut, I kept a poster of Muhammad Ali on my office wall, bearing a quotation from the champion: “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses — behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” It was there to remind me and my team that achieving our goals was all about getting the unglitzy preparation right.
My embassy residence was on the Damascus road. As Syria fell apart, just an hour’s journey away, I spent evenings pounding the punch bag on the balcony, frustrated at our impotence in the face of what President Bashar al-Assad was doing to his country — and fearful of what he might do to Lebanon. Turns out you can take the diplomat out of the ring, but you can’t take the ring out of the diplomat.
Perhaps boxing and diplomacy are not so very different. Meticulous preparation, resilience, some carefully choreographed pomp and pageantry, then long periods of patience punctuated by moments of extreme violence. This was basically the modus operandi of the Lebanese warlords who were my friends and adversaries in Beirut. A diplomat, too, needs the wisdom of Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan — until they get punched in the mouth.”
So it was with my fight in Africa. As the intensity of battle faded, there we stood: an aging ex-fighter and a naïve young diplomat, feeling euphoric, exhausted and a little silly. After a month without drinking, a beer would taste good.
But first, the result. Neither of us was yet feeling very sporting. No boxing match can ever truly be friendly. The judges deliberated, argued; the crowd grew impatient. I began to fear the fix was in.
And then it was called. A draw. A diplomatic draw.
But of course.

Photo credit: Roman Muradov


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