Thursday, October 08, 2020

The Professor, Azumah Nelson

It is safe to say that Azumah Nelson and a couple of sprinters were the only proud faces of Ghana during the 1980s. Certainly The Professor was my preferred image of Ghana.

talking drums 1985-10-14 Azumah's World Crown at stake

To the rest of the world, we were either refugees or objects of pity (or both) what with our Ghana must go bags at the ready, and our tedious talk of curfews, scarcity and such. And starving too, just drop a can of sardines or corned beef and watch the Ghanaians fight.

Ah, those halcyon days on the playground, when my Liberian, Sierra Leonean and Zimbabwean friends would chuckle and tease us mercilessly. I laughed too, mind you, it was no good going on about glass windows or a neighbor's house of fire. Our brand was in the toilet.

It was one thing for the Nigerians to josh us, the Ghana-Nigeria competition is nothing new. In the 1980s, their country might have been a mess, but they still had oil money, and millions of our compatriots were desperate to get inside their borders. We knew who had the edge of the rivalry back then. But when Sierra Leoneans, or say my good friends from the Central African Republic would start to wind you up (they who, in their weaker moments, could mention their family members disappeared by that cannibal Bokassa's regime), when they could start in on you, you knew you had an identity crisis. I am often accused of unerring confidence and self belief, but I can tell you that I was very circumspect in the eighties.

Of course, we all know about cautionary tales, and the changing fates of some of those same countries. Liberia and Sierra Leone were branded as the coming anarchy in their lost decades. In much the same way as Ghanaians flocked to Nigeria in the 1980s, Zimbabweans over the past 30 years have sought out South Africa as their Babylon - pace Mugabe. The 20-plus percent of Ghanaians forced into the diaspora were exiled souls plain and simple; most of those that remained were internally displaced, if only psychically.

In any case, you go to the playground with the country you have. How for do? When you have lemons, you make lemonade. When you have lost decades, you make your peace with it.

When your leaders are laughingstocks, you tend to either affect bravado or keep a low profile. Ghanaians mostly kept a low profile. Americans, who aren't the most self reflective of people, are going through much of this same cringing these days. Self regard runs deep though in the American case, and an aversion to shame helps them get through things and to seek to brazen out their very visible troubles. Ghanaians didn't have that luxury back then, but we had Azumah.

Oh we were proud. So so proud of Azumah. If you think Ghanaians go on about their Black Stars, our football warriors, you can't imagine the attention we gave to our ring professor, our sole ray of light.

Our cultural life was stifled, we had no politics, we were in the grip of revolution. We would fight to be church treasurer or assistant secretary of the football supporter's club since those were the cultural organizations that passed muster. Political parties, and anything that could spell dissent, were banned. Many have pointed to the resurgence of Ghana's new Christianity as a result of this stifling of political and cultural life. The curfew, especially, and the armed men roaming the streets, decimated market and street culture. It's taken decades for nightlife and the arts to reassert themselves.

Kofi Annan was a mid-level UN employee back then, we had no sexy secretary general to name drop, we had no captain of industry or larger-than-life robber baron - oh we had plenty of robbers for sure, but no barons. There was no swaggering actor or winsome actress or model to fixate on.

We would be looking to our eastern neigbors, Benin, to find that Cardinal Gantin had been suggested as a pope in the making early on, but that was obviously fool's gold. No Ghanaian bishop was in the running.

talking drums 1984-04-30 New Naira notes - Cardinal Gantin - the military problem

We tracked Azumah's every achievment and would get a frisson of delight when "the WBC named him Boxer of the Month of February for having successfully defended his world featherweight title against Mexican Marcos Villasana". A bonus would be Abedi Pele making waves in the same month. Oh joy.

talking drums 1986-03-17 page 26 azumah nelson abedi pele

And just as well, because at the same time as we would celebrate his victory in the back pages, we were bemoaning "why the killings go on". We were reflecting on the mysterious death of Catholic Father Charles Kukah.

talking drums 1986-02-17 ghana mystery death of a catholic priest - nigeria the press rules ok

The middle pages of what magazines that were available to us were full of explanations on "the modus operandi of official hit-squads in Ghana today". We would list

Various places have been identified as locations for executions.
  • Airforce station
  • Taunegup Range - behind Burma Camp
  • The vast area between the Airforce Station and Arakan Barracks.
  • Labadi and Black Star Square beaches
  • Michel Camp
along with reports suggesting that secret killings also take place in the in the Castle, Osu. Very often those who are killed are taken to be buried in prison cemeteries.

"The sad part of this whole affair is that there are families in Ghana today who do not know where their relations are, believing that once they do not see them, they have fled the country"

talking drums 1986-03-17 page 09 ghana why the killings go on

The Catholic church that had been challenging the excesses of the regime got the message loud and clear. We stopped hearing much from the bishops. And so we turned to the sports pages for relief. Anything to turn away from the grimness of 'The Ethiopian Way' that Rawlings and Tsikata were dealing us. As we reaped the wages of Thermidor, Azumah was our comfort suite.

And so we sublimated our aspirations onto Azumah Nelson and Abedi Pele. We latched on to all of them, to any sign of nobility and indeed success. We knew all their names, the sprinters and athletes: John Myles-Mills, Ernest Obeng, Charles Moses, Emmanuel Tuffour, Mercy Addy (continuing a long line of sporting and academic excellence by Addys), Grace Armah, Mary Mensah, Cynthia Quartey and more.

Without irony, we celebrated the vision of Ghanaian manhood as "the two-minute wonder"

talking drums 1985-10-21 Azumah The two minute wonder

To this day, Ghanaian newspapers and media sites know that you can periodically boost traffic with any clickbait article about Azumah's life. Mind you, this doesn't bother me any. You can have your royal family, your Kardasian units, or whatever is your cultural tabloid fodder. For Ghanaians, Azumah fills that cultural void.

I proudly clicked and forwarded the news of Azumah Nelson Crowned WBC Super Featherweight Greatest of All Time a few years back. I would do so again.

There's a notion of sports as a leading indicator with identity and allegiances on the line. You could talk about how tribal identities are forged when you watch sports. Sports bind the US more even than religion since there is that separation of Church and State business. Perhaps the only thing that will make Americans serious about the coronavirus pandemic is the potential or actual closure of organized sports. The athletes have more power than they think in this respect.

Now Azumah Nelson isn't the most reflective of men, he often let his fists do the talking, and continues to do so as his biographies attest. If you watched his fights, you were treated to the sight of one of the most cerebral of boxers. The defensive abilities and superb ring craftsmanship are what earned him the Ring Professor moniker.

He appeared to take what looked like a lot of punishment, yet it was all with the resilience of a Bukom bomber. It wasn't quite rope a dope, it was his own formula, and he excelled at it and would respond with vicious blows whose accumulated weight would overwhelm his opponent. The way he knocked out Wilfredo Gómez in round 11 to win the WBC featherweight championship stands in the pantheon, but all his bouts in his prime are well worth watching - and we watched them all, over and over again. We'd program our Panasonic or JVC VHS recorders and stay up in the wee hours of the morning to watch the bouts in Las Vegas, Mexico or New South Wales. And he would dispatch them all: Gutierrez, Martínez and so forth. It was also especially delicious to see him deal imperiously with representatives of the erstwhile colonizers, Pat Cowdell and Jim McDonnell. And his pronouncements in victory were legendary.

But Azumah took on allcomers and didn't shirk rigorous competition. I still think he had the edge over Pernell Whitaker, but even when the Caesar's Palace judges sided with the smart money, we knew all about arbitrary decision making and, like the proud warrior that he was, he and we, took the blows of adversity in stride and came back the next day to prevail for the next fight.

These days there are many other faces of Ghana to embrace, and we have settled enough into normalcy that perhaps we don't need the iconography of these living symbols of excellence to survive. Our self image is confident enough that we know our place in the world.

I cannot understate what Azumah Nelson continues to mean to our nation even beyond what he stood for in that historical moment. He deftly navigated the social interplay and stands in our cultural iconography. Simply put he's a national treasure. And so in closing, a fond head nod of appreciation to The Professor, Azumah Nelson. Long may he teach.

The Professor (Azumah Nelson) a playlist

A soundtrack for this note

A sampling of some of the young Ghanaian artists who have taken to invoking Azumah's spirit. Like most of Ghana, they were likely came of age or were born in the 1990s, after the worst years the country endured. There is an optimism in their flow and it is invigorating to listen to. We end the playlist with another Azuma, Christy that is, with the micraculous sounds of Naam.

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