Martin Bakole

Martin Bakole – Heavyweight boxer, African prince, honorary Scot

Published On Tuesday, July 3, 2018By Danny Flexen
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Martin Bakole tells Danny Flexen of the journey from Kananga to Aidrie, in an exclusive Q&A

Martin Bakole is an 11-0 (8) heavyweight hope from Congo, promoted by Cyclone. This is his story so far, mostly in his own words, with a bit of a musical twist.

Martin Bakole in… The King and I

The heavyweight’s father is the tribal leader or king of the Kananga province in Congo where his family are from, but he is also a former amateur boxer.

“I started when I was a kid, my father always showed us, by giving us pads. I tried to punch the bag, we had one at home when I was five. I took it serious when I was 15, 16. I had my first fight at 17. I did not have many amateur fights because Congo is a poor country and not well organised for shows. I had 17 amateur fights – I won 16, one draw – it’s not like every weekend people fighting."

Martin Bakole in… Blood Brothers

The 26-year-old’s elder brother – and indeed the heir to his father’s position – is Ilunga ‘Junior’ Makabu, the top cruiserweight who lost to Tony Bellew for the vacant WBC belt at Goodison Park in 2016. Martin’s full name is Martin Bakole Ilunga.

“I joined my brother in Johannesburg, South Africa, to move my career on quickly. He fetched me because the other siblings were close to finishing their schooling, I was the only one after him that wanted to do boxing and to live in South Africa.
“He was boxing pro, had five fights, all wins. He had already got married and had one kid; I went to stay with him, had my own room. I stayed with him for one year, training, then he said, ‘You’re a man now, you can move on and find a job. You can try to speak English.’ He found me a small security job, he said ‘I want you to be able to pay rent yourself, to live yourself.’ I rented a room because I was alone there and I was working the night shift. The first room Junior rented for me and he gave me some money for food and I was working at night and training in the morning. I was close to Nick Durandt’s gym but I was trained by Harold Volbrecht. I was in South Africa for four years and had my first fight after a year – that one year I was just training. Junior didn’t want me to start straight away, he wanted me to take one year in the gym, studying like a professional. Junior was giving me sparring every day. He was beating me up in those days, he said when I grow up I’d beat him up so he had to beat me up. I was already a heavyweight but he was much cleverer than me. After my first fight I went back to the gym and after our first spar he said, ‘No, I’m not going to spar you anymore.’ He saw that now I understood boxing, now I could punch. Then he sent me to Nick Durandt’s gym and I stopped working security.
“After I left Durandt, I was now with Junior. After he left him, Junior was working with manager Tarik Saadi, a French guy. Nick Durandt had given me experience at training other people. If I was having fights, Junior was training me, giving me pads, telling me what to do and the same if he was having fights; we were helping each other. After I left Nick I became very close with my brother, travelling everywhere together. Before Junior fought Bellew, he was supposed to fight a Russian guy [Grigory Drozd] who got injured and he asked me to focus on his career. At that time, he was like a father to me. He said, ‘I’m going for world titles now, I need more time, I want to work hard and I see that you are the one who can help me.’ If you see my brother and me, he is southpaw and I’m orthodox but we are boxing in exactly the same way, because I learned more from him. I’m better than him [laughs], I learned some stuff he doesn’t do. Glasgow style, speed and movement. He’s my big brother, I always respect him. Even if he called me now and said, ‘Don’t do this,’ I wouldn’t do that. Even my father, some stuff he says you can’t and I don’t.”

Martin Bakole in… Once on this Island

When ‘Junior’ came to England for the Bellew fight, Martin liked what he saw and resolved to stay in our green and pleasant land.

“We came to the UK for his last fight, the loss to Tony Bellew. I told him I didn’t want to go back, ‘I’ve worked with you for three years now and I want to stay in the UK. I wanted to be in the UK or USA because that’s where boxing is.’ I said, ‘Sorry about that, but you can move on with your career.’ He said, ‘Okay, you are a man, I appreciate that, but if you are staying here, do you know who you are going to stay with?’ I said, ‘No.’ But we had been training at Johnny Roye’s gym and I asked Johnny, ‘If I stay – because I have a six-month visa – if you agree to train me, I will stay for all six months.’ He said he would give me a flat and some fights. I said, Yeah, give me fights; that’s all I want.’ He found me a nice flat and I stayed there. It was his own flat and I told him, ‘Now, I don’t need money.’ I just needed money to eat and train. I just wanted people to know about me in the UK.
“I want to stay in UK for my whole life; I want to bring my wife here from Kinshasa. I got married last year and now she is staying in a flat there. It’s hard for me to leave her which is why I’ll do my best to bring her here. She has to be where I am. I’m applying for a longer visa but maybe my wife can come in future. We are from the same province so we know each other from there and we met again in Kinshasa over four years ago. She was going to school until her father passed away.”

Martin Bakole (and Billy Nelson) in… Beauty and the Beast

Roye sent Bakole up to Billy Nelson’s gym to spar Stephen Simmons back in September 2016 and, a year later, Bakole decided to join the Essex-born Scot full-time, both in the gym and in his home village of Greengairs in Aidrie. Nelson talks about their relationship.

“We spend a lot of time together, we live a few hundred yards apart in the same village. I’m basically his manager, his coach and a father figure for him, whilst he’s here. People might say, ‘You’re kissing his a***,’ but if you’re from a different country, I take it upon myself to look after that person. I’m a carer in my job and a caring person by nature and I think any fighter that’s been in my stable would tell you that. He’s the most gifted, talented fighter I’ve ever trained, and I’ve had some very good fighters. I’ve improved certain aspects that he wasn’t so good at and we’ve worked hard at them and he’s getting better and better. He controls the ring in a way he didn’t used to.”

Martin Bakole in… In The Heights

He and Nelson insist he is avoided but Bakole has big ambitions and remains young enough to achieve them.

“My dream is to be a world champion one day. We are so many boxers but there can only be one true champion. I think I am maybe like a Muhammad Ali, but I have my own style. I can move, I have speed and I can punch, and I can take it too. Some people are strong and can’t take a punch. I always try to be the best in my own way. When I’m fit everything is perfect."