Zack Mwekassa - by Pete Moscardi

Few people could have experienced the degree of trauma and adversity which 27-year-old Zack Mwekassa had to endure during his formative teenage years. This hard-hitting orthodox cruiserweight, who hails from the town of Goma in the
eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) survived both the horrors of a bloody civil war, and also that of one of the most violent volcanic eruptions known on this planet. These two events almost split the family apart and destroyed the family home in Goma.

Zack takes up the story of his roller-coaster life when he says: “I come from a large family which comprises my two sisters and five brothers – with me being the second eldest. I was born in Kinshasa but my family moved to the town of Goma when I was still small. My father had an excellent job as a government pharmacist and we lived a comfortable life.”

But Zack Mwekassa’s story is far from being a ‘and they lived happily ever after’ tale. “We were to suffer many disasters as a family. One of the responsibilities assigned to my father was to check the importation of smuggled pharmaceutical drugs into the country which were ‘fakes’.

One day he was approached by a mob of Mafia-like figures who told him that he had to turn a blind eye to these illegal imports as his actions were preventing them from making big money in the sales of the illicit goods. My father refused to comply with this order and he was told that the mob had connections in high
places. Shortly after that he lost his job when he was relieved of his post.”

Zack explains when and how his first interest in boxing came about. “My life as a youngster was made hell by my elder brother who took delight in teasing and bullying me. When I was in my teenage years I discussed this with my father who
advised me that we should both consider taking up a sport such as football, athletics, swimming or boxing. For some unknown reason the word ‘boxing’ stuck in my mind. There was no organized boxing club in Goma, but there was a school
which ran a keep-fit class at the week-end and I used to go there and punch the bag simply to get my strength up. Becoming a boxer was, at that stage, the last thought on my mind.”

Zack, whose home language is French, works for an on-line casino as an English/French translator. The fighter lives in Alberton with his wife of three years, Cathy, has a three-year-old son, Tyler. While today his life is one of family and contentment, he has come through hell and back before it reached this stage.

“My life’s ambition was to become a pilot, but when my father lost his job the family moved to Kinshasa and there was no money to put me through the required training. As this had been my burning ambition, I was unreasonably angry both with him and the circumstances. But I attended university in Kinshasa where I studied business management. Then the civil war broke out. There was bombing and gunshots which echoed throughout the day and night in the area of the city where we lived.

“One day I went across the street to meet up with a friend in his house which was directly opposite ours. He, his family and I were sitting in their upstairs living room talking. Suddenly, and for no reason, my friend signaled to me that we should
go out of the house. We left by a set of back stairs and we had no sooner got outside and into the street when the house took a direct hit from a rocket. My family was in our house across the street and heard the explosion. They came out running and screaming as they thought I had been killed.

“Having got through that shattering experience, I was about to face another. One day I was accosted by a bunch of rebel fighters who told me that I was big and strong and could carry a machine gun. They insisted I join up with them. I politely declined their invitation which angered them. They told me I would be a marked man. I knew then that it was time to get out of Kinshasa and return to Goma,” he
recalls.

In January 2002 Zack and his family were to face the most traumatic event of their already shattered lives. Zack explains: “the city of Goma is located in close proximity to a major active volcano called Nyiragongo. Without warning the volcano erupted violently, pouring its lava down its slopes and covering almost
50% of the city. We had to flee for our lives on foot and I had to assist my father who was unable to walk for long distances. We crossed into Rwanda and I remember spending the night on the roadside with my father after walking for miles. It was at that moment that a decision was made in my mind. I had to leave the DRC and go to South Africa and start a new life,” he said.

In 2004 Zack took a flight out of the DRC and landed at what is now Oliver Thambo International in Johannesburg. “I was not overimpressed with Johannesburg and
so I went to Cape Town where I had some friends from the DRC. I was literally living one day at a time in those days. One day I was on a train going into town when we stopped at the Wynberg station. Looking out of the train window I spotted a gym on the first floor of a building and I could see people working out on the punch bags. I felt something stir inside me and the next day I was knocking at the door of Steve Kalakoda’s gym. Steve took me in and I enrolled in the amateur section of his facility. I actually lived in a back room in his gym.

“After a while I graduated to the professional section and became a kick boxer. Steve became my manager and my first fight as a kick boxer was against the South African champion, Paul Rothmann in Pretoria. I lost a close decision.

Steve then advised me to go to Durban and help Francois “the White Buffalo” Botha, who was then an active kick boxer and a major attraction in Japan. I joined up with Francois and although I was completely inexperienced I was not about to back down to him. I got to hear that Francois had been telling Steve Kalakoda that he thought I was useless. I think this was just to bait me – and I took the bait. The
next time we sparred I threw everything at him and was able to provide him with a good work-out,” he recalls.

Zack eventually applied for and was granted a professional boxing license and his first fight was against Bully Muravha on a Thinus Strydom Promotions bill in Secunda. Zack won on a third round KO. A Johannesburg trainer called Kosie
Wiese helped out in his corner and a friendship was formed. “Kosie suggested that I come to Johannesburg and join his stable, and I made the decision to do so. My
second fight was against a large heavyweight with tattoos all over his body and who weighed 10kgs more than me. His name was Mark Strydom and he presented a scary sight. But Mark was not interested in a fight and after I’d landed a couple of smashing punches he grabbed hold of me and put his head in my face. He was disqualified in the first round,” Zack recalls.

Zack’s third professional fight was against a heavyweight who, on this occasion, weighed a full 16kgs heavier. But Basil Ray did not last beyond the second round. “It was that fight which really gave me confidence and self-belief,” he says.
In May 2007 Zack had his biggest challenge when, in his fifth professional fight, he was matched with Moyoyo Mensah who was fresh off a win over former world
champion Sebastiaan Rothmann. Mensah was vastly more experienced with a 14-3-1 record. Zack walked through Mensah, stopping him in the third.

Zack’s next big test took place at the Graceland Casino in Secunda in February 2008 when he was matched against an experienced Brazilian called Luzimar Gonzaga. “This was the first time that I felt really scared of an opponent. He
was much more experienced than I was and was a frightening-looking character. However, I got the job over quickly, knocking him out in the first. I must have impressed Thinus Strydom at this stage because he arranged for me to go to Germany and to train at the Sauerland gym. I spent a month sparring with the top fighters in the gym, among them was Marco Huck, the world champion, against whom I had some sparring wars. Unfortunately I did not manage to get a fight while in Germany.

Zack’s most demanding task was to come in September the following year when he was matched against the tough Hungarian, Josef Nagy, for the vacant World Boxing Foundation cruiserweight title. It was Zack’s 10th fight as opposed to Nagy’s experience of 20 contests at international level. After putting Nagy down six times, Zack eventually ran out of steam and was stopped in the eighth round when in a state of exhaustion. “The loss was my own fault. I was over-confident and neglected the stamina part of my training. This was to cost me dearly,” he says.

Following his punishing battle with Nagy, which was voted the WBF Fight of the Year, Zack took himself off to London at his own expense in the hopes of attaching himself to leading British promoter, Frank Warren. “I trained at one of the top
London gyms but the boxing politics in that country were such that I could never get a look-in. I eventually returned to South Africa and met up with some American
connections who sent me over to North Carolina in 2009 where I was placed under the care of Don Turner. In October that year I had a fight against an up-and-coming prospect called Paul Jennette. It was another war and he got a controversial split decision in his home town of Greensboro,” Zack says.

Zack then returned to South Africa, disillusioned and disinterested in any further participation in boxing. “I really had no interest or ambition in continuing my boxing career. However, one day I received a call to spar with Nick Durandt’s fighter, Ilunga Makabu, who is also from the DRC. I decided to help him out as he
is a fellow countryman and this made me realize that I still harboured a desire to box – a feeling which was greatly encouraged by Ilunga who urged me to continue.

I then joined up with Harold Volbrecht’s gym and Brian Mitchell took over my management. Two fights later, and with two stoppage wins, I am now where I am today. Harold Volbrecht is a great trainer and I have the advantage of a variety of sparring at his gym against the likes of Flo Simba, Johnny Muller and Tommy Oosthuizen.

“On 24 September I am facing my biggest challenge when I fight the former South African champion, Thabiso Mchunu at Emperor’s Palace. It is a must-win fight which I don’t intend to leave up to the judges,” Zack confidently says.

The last word comes from Zack’s manager, Brian Mitchell, who says: “Zack can go all the way, but he has first got to get past the hurdle of Mchunu. Provided he can do this, and I am confident he can, the door will be open to him and major
opportunities will come his way.”