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Okoth:How a fire smoked out my career

What would you do if your talent or something that you like so much is taken away because of reasons beyond your control?

Former boxer Jared Okoth has to live with that painful fact after his career was suddenly cut short. Misfortune struck when he was at the peak of his game. A fire broke out at a friend’s house where he had spent the night and Okoth sustained injuries so bad that he could no longer box.

He honed his skills at Dallas Social Hall in Muthurwa, where famous boxers both past and present started out. Legendary Robert Napunyi Wangila, the only African boxer to win an Olympic gold medal, and Suleiman Bilali are products of Dallas.

Okoth started watching matches at Dallas when he was 15 and got enthralled by the moves of the boxers. He slowly started getting interested.

 Inter-estate fight

By the time he was 18, he was an upcoming boxer and made his debut during an Inter- estate fight where his profile began to grow.

In 2000, he turned professional and joined the Thailand Boxing Club where he competed in the feather weight 57kg category.

“It was a dream come true for me to rise from a humble background and pursue a career path that I loved,” he said.

In 2002, Okoth became the national featherweight champion after knocking out the holder Fredrick Nyakesha in a fiercly fought five-round bout.

“It was a defining moment in my career, because my hard work was finally paying off. My confidence and self-belief grew. At that point I felt that my achievements would be limitless for as long as I kept pushing myself,” he said.

With his career on a steady rise, Okoth led Thailand to a tournament in Kampala in 2002 were they finished second. He was named the Most Valuable Player and won praise from regional boxers at the championship.

But just when things were looking up, fate had other ideas. In November of that year, Okoth’s life changed forever.

 Dark day

On that fateful day, he had just finished training at Railways Club in Muthurwa where he lived and decided to collect rent from one of his tenants at the nearby Kaloleni estate.

“I waited for the tenant until late but he didn’t show up. I decided to spend the night at a friend’s house since it was late. But this decision turned out to be costly,” he said.

After supper, Okoth went to bed because he was tired. Since the house had no electricity, he used a candle.

Okoth cannot recall what happened, all he remembered was he began coughing because the room was filled with smoke. He was told the fire was started by the candle.

“The whole room was burning and I was choking. I screamed for help, but no one came to me rescue. I managed to escape through a window,” said Okoth.

“It as been alleged that someone cursed me because of my success and maybe that person had a hand in the fire that almost killed me,” said the father of five.

Neighbours rushed him to the Kenyatta National Hospital after suffering burns on his head, hands, back and chest.

He was admitted at the hospital for nine months and his family struggled to pay the bill that accumulated to Sh250,000. Fortunately, Kenya Railways that Okoth once worked for, cleared the bill but his life was never the same again.

Due to the severe injuries he sustained on his hands and fingers, he was unable to continue with boxing unless he was operated on. Okoth lacks the funds for the surgery.

“It was big blow for my career at a time when it was picking up well. I had big plans,” he said.

Angry and desperate, he turned to alcohol and drugs. He slid into depression because he could not come to terms with the reality that he would never fight again.

“My wife and kids were there for me and would constantly encourage me that things would be better but I did not hear them and my depression became worse,” he said.

He reluctantly accepted his fate that without the operation he wouldn’t fight again. Friends who visited Okoth encouraged him to stay positive, in spite of the predicament.

 Misfortune struck

He regrets that misfortune struck when he was eyeing a place in the national team. He said: “Having established myself locally, I was aiming for international success. I wanted to fight the best boxers in the world,” he said.

Okoth now spends his days co-managing a carwash business in Kaloleni and owns rental rooms too.

He trains thrice a week to keep fit because he hasn’t lost hope of returning to the ring one day.

“Boxing was my first love and I know before I die, I would get another chance to go back to the ring. I have not given up yet,” said Okoth, 32.

He sometimes visits his friend, former boxer Suleiman Bilali whom he regards as one of the greatest fighters Kenya has ever had.

Bilali, an Olympic Bronze light fly weight medallist now lives in squalor at Muthurwa after suffering injuries, mental health problems and accidents.

Okoth is grateful that Bilali visited him in hospital. He returns that favour by helping him whenever he can. To upcoming boxers, Okoth advises them to be disciplined and avoid drugs and alcohol at all costs.

“If things don’t turn out right, it isn’t the end of the world,” said Okoth.