Harare - He was 18 when he fought and lost his first professional fight and a ripe old man of 38 when he fought and lost his last fight – more than 30 years ago – but in between he defied booze and a lot of other distractions to win three Commonwealth boxing titles in a career that defined greatness.
On Tuesday, in his hometown of Gweru in the Zimbabwe Midlands, Langton “Schoolboy” Tinago, the world boxing champion that the country never got a chance to see and whose potential heroics they never got to celebrate, passed away a year short of his 70th birthday.
He was, without a doubt, the greatest boxer Zimbabwe has ever had and, according to many respected pundits, will probably ever have – a genuine prized fighter who was simply as good as they will ever come in this sport and who was a natural athlete.
Dave Wellings, the Englishman who cycled from his native base in the United Kingdom in an adventure that would see him cross Europe and most of Africa to settle in Zimbabwe, where he transformed himself into a respected boxing coach, said Tinago was a natural athlete.
By the time the two met, Tinago was already 30 and probably past his prime with the boxer telling the man who would be on his side in some of his finest moments in the ring, he was now considering retirement from a sport that has been a part of his entire adult life.
Remarkably, said Wellings, Tinago “smelled of beer” on that occasion when the two met at a shop, The People Choice Bazaar, but the Englishman still believed in him to give the boxer a chance to train under his stable, Action Promotions.
“He would pound the heavy punch bag like an automation for an hour and then return in the cool of the evening for sparring session,” Wellings said in a book he wrote about his time in Africa.
“He had superb defensive reactions and a laser-like left jab — but that was all. I used to joke that his right cross was like his birthday party, he only threw it once a year, combination punches were just rare I doubt he had ever thrown an uppercut.”
But, Wellings knew there was something special about this prized fighter and decided to take him on board since what he lacked was something that could be infused into him, all of which is captured in the trainer’s fascinating book, “The Benyu Years”.
“The book has an unusual structure. It’s the story of three journeys. A physical journey across Africa, a personal journey as I become involved in training and promoting boxers in Zimbabwe and the background to all this was the journey of a nation as Rhodesia became Zimbabwe,” said Wellings.
It is a mark of Wellings’ ringing endorsement of Tinago’s incredible talents that the trainer believes the boxer would have been Zimbabwe’s first world boxing champion had he fought for the global titles when he was still in the prime of his career.
Of course, that never happened because Tinago, whose first professional fight was a loss at the hands of Jack Schoolboy on points in Bulawayo on July 5, 1967, started his professional adventure just after his country had been frozen from the international sporting community.
The Rhodesian leaders decision to come up with the Unilateral Declaration of Independence a few years before Tinago turned professional came at a huge cost for the country’s sportspersons during that era as the nation was frozen out of the international sporting community.
After his debut professional loss to Schoolboy, the man who would be the true Schoolboy, went on to win 13 straight fights before, again, running into his old nemesis who ended his unbeaten run – again on points – on July 4, 1971.
From that moment, Tinago won 18 straight fights – at a time when he was at the very peak of his athletic powers – and it was unfortunate that it came when his country was considered a pariah state whose citizens were barred from international sporting contests.
Tinago also had his wild ways, with booze a constant feature of his life, and as this country staggered towards Independence, Wellings knew that a window was about to open for the prized after.
There was a problem, though, when an opportunity came through.
“After several months of lobbying, the invite finally came through but I could not locate Tinago at his flat and found him dancing the night away to the deafening sounds of Congolese music at then ‘notorious’ Queens Hotel,” Wellings says in his book.
The fight was against Nigeria’s Hogan Jimoh, another monster fighter who had won 33 of his 35 fights, and Wellings gave his man only two days to take out the substances in his body which would compromise his athleticism and fitness for the big fight.
In Lagos that night in 1981, the beast that was Tinago came to the fore and Jimoh was no match for the prize fighter from Zimbabwe with the Nigerians being knocked out as the athlete from Gweru picked his first Commonwealth boxing title.
There was also a US$5,000 cheque for his efforts.
Two other Commonwealth titles would follow in the ‘80s and that they came when Tinago had clearly gone past his peak, when he was fighting way into his late ‘30s, was testimony of the class and quality of this fine athlete.
“When I was still boxing I used to run about 100km. Sometimes I would go to Norton from Harare back and forth running,” he recalled.
“While I was in Gweru, I used to run up to Shangani, which is about 86km away, and sometimes Lalapanzi.
“I would hit the punch bag three hours nonstop. Even right now, I can do up to 2,000 push-ups. I do not see that in our young boxers who are fighting these days. They quickly give up.”
Zimbabwe has had its fair share of very good boxers, including former African heavyweight champion Proud “Kilimanjaro” Chinembiri, but there is widespread acknowledgement that no one was as good, or will probably be as good, as the Schoolboy.
Eighty-six wins out of his 107 professional fights is the stuff of legends.