Tuesday, July 23, 1996

Defiagbon proud to fight for Canada

Executive Producer SLAM! Sports
 ATLANTA -- David Defiagbon will climb into the Olympic boxing ring tomorrow wearing the colors of Canada and completing a journey that began four years ago in Barcelona when he dropped to his knees to beg a Canadian coach to help him escape from Nigeria.
 Since that summer day at the 1992 Olympics, Defiagbon has been arrested, beaten and jailed overnight in Lagos after military police caught him trying to flee to Canada. He has ignored police threats and slipped back to the airport, escaping in the night. He has come to
 Halifax, virtually penniless, carrying one small bag, refusing welfare, to hold down three jobs to convince immigration authorities he would make a good Canadian.
 Defiagbon was awarded his citizenship last January. Tomorrow he will say thanks, not with words, but by using his God-given athletic talent to try to bring Canada some Olympic glory in the boxing ring.
 "I have so much to thank Canada for,'' he said. "This country has given me a home. For three years after I came to Halifax I worried every day that I might be deported back to Nigeria. If I had been sent back I would have gone to jail or been killed.
 "I want to thank Canada for my new citizenship, and for accepting me and letting me start a new life here.''
 The roots of Defiagbon's Canadian odyssey can be traced to 1989 when Canada's national boxing team, led by Taylor Gordon, visited Nigeria. Defiagbon approached Gordon and asked the coach to help get him flee the military dictatorship of Nigeria. Gordon, who had heard similar requests from many boxers over the years, politely explained there was nothing he could do. Then he forgot all about the troubled boxer.
 A year later they met again at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in New Zealand. By this time, Defiagbon had developed into an impressive heavyweight and he beat Gordon's fighter, Greg Johnson, for the gold medal. Again Gordon refused to help the Nigerian flee.
 At the 1991 World Championship in Australia, Defiagbon renewed his plea to Gordon and again was refused. Nigeria, Defiagbon explained, was being run by military tyrants. People were being executed for little reason. The Muslim leadership was persecuting the Christian minority. Defiagbon was secure as long as he remained a famous boxer, but the competitive lifespan of a boxer is short; he wanted to live long.
 By 1992, representing Nigeria at the Barcelona Olympics, Defiagbon was becoming desperate. He approached Gordon in a crowded foyer at the athlete's village and again asked for help. When Gordon refused, Defiagbon dropped to his knees, wrapped his arms around Gordon and, weeping, begged the Canadian coach to take pity on him.
 "There must have been 200 people there and all of a sudden I have this 6-foot-five guy grabbing me around the legs and begging for my help,'' Gordon said. "He had tears running down his face.''
 Gordon, feeling embarrassed and growing angry, finally said he would see what he could do. He'd have said anything to get the big man back on his feet.
 "He didn't like what I did,'' said Defiagbon. "I think he was really mad at me.''
 But Gordon kept his word. He agreed to sponsor Defiagbon in Canada. He arranged to have the boxer move in with his son, Wayne, and father and son even agreed to become Defiagbon's new coaches. All that was left was to spirit him out of Nigeria.
 On the first attempt, Defiagbon made it as far as an airport check-in counter before he was recognized. He was dragged through the airport, down an escalator and, bleeding, thrown into an airport cell. He passport and tickets were confiscated and then he was beaten and told he'd suffer worse if he tried again to flee.
 "I went to the airport to meet his plane and when he wasn't there I was worried sick,'' Gordon said. "We checked with the KLM office and they told us that David was at the counter when the police hauled him away. ''
 "I was terrified,'' Defiagbon said. "They really gave me a good beating.''
 Defiagbon's passport was handed over to the Nigerian Boxing Federation to be used only when he was travelling to represent Nigeria at boxing tournaments. But a week later, Defiagbon paid a $100 bribe to someone inside the federation office to steal back his passport. A friend purchased a plane ticket for him and, after dark, Defiagbon slipped back into the airport. This time he didn't risk checking any luggage. He hid in a washroom until minutes before his flight and hurried onto the plane undetected.
 "I can't tell you the feeling of relief when the plane took off,'' he said.
 Gordon says his fighter made a relatively quick adjustment to life in Halifax. Defiagbon is proud to have never accepted a penny of social assistance. He currently holds three jobs: security guard, city cleaner and nightclub bouncer.
 Defiagbon says that the Nigerians he has met in the athlete's village support his decision to leave his homeland and fight under a new flag. He suspects many Nigerians will be following his progress, and rooting for him, when he dons the Canadian singlet tomorrow.
 He says he will probably give a thought to his trouble birthplace sometime before he enters the ring. But once the fight begins he will belong to Canada.