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
"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
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
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
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