How Jonathan Kumuteo overcame rare skin disease to realise his pro boxing dream
From world champions to journeymen, fighters will tell you boxing saved their life – not Jonathan Kumuteo. He did that for himself.
Kumuteo was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The fighter has faced incredible challenges through-out his life, from fleeing his war-torn home to being put on a plane by his mother as an eleven-year old to travel 7,000km on his own to England.
When Kumuteo stepped into a boxing gym at the age of 15 in 2011, he was already tailor-made for the sport. He had transitioned brilliantly to life in the UK, spoke six languages and excelled at almost everything he picked up.
‘Subconsciously I learned to adapt,’ Kumuteo told Metro.co.uk.
‘We were living in Zambia and in March 2003 my mother woke me up in the middle of the night slash morning and told me I was going to live with my father in London.
‘That was literally it. She took me to the airport.’
‘I carried myself in school as though I was the best at everything and a few friends challenged me to come to the boxing gym and spar them,’ he continued.
‘It sounds cliche but you know I’m a fighter in life and when I tried boxing it felt like it was my thing. That was weird for me.
‘I expected to go down there, do my friend’s challenge and go onto the next thing. But it was different. It gave me great adrenaline.
‘I had an adrenaline rush every time I even thought of going to the boxing gym. It was very similar to how I felt going to Cadets. I was home.’
Kumuteo had done Cadets for seven years. He says young men in his area would turn to boxing for discipline, looking for a place to channel their aggression, but Kumuteo already had those tools by the time he walked into Finchley ABC. He juggled Cadets with boxing for a year but was then forced to chose between the two.
Although, it was hardly a difficult choice for Kumuteo. ‘I knew boxing wasn’t going to be a hobby for me, it was going to be a full-time career,’ he explained.
But then as his amateur career was taking off, life threw another challenge at Kumuteo. In 2014, he noticed a pimple under his arm that refused to go away.
‘I had a regular check up with my GP because of acne and I told her about this lump. She gave me basic antibiotics, penicillin. But it doubled in size everyday.
‘It still didn’t hurt, but it became the size of a golf ball and putting your arm down, oh my God, it was painful.
‘But as an alpha male I didn’t want to go to the hospital. I still went to study, I still went to box and I still competed with that on my underarm.
‘Until one day I was watching films with my friends and suddenly this pain hit me. My underarm, that whole area was so hot, I felt as though it was going to explode. I tried to not scream, it was that painful.’
This time Kumuteo did go to the hospital and doctors performed an operation to drain the lump. He woke up and thought the issue was dealt with, but it was just the beginning of a five-year battle to return to full health.
‘I had to go to a local hospital after two days to get the dressings changed,’ Kumuteo remembered. ‘I thought that was it. I went to my local hospital and I remember the nurse taking off the dressings and she started to cry.
‘I was there with my girlfriend at the time and she also started to cry. I was in pain but I wasn’t understanding why people were crying. The nurse said to me I had a four centimetre deep and wide hole in my underarm.
‘”This hasn’t been stitched closed, this has been left open”. You can imagine me laying back trying to look back under my underarm, it’s a weird angle.
‘I remember being in shock. They pushed this surgical tissue inside it that would soak up all the fluids, it needed to recover from the inside out.
‘I had to get my wounds packed and unpacked every single day for six weeks straight.
‘And the very first time the nurse pulled out the surgical tissue, it was a pain that is unmatched today. I felt everything you could feel.’
When the six weeks elapsed, Kumuteo was back in the gym, training.
That first operation was in the summer of 2015 and a year later Kumuteo was preparing for the national championships. He was training and fighting, but the wound under his arm would still open. By the summer of 2016, blood and puss would sweep from the gash and now Kumuteo had abscesses and swelling under both his underarms, and on his groin.
‘It started to become odorous and eventually I started to feel swelling again,’ he said.
‘It makes it so tough mentally too because you’re going through this and no one knows unless you tell them. When you do, people don’t understand.
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I smile because I'm grateful. I smile because I'm blessed. I smile because there is love in the world… Because sometimes that's all we have to hold onto. I believe that every battle we face in life, no matter how it impacts us, brings with it a lesson to be learnt. We must always be grateful for that and use it to move forward with dignity and grace. My smile in this picture did little to minimise the physical pain and anguish, yet looking back, demonstrated my resilience and attitude in the fight to recovery. I have a long way to go, but I am determined to come out victorious.
‘People are questioning your hygiene. People would tell me I wasn’t ill. I’d call in to training and my coach would understood if I couldn’t make it, but anyone else would tell me I wasn’t taking boxing seriously.
‘I remember I was studying A-levels when I was diagnosed and I would arrive late to college. I’d try to explain but I’m embarrassed, I don’t even want to tell people.
‘You’ve told your close friends and your family and they don’t understand so in your mind, how can anybody else understand?’
It was in this period that Kumuteo was diagnosed with Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS). He had never heard of the rare skin condition that affects less than one per cent of the world’s population.
Kumuteo scowered the internet for stories on HS recovery, but found nothing.
‘It wasn’t a relief at all being diagnosed with HS, but it made sense,’ he said.
‘Suffering my HS, I would literally surf the net every day. I honestly never once read a successful story and that was very upsetting.
‘It was very disheartening especially when you would be going through a flare up when my underarms would swell up.
‘Those are the most difficult times because it has a negative mental impact on you. Not seeing any success stories at all makes you think “wow, will I ever overcome this?”’
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Where do I begin or how do I end? How do I explain what I have longed to explain when the journey is yet to begin? The pain, the struggle, the hustle, the blood, the sweat and the tears are sure to follow, but I'm ready now. This is my story, the start of a new beginning. In 2012 I made my first ever Instagram post, the moment I discovered the flame in my heart would become the fire that would forever burn as I chased my dream. This was made possible by one like, one view, one follower, one at a time. Before long, an online family of support, coming from those and each and every one of you that walked beside me on the path to victory. Today I'm apologising to each of you because I failed to continuously make you a part of my journey. I welcomed and encouraged you to walk with me during the good yet chose to walk alone during the bad, cutting you out, turning my back on you. I hope it's not too late to say I'm sorry and to rewinding the time and re-claim faith with you all. I found myself holding on, believing there was only a past, now I know that letting go means there is a future… With you. My name is Jonathan Kumuteo. I have been battling with Hidradenitis Suppurativa also known as H.S which is a chronic inflammatory skin disease for a little over 4 years. I’ll be back stronger and resilient. I hope you will find it in your hearts to join me once again.
Even with the abscesses, Kumuteo fought in the London championships at the end of 2016, won the tournament and then lost in the semi-final of the national championships to the eventual winner.
His coach told him to rest for two weeks, but by the end of that fortnight Kumuteo couldn’t get out of bed. He had a second operation in January 2017.
‘It was a horrific time period in my life. It took me eight months to recover,’ Kumuteo said. ‘The first one took six weeks and I didn’t even want to go through that again.’
‘That eight months lying down slowed my life down to a standstill,’ he continued.
‘It allowed me to go back to the drawing board, reset my mind set and come to terms with things. Create a plan, write it down and follow through.’ He added: ‘When you lay down for eight months you learn a new type of patience.’
But the fight for Kumuteo wasn’t over. He went back to training, but HS also returned. It was then his mother sat her son down.
He recalled: ‘My mum said to me, “you can’t keep living like this”. I would be going away to box and had all this preparation [to do with my HS].
‘I would be putting dressings under my underarms. She’s looking at me worried and sees me popping antibiotics everyday.
‘She said I couldn’t keep competing like that because she knows boxing is dangerous. I told her I had to fight and I had to win.
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Today my doctor said “You’re a very fast healer, you’ll be back in the gym soon“ 😌 Watch until the end 🤣 Always try to smile because your smile can give other people a reason to smile too 😁 Leave a comment if you agree 😆 Thanks for all the love and support 🙌🏾 You guys keep me going ❤️ Happy New Year 🥳
‘I remember going to my third operation in 2018 and my doctor said to me I was only performing at 50 per cent. Yet I managed to win the London championships. I went as far as the national semi-finals and losing to the eventual winner who beat someone in the final I had already beaten.
‘That was at 50 per cent. That was wearing dressings everyday for two years straight, that was taking a minimum of eight antibiotics a day that HIV and AID patients take.
‘How my mind is and how I am now is wow, if I can do that imagine what I can do now I’m free from it?’
The third and final operation removed Kumuteo’s sweat glands under his arm and around his groin. It was another massive risk, the doctors gave the surgery a 50 per cent chance of working, but it paid off for Kumuteo.
Kumuteo was finally free of HS and released a video of his recovery after the third operation. Skin had been taken from his buttocks for the skin graft. ‘Technically speaking if someone tickles me under my armpit they are tickling my bum,’ he said, laughing.
Now Kumuteo’s professional debut is on the horizon. He signed with Frank Warren and Queensbury Promotions during the summer. He turns 25 in November. Lockdown was a breeze for the young man who had been to hell and back more than once.
He had one goal when the world ground to halt and that was to tell his story. It’s so remarkable, even Kumuteo doesn’t always believe it.
‘I have been forced to look back at the videos recently and it’s like I look at myself in the third person,’ he said.
‘For a split second I forget that person was me. I was always laughing, but I forget sometimes what I’ve been through.
‘It doesn’t start from HS, it starts from my mother putting me on a plane age seven from Africa to the UK.
‘Having to adapt to such a huge change at such a young age, it’s all prepared me for today and I’m nowhere near the finished article.
‘However, I believe I have the tools to become a world beater and to be an inspiration for people.
‘If you unlock your mind you can do anything. I feel I can’t be stopped and I won’t be stopped.
‘But it takes time, it does’t happen overnight. Little by little, baby steps. That’s all I did. Nothing ever goes according to plan, but you can always believe in yourself.’
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