Jonathan Kumuteo has beaten rare skin condition and the odds to turn pro

Adversity, heart and courage are characteristics often associated with boxing.

Drawing the power to lift yourself off the canvas from a thunderous right hand, or finding the reserves to grit your teeth and battle through the final round.

For Jonathan Kumuteo, those scenarios have, in many ways, already played out even before stepping into a professional ring for the first time.

But instead of gritting his teeth to get through the final round, it was digging deep to find the energy to escape after being left bed bound by a rare skin disease for eight months.

Or instead of rising from the canvas, it was stepping onto a plane alone as a seven-year-old in search of a better life after his family had escaped war-torn Congo when he was just a toddler.

“If I can go through everything I’ve been through, when I get into the ring it’s going to be a different story knowing what I'm capable of,” Kumuteo declares.

And it is already quite a story.

Born in what was then called Zaire in the midst of a Civil War in 1995, Kumuteo’s homeland became the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996.

“The Civil War went on for a very long time, and it was still going on when we managed to leave,” he explains.

“We spent some time in South Africa then went to Zambia for two years before I came to the UK.”

The date of his huge journey to join his father in London is etched in his mind courtesy of a photo which is now amongst his most cherished possessions.

“On March 14, 2003 my Mum woke me up in the middle of the night and told me I was going to live in London, England with my Dad.

“At the time he was studying Economics. He was one of a very few who were given a scholarship from Congo to study a Masters degree.

“I didn’t really know him because I was only two years old when he left for London, but my Mum woke me up, told me I was going to live with him.

“She put me on a plane, seven years old, from Zambia on my own to the UK and I’ve been here ever since.

“My Mum joined us a few years later, but that’s where the journey began I guess.”

As a youngster, Kumuteo learnt discipline and competitiveness – but not in a boxing ring.

“I joined something called the Sea Cadet Corps when I was aged nine, and that was the thing that taught me discipline,” he explains.

“I learnt a lot. We were always away every weekend and I think that’s where my competitiveness kick-started.

“We used to go swimming every Friday, kayaking, rowing and things like that. It was there that I really got that discipline and competitiveness instilled in me I’d say.”

It was not until the age of 15, in 2011, that Kumuteo stepped into a boxing gym, the famed Finchley ABC.

“I didn’t really get much recognition in the gym,” he admits.

“I was at Finchley ABC, a very busy gym with a lot of huge talent. Lots of champions have come out of there, the likes of Anthony Joshua, Dereck Chisora, so I was surrounded by some great boxers.

“In October 2012 I finally got into the ring for my first boxing fight, I won that, fast forward a few years and I was still competing. I had just under 30 fights then I was hit with a random skin disease.”

Having previously suffered from acne as a teenager, an ingrown hair under Kumuteo’s right arm developed in 2015.

After being given antibiotics by his GP, it doubled in size but remained pain free – until a trip to visit a friend at Coventry University.

Suddenly, he felt like his underarm was “going to explode” and he was taken for surgery the very next day.

“I was still not really taking it too seriously, being myself, cracking jokes figuring they’d just pop it and it’d be sorted.”

Left with a 4cm wide and deep hole under his arm, Kumuteo recalls the day which followed as “the most painful day I can recall in my whole life”.

Surgical tissue was pushed into the wound each day for about six weeks, but he continued to study for his A Levels and returned to the gym.

Kumuteo’s boxing continued, he trained for the National Championships and won the U20 Novices class at the London Championships in late 2016.

Around the same time, he was finally diagnosed with Hidradenitis, known as HS, a rare skin condition which effects less than 1% of the population.

Then, after taking time off following his National Championship preparations, things took a turn for the worse.

“My coach told me to rest for a couple of weeks, then whilst I was resting I started to feel weak which was the big difference from falling ill the first time,” he recalls.

“The first time I was just in pain, now I’m feeling weak and I’m in pain. I remember New Year’s Eve in 2016 I literally couldn’t even get out of bed.

“At the time I was also taking eight tablets a day and strong antibiotics which people with TB and HIV take, that’s how strong the medication was.

“I had still kept boxing, I still made the national semis, still won the London Championships.

“But now, all of a sudden, I couldn’t even get out of bed and in the back of my mind I knew what it was.”

He went to hospital and underwent a second operation on January 4, 2017 and was left bed bound as a result.

“This time it was horrendous,” he recalls. “I was bed bound for eight months straight, the first eight months of 2017 I couldn’t even get out of bed.

“I remember when I got the green light to go back to the gym before going back to a bit of boxing, I couldn’t even do 10 reps on the bench press with just the bar.

“That for me really hurt, because prior to that, less than a year earlier, I’d won the London championships for my age group. Now I’m in bed, can’t get out, and I’m that weak.

“I started working, rebuilt my strength and got back into boxing for a few more fights.”

Kumuteo’s pride and confidence, understandably, took a major hit.

For over two years, he bled without warning on a daily basis and was forced to wear heavy dressings 24/7 to prevent his clothes being ruined.

It saw him move out of the spotlight by staying away from social media and fearing he would never box again.

“Being so low for eight months straight, I decided to take time off social media,” he says.

“I had a lot of celebrity friends, a lot of athletic friends and I just felt like I was playing catch-up with the 2016 version of me the whole time.

“I was still on medication which contained the illness, but for over two years I was bleeding every single day.

“When I had the second operation I was so weak I didn’t think I was going to box again. But I just started watching a lot of videos on YouTube of people that inspired me, guys like CT Fletcher who has had heart failure twice and still got back to doing what he does, lifting weights.

“I just thought, if people like that can overcome their obstacles then so can I. There are people out there going through circumstances they aren’t complaining about, and taking those situations and winning them.

“When I realised that I stopped complaining and just did what I needed to do.”

After that moment of realisation, Kumuteo decided he needed to take a risk.

He opted to undergo an operation given just a 50% chance of success in a bid to save his career and facilitate a transition to professional boxing.

He says: “I came back to boxing, had a few fights, had my last amateur fight in April 2018, lost in the London championships, again against a guy I had beaten.

“When I lost against someone I knew I was more than capable of beating I knew I was limiting myself, not by choice but because of my illness.

“If I was going to continue boxing, I knew I needed to chase it up and find something that wouldn’t hold me back.

“I saw my dermatologist, got an appointment with a plastic surgeon and when I had my consultation she was very confident that I could be cured.

“She said it was a 50/50 operation, but the difference between my HS and other people was that mine was defined to particular areas on my underarms and a bit in my groin area.

“What they had to do essentially was remove my sweat glands because it attacks the pores. She said it in a positive way and when she asked when I wanted the operation and I said as soon as possible.

“It was pencilled in for November 8, 2018, three days after my birthday and I was back in training as well with Spencer Oliver at the time.

“We trained right until the day because I knew I was going to be out for a long time, being out for eight months after the second operation.

“I thought if I’m going to be out for a long time then I need to make the most of these moments, because I love the sport.

“I had the operation, and I recovered and was given the green light on February 9, 2019. The first thing I did was return to training, and I’ve been working hard ever since.”

It was after that successful operation that everything changed for Kumuteo.

He returned to social media to share footage of his dressings being removed a week on from the surgery, sparking messages from fellow sufferers and athletes around the globe.

“That video, it meant a lot,” he admits. “It’s not something I really watch back, but great things happened from putting that out.

“It showed me that I wasn’t alone, there were others going through what I was going through, because HS is a skin condition which apparently only effects 0.4% of the population.

“On average, it takes six years until people are diagnosed with it, so whereas it felt like a long time for me waiting two years, it was quicker than most people.

“There are many people out there going undiagnosed, so I just want to help raise awareness of that.

“It made me feel a bit better about myself, because sometimes when you’re suffering with HS and other skin conditions you can feel dirty and unhygienic.

“It can be very embarrassing to tell people I have holes in my underarms or they’re lumpy and people don’t understand.

“When I saw that video, I said, I must put this out for the world to see because there have to be many people out there going through what I’m going through.

“At that point I was so confident I was going to overcome this that I felt it was important to put my journey out there.

“Sometimes we are vulnerable, but social media in general is just people’s highlights of their good times.

“When I put that out it got over 300,000 views and people to this day message me about it and asking me for advice on HS.

“I received so much support from people all over the world, from fellow athletes, and that was a blessing.

“When I put out that content, a lot of people told me to take up public speaking and at first I wasn’t interested, but I gave it a try, I got in touch with a few school teachers and fast forward now I’ve been to over 20 schools all over the UK telling my story.

“I’ve spent time with over 10,000 students and told them my story in order to try and encourage them through sport and show them that mindset.”

After telling his inspiring tale, Kumuteo will now pursue his dream in the ring.

He has turned professional under Frank Warren and BT Sport, although his planned professional debut on April 17 never even made the stage of being announced as coronavirus struck.

Whilst many in his shoes would be restless and itching to get in the ring, waiting a little longer is a price worth paying after everything Kumuteo has been through.

For the first time in over four years, he can remain calm and relaxed as he continues his preparations in safe conditions.

“I really needed to focus on my pro boxing transition, there’s a lot more to it than just training.

“We’re finally there now, we finally sorted that out then April 17 I was meant to make my professional debut on BT Sport.

“That was postponed. I didn’t even get a chance to announce it because there were rumours the BBBoC was going to postpone boxing, they did, then they announced lockdown.

“This lockdown has been so weird for me, but in a positive way. In the last three years I’ve been trying to get back on my feet.

“When I finally sorted everything out – the contracts, the gym I’ll be training at, which pro coach I was going to work with, my nutritionist, strength and conditioning – I just had to pass my medicals.

“That was the last thing and everyone was a bit worried the board might decline it for whatever reason because what I went through was very graphic.

“But I didn’t need to have the last operation, I chose to have that operation because I wanted to make that pro boxing transition and it worked. With the medication, I’ve been feeling the best I’ve felt since pre-2016.

“My last stress was passing the medical examinations, that was in March. I got the results in mid-March, I passed, then I was given a fight date which obviously now hasn’t happened.

“But I’m in lockdown and very relaxed because I’ve taken care of everything I needed to do. I’ve finally done it, and I’m chilled.

“This is the first time since pre-2016 I’ve been able to rest my mind and my body. My mind has been travelling at 100mph, every day, for the last three years or more.

“Luckily I train at a private gym and my coach gave me the keys at the gym so I’ve been able to keep training within the guidelines.”

Kumuteo has overcome his fair share of struggles already just to reach the professional ranks.

Now, he can rest easy in the knowledge that, as long as he continues to manage his condition with medication, the next step in his journey will be decided on merit in the ring.

Describing himself as an “aggressive counter-puncher” who likes to “box on the front foot, look to counter then take charge”, he enters his career in the welterweight division oozing with confidence.

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