Page last updated at 14:40 GMT, Wednesday, 8 October 2008 15:40 UK

Boxer was casualty of smoking row

By Chris Summers
BBC News

A man has been convicted of the murder of a former British heavyweight boxing champion who was shot in a bar three weeks after the smoking ban was introduced in England.

JAMES OYEBOLA
James Oyebola, beating Clifton Mitchell to win the British heavyweight title
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1961 and came to England aged six
Won bronze medal at 1986 Commonwealth Games, having lost to Lennox Lewis in semi-finals
Turned professional in 1987 and beat Derby's Clifton Mitchell to win British heavyweight title in 1994 (pictured)
Lost the title the following year, being knocked out by Brighton's Scott Welch
Retired in 1996 and became a doorman

James Oyebola is believed to have been the only person to be killed as a result of the ban.

The 46-year-old former British heavyweight champion - who had fought Lennox Lewis in the 1986 Commonwealth Games - made his living as a doorman.

But he was off duty in the early hours of 23 July and was drinking in the Chateau 6 bar in Fulham, south-west London.

Well built and 6ft 9in (2.05m) tall, he was known to boxing fans as "Big Bad" James Oyebola - but outside the ring he was gentle and polite.

On the night Mr Oyebola died, a smoker, Jermaine Ford, said the former boxer had approached him and politely asked him to put his cigarette out. He said Mr Oyebola had not done so in a way that would cause offence.

But shortly after midnight Mr Oyebola became involved in a fracas, which ended in four shots being fired.

Jeremy Donne QC, prosecuting, told the Old Bailey trial that although there had been CCTV cameras inside the club they had not captured the actual shooting.

But what actually happened slowly emerged during the trial.

A young man was smoking in an area known as the "garden bar" although it was undercover and covered by the smoking ban.

When Mr Oyebola approached him and asked him to stop smoking, a row developed.

After a brief scuffle a friend of the smoker, Kanyanta Mulenga, pulled out a gun and fired at Mr Oyebola, who was described in court as "a giant of a man".

Bled to death

One bullet passed through Mr Oyebola's neck, hitting his carotid artery and causing a fatal loss of blood.

Mulenga had smuggled the gun into the club by hiding it in his underpants. He could be seen on the CCTV footage pushing something inside his trousers.

As the former champion slumped in a chair, panic ensued and the bar quickly emptied.

CCTV footage shown to the court showed Mulenga leaving calmly, moments after the club's other guests had fled.

Boris Johnson joins the Oyebola family to unveil the painting
I hope this painting will act as both a positive celebration of James's life and a stark warning of the tragic consequences of violent crime
Boris Johnson

The jury was shown footage in which a friend of Mulenga's, Rene McKoy, appeared to reach over the bar and take a bottle of vodka on his way out. The jury heard the bottle had been found in a nearby alley, with Mr McKoy's fingerprints all over it.

Detectives found cigarette butts in the bar that contained the DNA of Dean Francis and another man, who cannot be named for legal reasons.

The murder weapon - a Baikal automatic pistol, which had been imported from Russia - was never found and Mulenga and his friends initially denied having anything to do with Mr Oyebola's death.

But halfway through the trial Mr Francis and Mr McKoy agreed to testify against Mulenga. All charges against them were dropped.

Scott Welch holding the British heavyweight belt he won from Oyebola
You get in that ring to win and put your life on the line and to go through his life as he did and then get shot by a coward is pretty bad
Scott Welch

Mr McKoy told the court he had heard the shots and then turned around and seen Mulenga pointing the gun into the "garden bar" area.

Mr Francis said had not seen the gun inside the club but Mulenga had later produced it as they had been walking through Wandsworth. He said he had walked off and then reappeared without it.

Mulenga said he had not had a gun on him that night and had not shot Mr Oyebola. He said he had probably been fiddling with his wallet on the CCTV footage, rather than a weapon.

But on Wednesday he was found guilty of killing Mr Oyebola.

Scott Welch, who fought Mr Oyebola twice and won the British heavyweight title from him in 1995, said he was a "gentleman".

'He was a warrior'

He told the BBC News website: "He was a warrior. We had two tough fights. He won the first and I won the second but whenever we saw each other we gave each other a big hug and I had the greatest respect for him.

"You get in that ring to win and put your life on the line and to go through his life as he did and then get shot by a coward is pretty bad."

Malin Bergstrom, Mr Oyebola's partner, said: "The sudden and brutal death of James has had a huge impact, not only on me and my children, but also on people close to him."

Kanyanta Mulenga
Mulenga's girlfriend was in tears after the verdict

In an emotional tribute to the father-of-three, Ms Bergstrom said he had been a "great father and role model" whose death in such a "horrible manner" made it hard to see how the family could carry on.

Earlier this year the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, unveiled a painting of Mr Oyebola at City Hall and praised him.

"He was a well loved man known as the 'gentle giant' whose horrific murder shocked the entire city," Mr Johnson said.

"I hope this painting will act as both a positive celebration of James's life and a stark warning of the tragic consequences of violent crime."




SEE ALSO
Oyebola was a 'first-class man'
27 Jul 07 |  London

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