Thomas Essomba is fighting for Sunderland when he defends Commonwealth title

Boxer Thomas Essomba outside of the Stadium of Light, the home of Sunderland AFC . Picture by FRANK REID
Boxer Thomas Essomba outside of the Stadium of Light, the home of Sunderland AFC . Picture by FRANK REID
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A group of footballers in red and white stripes are not the only men fighting for Sunderland.

It’s getting to the point where it’s life and death, in a Premier League sense, for David Moyes and his bottom of the table side.

But for Thomas Essomba, boxing is about life and death, given he puts head and body on the line every time he climbs through the ropes.

The 29-year-old is fighting for himself and his city when he does that next, in London on Friday night.

Essomba defends his Commonwealth flyweight title at the York Hall in the capital’s East End where he faces unbeaten Welshman Jay Harris.

“Sunderland is my home. My family and friends are all here,” he said.

“Whenever I go somewhere else I don’t feel as confident or happy.

“Everything I want is in Sunderland and it’s my dream to bring this belt back.”

Friday night’s fight in Bethnal Green will provide a poignant moment as well as a violent one for the reigning champion.

For the tiny boxer, who will tip the scales at less than eight stones, it was just down the road in the capital where he began his life-changing journey to the place he now calls home.

Essomba had never heard of Sunderland when he applied for political asylum after representing Cameroon at the 2012 Olympics.

Thomas, fearful for his welfare, could not face a return to Africa.

After a few months in London a slightly bewildered, nervous fighter arrived in Sunderland without a penny and with barely a word of English.

He joined Phil Jeffries’ Olympian gym, boxing first as am amateur and then turning pro under the Wearside fight figure.

The rest is history, highlighted by his 11th-round dismantling of Waleed Din to win the Commonwealth title.

“After applying for asylum I was sent to Sunderland, I had never heard of it,” he said.

“I knew very little about England or the UK, growing up in Cameroon as a football fan, I’d heard only of places like Liverpool, Manchester and Chelsea!

“When I came to Sunderland I didn’t know anyone and my friend, Maggie, showed me the boxing gym and I went there and started boxing for Jaffa.

“It was hard when I first came, I am from a big family but here I was alone.

“But I learned English and I was helped by so many nice people who made me feel so welcome in Sunderland.

“I don’t really like talking about what happened before, it makes me feel sad.

“Cameroon is not a bad country and does not have bad people.

“I was scared of what might happen to me if I went back [after the Olympics].

“After I’d boxed at my first Olympics I was promised a lot of things by the government.

“They did nothing after Beijing in 2008 they said they would do and I complained.

“In my country, they do not like people who complain.

“I didn’t win a medal in London and they said stuff like they would stop my career and put me in prison.

“My country is not like this one we live in. There is corruption so when they say bad things can happen you believe it.

“I wouldn’t have been the first person something bad happened to, I know better people have ended up in prison or dead.

“I was scared, I could not go back.”

Britain and Sunderland embraced him.

Jeffries set the fighter on his way and with coach Sean Casey in his corner, he achieved his dream of becoming a professional champion in October 2015.

He ruthlessly took apart undefeated Sheffield boxer Waleed Din in Rotherham, stopping his opponent in the 11th round.

And for all the pain and emotion he feels talking about his past, the present and future appears bright for Essomba.

He lives in the city centre with girlfriend, Falone, and 18-month-old son, Thomas, who was born just before he was crowned Commonwealth champ.

“After he was born I promised I would win the belt,” said Thomas Snr. “I’ve promised him now that I’ll be keeping it.”

This adopted son of Wearside intends to be a man of his word.