Jonathan Kumuteo has already fought the toughest battle of his life even before stepping into the ring for his first professional boxing bout.
The 24-year-old welterweight is one of Frank Warren’s recently-signed prospects, penning a professional deal with the promoter in May this year after an impressive amateur career.
That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of his story. While his journey as a professional fighter is only beginning, Kumuteo has already suffered more physical pain than he is ever likely to feel inside the ring, having battled a rare skin condition that at one point left him bed bound for eight months and his career prospects in tatters.
Kumuteo arrived in north London as a seven-year-old from war-torn Democratic of Congo, first walking into Finchley boxing club at the age of 15 where the likes of Anthony Joshua and Dereck Chisora have previously cut their teeth.
In late 2014, the trouble started. Having made exciting progress as an amateur, an abscess appeared on his underarm and despite being prescribed antibiotics it continued to grow to the size of a golf ball.
“I didn’t want to go to the hospital, I was thinking eventually it will just pop,” Kumuteo told Standard Sport. “That didn’t happen. I was watching films with my friends one night and my arm just felt like it was going to explode. I was walking around the house, not knowing what to do. It was so hot I thought it was going to explode.”
It led to the first of three surgeries Kumuteo would undergo over the following four years but it was the aftermath of the first that provided him with the most excruciating pain he has ever felt, having been left with a hole 4cm wide and 4cm deep under his arm.
“I remember looking trying to see and it shocked me, they had pushed this surgical material into my underarm which would soak up fluids. The reason they had left such a big hole is because the surrounding tissue had been damaged. Using tweezers to remove the surgical tissue was the most painful thing I have felt to date. I could feel everything on the inside.
“If I could cry, I would have cried. But I couldn’t. I had to do that for six weeks.”
Despite that, Kumuteo quickly returned to boxing, training for the National Championships and winning the Under-20 Novices class at the London Championships in late 2016. During that time he was taking eight tablets a day and strong antibiotics to battle his condition. But it was around that time the swelling returned, this time under both underarms, taking a major toll on his body.
For a while, he continued to train wearing huge dressing under both underarms to cover the wounds that would tear and start bleeding at any point.
“There would be days when I couldn’t get up out of bed. I could have a really good training day and then I’d have to call my coach and say I can’t make it. That was the script throughout 2016 when I competed in the novice championships in the same year in November.”
Advised by his amateur coach Sean Murphy, a figure of inspiration and comfort throughout those years, he took some time off. The pain was now different from the first time he underwent surgery with more and more abscesses emerging on his body, each more painful. After a visit to a dermatologist, it was then he was diagnosed with hidradenitis suppurativa (HS), which is thought to affect one per cent of the UK population.
While there was a small sense of relief that came with being correctly diagnosed, there was still confusion as to why he was suffering from it.
“Being diagnosed made sense for me but it didn’t make me feel better. HS is a chronic, inflammatory skin disease, there is no cure. That made me feel embarrassed and depressed. How do I explain it to someone? I was telling family and friends and they would say; ‘are you sure you’re not just unhygienic, or dirty?’ And I could guarantee them I’m very clean.”
He underwent surgery for the second time in January 2017 – a procedure which left him bed-ridden for the next eight months. “It was the toughest period of my life to date,” he recalled.
When he was eventually given the green light to return to the gym again his confidence had taken a huge hit as his sores returned again and bled without warning every day, forcing him to take a step out of the spotlight and stay away from social media.
With the condition still playing havoc with his life and boxing aspirations, Kumuteo was then presented with three options as treatment continued – two of those would have all but ended his career in the sport. The third, another surgery, presented him with a 50-50 chance of continuing in the ring.
“For me, 50 per cent was a big hope, prior to that all the doctors were telling me is that I might as well give up boxing. Because your body is working at 50 per cent. As an athlete you need to be at 100. To hear it was 50-50, 100 percent I had to take the risk.”
The operation saw sweat glands removed from both his underarms and infected areas removed from his groin area, where the sores had also spread to. Donor skin was taken from his backside instead of his thigh – a decision made on how he might one day look stepping on the scales on fight night.
Given the option of one major surgery of several different operations, he opted for the former. “I was told, when you wake up from that operation you are going to feel like you’ve been hit by a bus.”
12 weeks later in February 2019, he was back in the gym. He hasn’t left it since.
“You wouldn’t even know I’d had the operation. I feel fantastic. In my mind, if I was able to win the London championships feeling ill with my body working at 50 per cent taking eight strong antibiotics a day, what can I achieve when I’m healed?”
Kumuteo remained devoted to boxing throughout his struggle with HS and after returning for good after that third surgery that ensured he no longer needs treatment or medication, quickly set about proving himself to his coaches and some of the UK’s top boxers, whom he has frequently sparred with.
Signing with Frank Warren and Queensberry promotions earlier this year provided the emotional pay-off he had waited years for.
“This was years in the making. Feeling this every single day, having to adapt how I life my life, wearing dressing every single day for two years, having to take strong antibiotics that even HIV and TB patients take… When you go through that and realise you keep surviving, it gave me strength.”
Looking back on his battle with HS, Kumuteo reflects on his relationships that came under strain, hurt that some struggled to accept what he says is a largely invisible disease.
“No one really understood the depth of how ill I was. No one understood it, not even my family. That made me feel very alone. That made me not want to speak about it.
“When I told my friends I can’t make it today, I’m in pain, nobody is really hearing it or taking time out of their day to go and Google was HS is. That was upsetting for me. It made me keep myself to myself.
"But looking back now, that was the wrong thing to do. I have many people around to support me now. But because I felt embarrassed, I thought if my close friends and family can’t comprehend what I’m going through, how can anyone else? I shut myself away from the world.”
Kumuteo’s professional debut was delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak but with boxing rolling on behind closed doors, he expects to make his debut in September, handed a huge platform to impress on with BT Sport. He hopes others suffering in silence with HS can take inspiration from his story as he looks to fulfil his promise after years of pain.
“Having bounced back from that, going through it all was a blessing in disguise. I see it as something that’s prepared me for this journey I’m about to embark on. If I can bounce back from that, I’m very well equipped for this game.
“In regard to my journey with HS, my professional debut will just be the end of the beginning.”