Flo Simba: in the boxing ring with type 1 diabetes

Michael Brown

Type 1 diabetes did not prevent former International Boxing Organisation (IBO) World Youth Heavyweight Title Holder, Flo Simba, returning to the professional boxing arena on Monday 13th April at Emperors Palace. He scored his first win in three years forcing Big Ben Malumba from the DRC to quit in the fourth round.

Following the fight, the ever-modest Flo said, “I feel humbled and blessed to go through this journey. I have learned a lot on and off the sports field, and have met great individuals that have taken the initiative to help me get to this point. I was a little shy about stating publicly that I have diabetes, but I have seen and experienced the family at the Centre for Diabetes and Endocrinology (CDE). I am proud to have diabetes, as I can see what my efforts are doing to the younger generation, not only to those with diabetes, but also to those with other medical conditions. At the end of the day, we all want to be treated equally, on and off the sports field. Win or lose, we have taken a step in the right direction to better ourselves, regardless of the outcome”.

Flo Simba, boxer with type 1 diabetes

Flo "The Demolition Man" Simba takes on "Big Ben" Malumba at Emperor's Palace

Read: Cardio and resistance training helps to manage diabetes

Flo was mindful to thank all those who had assisted him to reach this turning point in his career. “I would like to give a big thank you to Alberto Fogolin for his guidance and support. He has truly been a driving force in helping me to get to this point. His guidance brought me to the CDE - I have no doubt that this is a family of people / specialists that loves what they do. Also, under his guidance, I was also introduced to a whole new training regimen by doing cross fit at B4C (Bodies 4 Christ). I won the fight but we all won the war. There are plenty fights to come, and I will be ready. God Bless everyone”.

The charismatic young boxing professional is obviously very popular with boxing fans – admirers and fans waylaid him many times on his way back to the changing rooms to give him congratulatory hugs and to have a photograph taken with him.

This win by Flo Simba was not only important for him. It was also a major ‘win’ for people with diabetes. Comments from some of the healthcare professionals who assisted Flo to beat the odds and compete in professional sport at the highest level, help to provide the necessary insights:

Andrew Heilbrunn, Head Biokineticist at the CDE in Houghton, met Flo Simba, and his mentor Alberto Fogolin, in September 2013. “Our working relationship has been nothing short of inspirational,” he said.

“Many spectators and fans are unaware that Flo Simba has type 1 diabetes. For Boxing SA to reinstate Flo as a professional boxer, he needed to show a clean bill of health. With Flo’s unrelenting will to get back into the ring, we worked tirelessly behind the scenes to get Flo fit, healthy and his blood glucose levels well controlled, so that he could fight once again at the highest level.

After a year of medicals, high-level boxing and fitness training, constant blood glucose monitoring, significant insulin changes and dosage adjustments, comprehensive dietary advice and numerous letters written to the boxing authorities, Flo was awarded his boxing licence”.

Read: How to exercise safely with diabetes

Diabetes and extreme exercise

Flo battled with numerous hypoglycaemic (low blood glucose) episodes from intensive training. Furthermore, when a person has repeated hypoglycaemia, they tend to lose the physiological warning signs that provide early awareness of the next hypoglycaemic episode, a very dangerous situation.  We then introduced Flo to the rest of the diabetes care team at the CDE in Houghton, Johannesburg. Methodically, we worked on reducing his hypoglycaemic risk”.

Flo Simba fight against Big Ben Malumba

Flo Simba takes a swing at Big Ben Malumba

Fight night

“After going through a rollercoaster of expectation, hope and disappointment, Flo eventually landed a fight against Big Ben Marcell Malumba. Flo’s diabetes care team and Alberto Fogolin were so proud of the fact that we enabled him to return to the ring to fight - the result seemed immaterial.  Flo, however, did not disappoint and showed us why he deserves to be there, taking a giant step forward in resurrecting his boxing career.  It was a highly emotional and humbling evening, which we hope, will motivate other athletes with diabetes to reach the pinnacle of their ability”.

Read: Diabetics should lift weights

Enthusiastic medical support

Flo’s doctor, CDE Endocrinologist, Debbie Gordon was an enthusiastic supporter during the fight. Beaming with delight at his win she said, “Attending the fight was like watching a child’s face when they get a new toy. It was pure delight for me to see him reach his personal goal and to know that hard work in our CDE Team, and the drive and ambition from Flo, culminated in his success. I am proud to be his doctor! And I know, that this is just the beginning for him, and for the world to see that people with type 1 diabetes can be true sportsmen”.

Flo Simba with Dr Debbie Gordon

Flo with his endocrinologist Dr. Debbie Gordon

Read: Tips for diabetic runners

A myth dispelled

Prof Larry Distiller, Managing Director of the CDE, proudly remarked, “Flo’s achievement of returning successfully to the ring should not be underestimated - he should be regarded as an icon for anyone with type 1 diabetes who has a dream. Flo’s return to the ring was not an overnight occurrence - it took nearly two years of work with Andrew Heilbrunn and his diabetes care team to achieve.

Flo elected to thank the team by wearing the CDE logo proudly on his kit. Professional Boxing must be one of the most energy sapping and exhausting of all contact sports and requires an incredibly high level of physical fitness.  The energy expended in one fight is enormous. Thus, it provides a massive challenge for someone with type 1 diabetes to be able to perform in the ring at maximum levels of efficiency, without developing hypoglycaemia, but at the same time maintaining glucose levels sufficient to provide optimum energy for the task at hand. Such are the challenges, that it has been said that people with type 1 diabetes would never be able to box professionally. Flo Simba has put that myth to rest. He has shown once again that with the necessary commitment, and the ability to handle the additional challenge of diabetes, someone with type 1 diabetes can achieve anything he or she sets out to do. Never should it be said, “It can’t be done!””

Photos by Michael Brown and Mark Geldenhuys

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