SPOKANE, Wash. — When Yakobo Mleha showed up at Shriners Children’s Hospital, he was new to the country. He and his family left Africa for opportunity and a chance to save Yakobo’s lower leg.
That decision changed his life and put him on a path toward college and boxing.
Through the years Rick Welliver has watched plenty of aspiring boxers step into the ring of his downtown Spokane gym. They all have stories. Few as compelling as Mleha’s.
"He’s what’s right about our country, he’s what’s right about the world. He’s a good kid," Welliver said.
Mleha’s new to the sport, but Welliver sees promise in his punching ability.
When you consider what he’s been through, it's Mleha’s footwork that’s even more impressive. When he was a young boy living in Tanzania he broke his lower and it was never properly treated.
"It was really, really bad. It was like a little ‘S’ shape kind of, that’s the best I could describe it. I could run on it too, so yeah, I could basically do everything normal, but the leg was messed up,” Mleha said.
Video from the Motion Analysis Center at Shriners shows how young Mleha was walking when he arrived in Spokane. He says he wasn’t in pain. Still, as he recalls, doctors in Tanzania didn’t think they could fix it.
"The doctors wanted to say that there’s no way to fix it other than to just cut off the leg but my mom didn’t want that, so we moved over here and came over the Shriner’s hospital and they fixed me up,” Mleha said.
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Bryan Tompkins still remembers when Mleha’s family showed up at the hospital.
"We looked at him and kind of said, well, yeah we can make you walk better again,” Tompkins said.
Tompkins said Mleha broke his tibia, the weight-bearing bone in his lower leg, and likely had a bone infection at some point too. It never properly healed, he’d adapted and was walking on the non-weight-bearing bone in his lower leg, the fibula. It took several procedures to fix his leg.
"We basically put together the two ends that weren’t connected," Tompkins said. "Get that to heal back together with the surgery and then we had to lengthen the bone back out over time to make it the same size as the other side.”
The recovery is remarkable. His leg is straight and he’s able to run and change directions just like any other kid his age. The product of surgeries, months of recovery and countless hours of physical therapy.
"I just got used to it so, like whatever they told me to do I’d just do so I could just get better and just try to be normal like everybody else,” Mleha said.
He will always have the scars, but his leg has long since healed and he’s now focused on his path forward. That includes graduating in the Spring, community college and, of course, boxing.
"He’s, he’s got a phenomenal jab. He could win a fight with just his jab it’s so good," Welliver said.
Mleha is still unsure when he’ll step into the ring against an opponent. For now, he’s just enjoying the journey and thankful to everyone who’s helped him along the way.
"If I didn’t go to Shriners my life would be really different right now, so I’m really proud that I went there and Dr. Tompkins was the one that fixed the leg and did the surgery, so I’m really proud of that, very grateful,” Mleha said.