20 May 2004
South Africa has a proud history on the world boxing stage. The country’s boxers have won over 50 world titles, from light flyweight through to heavyweight, and South Africa continues to churn out fighters ready to challenge for world crowns.
Certainly, the advent of more than one world governing body has made it a lot easier to win a “world” title, but it takes plenty of hard work and dedication to make it to the top.
Back when only one world title existed, Vic Toweel was the only South African to make it to the top of the pile, winning the world welterweight title in 1950.
At that time, though, apartheid saw to it that many of the country’s top boxers were not afforded the chance to practise their sport professionally.
Some time before democracy was achieved in 1994, however, boxing opened up doors for many black South Africans. Areas such as the Eastern Cape, especially around East London, produced numerous classy fighters, and boxing became a sport of the people; race didn’t really matter, because the success of a South African boxer was just that: a South African success.
After Vic Toweel’s success in 1950, it was 23 years before South Africa was able to claim another world champion. Arnold Taylor did the trick when he knocked out Romea Anaya in the fourteenth round of their WBA bantamweight title bout in Johannesburg in 1973. He went on to successfully defend the title three times before losing it on points over 15 rounds to Soo-Hwan Hong.
It took a wait of another seven years before SA could applaud another world champion, and this time he was black. Peter “Terror” Mathebula defeated Tae-Shik Kim to claim the WBA bantamweight title in Atlantic City in 1981.
Three years later, Gerrie Coetzee became the latest “great white hope” when he knocked out Michael Dokes in the tenth round to win the WBA heavyweight title.
Two years after that, in 1986, the man many regard as South Africa’s finest ever world champion, Brian Mitchell, won the WBA junior-lightweight title with a tenth-ound KO of Alfredo Layne. He went on to successfully defend his title 12 times over five years – not once on home soil – before retiring.
Since the 1990s, titles have come thick and fast for South African boxers. Some have even become multiple title holders.
Dingaan Thobela, “The Rose of Soweto”, won world crowns as a lightweight and a middleweight. His slick punching skills earned him many fans, but another fighter emerged from Soweto who proved even more popular than Thobela.
The shortest world boxing champion ever at 4 feet 10 inches, “Baby” Jake Matlala won world titles in four different organisations, starting in 1993 with the WBO flyweight title, and ending with the WBU junior flyweight title in 2001. A charismatic man, Baby Jake was an all-action fighter who crowded his opponents, pounding them with a furious work rate.
The night Baby Jake retired, Nelson Mandela was in attendance, watching as Matlala brought down the curtain on his 76-fight career with a seventh-round knockout of Juan Harrera.
Other South Africans to win multiple titles include Thulani “Sugarboy” Malinga, Cassius Baloyi, Lehlohonolo “Hands of Stone” Ledwaba, Mzukisi Sikali, Masibulele “Hawk” Makepula, and Mbulelo Botile.