Meeting a man who knew all the tricks
About 21 years ago, a remarkable Pretoria-born boxer who had fought in the booths in England, was back in South Africa.
Bill Bosch, then curator of the SA Boxing Control Board museum in Johannesburg, called and asked: “Ron, would you like to chat to Alf James?”
As a boxing historian, I knew all about Alf James, except that he was in town. Bill handed the telephone to the former SA lightweight and welterweight champion and within minutes we were chatting away like old friends, even though I had never met him or seen him box.
The Northern Transvaal Veteran Boxers Association meeting was to be held the next day and I arranged to take Alf along, hoping to learn more about some of the stories I had been told about him.
James was born in Pretoria on July 19, 1919. He began boxing as a paperweight (about 38 kg) in the orphanage where he was being brought up.
His father, who was born in County Cork, was still a young man when he died and his wife was unable to bring up Alf, his two brothers and two sisters. So Alf was sent to an orphanage.
He later worked his passage on a boat to England, found a job as an usher at the Trocadero Cinema in Elephant and Castle and started training at the La Boheme Club in Mile End Road.
He made his professional debut on January 30, 1938. The fight was at the famous Blackfriars Ring in London and he knocked out George Hayman in the fourth round of what would be a junior lightweight bout today.
Alf said he never kept record of his early fights but according to available data he won his first 14 fights before losing to Joe Slark at Blackfriars on August 11, 1938.
However, he had broken the metacarpals in his right hand early in his career and was unable to punch really hard with it.
It forced him to become a crafty fighter, concentrating on his skills and on ways of stopping opponents who were “outside the system”, as Alf called them.
Fighting in the booths those days, a boxer had try to stop his opponent in the opening rounds because if the bout lasted three rounds the promoter had to pay the other fighter five pounds, something they did not like to do.
Because of his weak right hand, Alf employed and perfected some tricks that he got away with more often than not.
When we met in Johannesburg, he was still pretty sharp. After a cup of tea at the Pretoria home of fellow historian Andre de Vries, Alf showed us a few of the tricks, such as how to cut an opponent around the eyes with a little “nod” of the head and how to wrench his elbow as you pulled him inside.
Alf believed young fighters were taught wrongly. They should learn the skills of defence before being taught to attack, he said.
FIGHTING HIS BOYHOOD IDOL
Alf’s first fight in South Africa was in Durban in August 1939 when he outpointed Snowy Smith over eight rounds. He then beat Bob Bradley and drew with Dave Katzen before facing his boyhood idol, Laurie Stevens.
Stevens was the national welterweight champion and Alf, who was never more than a lightweight for most of his career, was stopped in the sixth round.
After beating Jack Botha and Bob Bradley in April 1940, Alf joined the Rand Light Infantry and served in Egypt. But he contracted malaria and returned to South Africa, where he was transferred to the Royal Air Force.
In the first tournament after the war he met Stevens again. For the rematch on October 20, 1945 he had to concede weight but fought to a creditable daw over 12 rounds.
Fighting at his natural weight in February 1946, Alf won the SA lightweight title when he outpointed Willie Miller. He retained it against Miller in a return fight, beat Charlie Catterall on points and drew with an American, Proctor Heinhold.
On November 14, 1946 he beat Katzen on points, but forfeited the SA title because he had weighed in over the limit.
In 1947 Alf was stopped twice by Eric Boon from England. He also had three successive fights with a rugged Hollander, Giel de Roode. He won one, lost one and was cut so badly that he also lost the third. One of their clashes was voted fight of the year.
However, Alf finished 1947 in style with a points win over American Rudy Zadell.
ANOTHER CRACK AT SA TITLE
Nearing the end of his career, he had another crack at the SA welterweight title, challenging the stylish and younger George Angelo. It was the first of a series of four fights.
James lost their first clash on a close decision. The ring was soaked because of rain during the bout. But they had agreed before the fight that the winner would give the loser a return match within a month because of the conditions in the ring.
They met again only 28 days later, on February 21, 1948. This time the shrewd James neutralised Angelo’s speed and skills to be crowned champion after twelve rounds.
Having held the title for only 28 days, Angelo set a record for the shortest reign in the welterweight division.
James then beat Finland’s Sten Suvio, who had won the welterweight gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and retained his title against Gille van der Westhuizen before beating Piet van Staden, Maurice Ouezeman of France and Don Carr.
In a return bout with Carr on November 29, 1948 he lost the national title, blaming his defeat on weight problems.
SAD END TO HIS CAREER
In December 1948, fighting at middleweight in Durban, he was knocked out by Angelo. And in their fourth bout, in Salisbury on May 7, 1949, his career came to sad end when he was stopped in the second round.
After retiring with a record of 49-15-3, including only 9 knockouts, Alf stayed in the game as a manger, trainer and promoter.
But some of his habits landed him in trouble.
Chris Greyvenstein wrote in The Fighters that “James was one of the most colourful characters in South African boxing history.
“Maurice Owen, a leading Durban promoter, is James’s stepbrother and he remembers how Alfie once won forty thousand pounds on the racecourse, only to lose the lot back to the bookmakers within a week.”
Greyvenstein also wrote: “He was an easy touch for anybody with a plausible hard-luck story and he dished out money feverishly whenever he was in funds. A tough negotiator during his days as a top draw-card, James used to smile sympathetically at the furious Reg Haswell and say: ‘I can’t help doing this, Reg. It’s because I’m a quarter Jew!’ His mother was, in fact, half Jewish and his father was a Gentile.”
James later went to live in England but returned to South Africa and died of a heart attack at Orania in the Northern Cape on July 12, 2000.