Let's pay tribute to trainers
The question about the chicken and the egg is a tough one. And it’s no easier to tell whether a great trainer makes a great boxer or vice versa.
Former heavyweight world champion Larry Holmes once asked:” Did Angelo Dundee make Muhammad Ali, or did Ali make Dundee? Did Jack Blackburn make Joe Louis or did Joe Louis make Blackburn?”
The answer probably lies in a comment made many years ago by legendary trainer Ray Arcel.
“You are only as good as the fighter you work with,” Arcel said. “It does not matter how much you know, if your fighter cannot fight, you are just another bum in the park.”
One does not have to be a particularly talented trainer to work with some fighters. Some are naturals who will become champions no matter who coaches them. Others are fighters of average ability who can be developed into champions by outstanding trainers.
However, there is no doubt that good trainers play an important role in the development of boxers, as much as good trainers help athletes, swimmers and other individuals as well as sports teams reach the top.
The top trainers are normally good observers who can make the difference between winning and losing. They are often former champions, amateur psychologists and, in modern sport, supported by various scientists.
Some sports stars stay with the same trainer throughout their career; others blame the coach when they lose and move on to another one.
Trainers go back a long way in boxing history.
Meander of Athens gained recognition as the trainer of Olympic champions in 48 BC.
Pythagaros of Samos was an Olympic champion in 500 BC and went on to become one of the greatest trainers of his time.
One of the earliest acclaimed trainers in England was Barclay Allardyce, also known as Captain Barclay.
He trained Tom Cribb for his second fight against American Tom Molineaux and received much praise for slimming down Cribb and bringing him into such fine condition for the fight.
South Africa has produced some outstanding trainers since the early part of the 20th century.
Possibly the first trainer of note in South Africa was James Couper. He was known as the father of SA boxing and took part in the first big international fight in South Africa when he beat Wilf Bendoff at Eagles Nest, about 10 km south of Johannesburg, on July 26, 1889.
Couper opened a gymnasium as part of the growing Wanderers Club in Johannesburg in 1890 and trained and promoted Jim Holloway, Dan Erasmus and Barney Malone, playing a dominant role in establishing boxing in Transvaal.
Bill Heffernan, a New Zealander who arrived in South Africa in 1894 and won the SA middleweight title in September that year when he stopped Lachie Thompson, later trained Fred Buckland, Rudy Unholz and other champions. He ran a couple of boxing schools on the West Rand and in the centre of Johannesburg.
Legendary Jack Lalor, a former SA welterweight, middleweight and heavyweight champion, took over the training of Johnny Squires from Joe Meyers, a well-known trainer at the time. Squires won the SA heavyweight title in 1922.
Sandy Cairns, who was born in Scotland and came to South Africa in 1928, handled several SA champions, including Alec Hannan.
Jim Holloway, who fought from 1888 to 1910 and at one time held the SA lightweight and middleweight titles, operated a gym in Pretoria in the early part of the twentieth century.
Louis Walsh trained national heavyweight champion Fred Storbeck and Ben Foord, who won the British Empire heavyweight crown.
Empire lightweight and SA lightweight and welterweight champion Laurie Stevens started his career at Joe Gorton’s club. Gorton had a lot to do with the development of the Olympic gold medallists and gave Stevens a sound foundation.
When Gorton quit boxing, Jim Fennesy, an old-time fighter, took over Stevens’s training as an amateur before Johnny Watson became his trainer until he retired from boxing.
When Watson died in August 1968, Stevens told Paul Irwin of the Rand Daily Mail that he had lost a wonderful friend and a great trainer. There was no fuss in the corner, just a quick rub of the shoulders and planning the next round.
Len McLoughlin, who was outpointed by Stevens as an amateur, was Laurie’s first real test in the professional ring.
Tom Holdstock, who represented South Africa at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, trained McLoughlin.
McLoughin and Holdstock later went on to guide the career of heavyweight hope Johnny Ralph in the late 1940s. Due to their close relationship, they three became known as the “Three Musketeers”.
When it comes to families in boxing there are few that can match the Toweels.
For many years, the corrugated iron construction in the backyard at 12 Balfour Avenue, Benoni, was the gymnasium where “Papa” Mike Toweel trained his sons, Jimmy, Vic, Alan, Willie and Fraser.
The Toweels won a world title, a draw in a world championship bout, two British Empire titles and seven national championships.
Alan, who was undefeated in eight professional fights when asthma terminated his career, followed in his father’s footsteps as a successful trainer.
He trained Vic and Willie and during the 1970s his stable included Pierre Fourie, Kosie Smith, Mike Schutte, Sydney Bensch, Johnny Sham and Kokkie Olivier.
Alan also guided SA heavyweight champion Pierre Coetzer to some big international bouts.
Willie Toweel followed the family tradition after he retired from boxing and trained Brian Mitchell, Piet Crous and Sugar Boy Malinga, who went on to win world titles.
Job Sebalo, a principal at a Soweto primary school, spent most of his spare time training boxers. He managed and trained two national champions – 30 years apart.
The first was Fondie Mavuso, who won the welterweight crown in the early 1950s. Thirty years later, Job was the trainer when Jerry Mbitse won the SA junior featherweight title.
Sebalo trained his fighters at his Blackburn Boxing Club – named in honour of Joe Louis’ trainer – and was known as one of the toughest negotiators in the business.
Bennie Singh, known as “The Father of African Boxing,” operated in the Durban area and was involved in training, managing and promoting fighters in the 1950s.
Theo Mthembu, who challenged for the SA featherweight title in 1952, became an outstanding trainer who guided many fighters to the top. The most notable was Baby Jake Matlala who won four world titles.
Mzimasi Mnguni, from the Eastern Cape, has trained more world champions than any other SA trainer. His most notable world champions were Welcome Ncita, Mbulelo Botile and Vuyani Bungu.
Other notable SA trainers were Joe Rosella, Dolf du Plessis, Harry Best, Tony Karam, Ernest Ludick, Norman Fleischer, Abe Hack, Cookie Mendoza, Gerry Roseman, Ted Russell, Raymond Slack, “Oom” Andries Steyn and Billy Lotter.
Also on the list are Les Whiteboy, Doug Dolan, Jeff Ellis, Brian Mitchell, Andries Steyn, Bernie Taylor, Ernie Baronet, Zola Koti, Eugene Khanyile, Reg Healy, Eddie Sokweba, Loyisa Mtya, Paul Tshehla, George le Roux, Gerhard Botes, Luckis Campanis, Chin Govender, Ralph Haynes, Steve Kalakoda, Rob Macleod, Menzi Nqodi and Elias Tshabalala,
Stanley Ndlovu and Richard Letsatsi, who has become one of the most successful SA matchmakers, have also contributed much to SA boxing.
In recent years, SA trainers proved to be equal to the best. Among these were Willie Lock, Harold Volbrecht, Norman Hlabane, Nick Durandt and Manny Fernandes.
Lock trained many champions at his Yeoville gym and was instrumental in taking Peter Mathebula to a historic win over Tae Shik Kim in December 1980. Mathebula won the WBA flyweight title to become the first black SA fighter to win a world title.
Lock also trained Gerrie Coetzee, possibly the best heavyweight to come out of South Africa. Coletzee won the WBA title in September 1983.
Volbrecht holds the record of 19 defences of the SA welterweight title. He became a highly respected trainer and is rated as one of the best and most successful SA cornermen.
When Brian Mitchell left Carlos Jacomo in March 1989, Volbrecht took over as his trainer. They had been friends for many years and soon formed an excellent working relationship.
Volbrecht took Mitchell to his second world title when he won the IBF junior lightweight belt in Sacramento with a points win over Tony Lopez.
He also trained Phillip Holiday, who won the IBF lightweight belt and made six successful defences.
Volbrecht has trained many SA champions, but his most notable success as trainer – for which he received little recognition – was with Corrie Sanders, who won the WBU heavyweight and the WBO belts when he knocked out the highly regarded Wladimir Klitschko in two rounds.
Another trainer who has never received the recognition he deserves is Jabu Malinga, who took his son Peter to two world titles and his other son, Vusi, to a SA title.
The man behind Dingaan Thobela, a triple world champion and double SA champion, Norman Hlabane, also never received credit for his handling of many fighters.
Nick Durandt, son of Cliff Durandt, who played football for Wolverhampton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic, learnt his trade under the guidance of Willie Toweel and has achieved more than any other trainer in SA boxing.
Durandt has produced 13 world champions and 61 SA champions. Yet he has always been willing to learn from other trainers and has worked with Americans Tommy Brooks, George Benton, Lou Duva and Alton Merkerson.
Among those he has spent time with in training camps are Pernell Whitaker, Roy Jones Jr, Oscar de la Hoya and Evander Holyfield.
He even spent six months with George Benton, one of the finest and most successful trainers in recent years.
In 2002, Durandt was named SA Trainer of the Year.
Fernandes, who started in his small gym underneath the Wembley Indoor Arena, battled in the beginning before beginning to produce champions.
Among his most notable achievements were taking Isaac Hlatshwayo to the IBO lightweight title and resurrecting the career of Simon Ramoni, that saw him win the SA junior bantamweight title.
Fernandes has been named SA Trainer of the Year twice.
Colin Nathan, who has been described as SA's youngest cornerman, went into the corner with his father when he was ten years old – at a tournament in Cape Town.
It caused a furore and his father was told to get the youngster out of there.
However, after haggling for two years, the 12-year-old was given a licence, as there was no age limit for cornermen in the Boxing Act.
His passion for boxing is clear when he says, “I want to be the best trainer in the country. I know it is a long road before I get there, but I am determined to make it.”
Another young trainer who takes the game seriously and is regarded as one of the deepest thinkers in the game, is Warren Hulley. He says Emmanuel Steward is his mentor.