The Lebanese contribution
No family in South Africa, possibly even in the world, have approached the boxing achievements for which the Toweels became famous.
They were of Lebanese extraction, but by no way the only ones with this background to gain success in SA boxing.
“Papa Mike” Toweel was still a youngster when he arrived in South Africa from Sybil in Lebanon, where he was born on February 11 1904. His mother had decided to move to South Africa after the death of her husband.
She married for a second time in South Africa but times were hard and she and her young son made a living by selling material and boot laces to the miners in the Benoni area near Johannesburg.
Mike soon began boxing and turned into a good amateur, but his mother refused to allow him to compete in a tournament that could have led to selection for the SA team to compete at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.
It was said that she could not stand the thought of her son going to the pleasure capital of Europe.
Because of poor sight, Mike was unable compete as a professional but he taught and trained his sons in the art of boxing. This he did in a stuffy corrugated iron structure in the backyard of his home at 12 Balfour Avenue, Benoni.
UNDISPUTED WORLD TITLE
Between them, Jimmy, Vic and Willie collected an undisputed world title (still the only one in SA boxing), a draw in a world championship bout, two British Empire titles, and seven SA titles.
Vic and Willie represented South Africa at the Olympics, Willie winning a bronze medal. Vic won the SA bantamweight and featherweight titles and became the British Empire and undisputed world bantamweight champion.
Willie won national titles in the bantamweight, featherweight, lightweight and welterweight divisions and also the British Empire lightweight title.
Jimmy, the eldest, won the SA lightweight title. Another brother, Maurice, became an outstanding matchmaker, manager and promoter. He was crippled by polio when he was a child but it did not stop him from travelling around the world with his brothers and other fighters.
Getting around on crutches and in a wheelchair, he was known as a tough negotiator and a shrewd judge of boxing talent and character. He insisted on boxers under his management to be trained by his brother Alan.
Alan, who trained Willie and another brother, Fraser, was a good amateur, winning 126 of his 134 bouts. In 1946 he won East Rand, Transvaal and SA junior titles. He had eight professional fights, winning seven and drawing one and was in line to challenge Pat Patrick for the SA welterweight title when he had to retire because of asthma. However, he became one the best SA trainers.
Fraser, the youngest brother, had 46 amateur fights and won East Rand, Transvaal and SA junior titles but suffered from health problems.
He lost only seven of his 33 professional fights but lost six times to Willie Ludick, an outstanding welterweight contemporary. His only other loss was to Stoffel Steyn.
In March 1969 Fraser fought Ludick for the last time, losing on a tenth-round technical knockout. He then retired with a record of 26-7, including 6 knockouts.
Fraser’s son Paul fought in Australia from 1982 to 1991 and won the South Pacific middleweight title.
Paul’s brother Victor had a few professional bouts as a super-middleweight in the late 1980s and another brother, Michael, was a professional in the middleweight division.
One of the earliest fighters of Lebanese extraction to gain recognition in South Africa was Buddy Lebanon, who was also known as Barney Lebanon. He was born in Johannesburg October 10 1910 and named Bechus Henry Lebanon.
He won the SA amateur flyweight title in 1926 and represented South Africa at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam.
In his first fight at the Games he beat O Nilsen of Norway. He also won against Ben Bril of Holland to reach the semifinals where he lost to a Frenchman, Armand Apell. He fought Carlo Cavagnoli for the bronze medal but was beaten.
Patrick Toweel, who was trained by his cousin Alan, fought as a professional from 1964 to 1969. He won the SA welterweight title on September 7 1968 when he outpointed Ludick over 12 rounds.
He made two defences before losing the title to Dave Rose and finished with a record of 25-6, including 13 knockouts. He later also moved to Australia.
Patrick’s brother Johnny fought as a lightweight in the late 1960s and Tony Toweel, who was also related to the “Fighting Toweels” had a few fights as a professional lightweight in the early 1970s.
BEAT HIS COUSIN
Tony Habib was an exciting lightweight who fought as a professional from 1950 to 1954. He is best remembered for the night – August 1 1952 – he beat his cousin Jimmy Toweel on a ninth-round stoppage for the SA lightweight title, which he lost to Johnny van Rensburg.
Habib fought good fighters such as Solly Cantor, Benny Nieuwenhuizen and Tony Lombard and compiled a record of 21-5-1; 9. However, his career was hampered as a result of an incident with explosives in which he lost a few fingers.
Johnny Sham, an outstanding amateur who won the SA amateur junior welterweight title in 1969, was also of Lebanese extract. As a professional, he won the SA “white” junior middleweight title on June 6 1977 when he outpointed Gert Craemer.
He also challenged Harold Volbrecht twice for the SA welterweight title but was beaten on points on both occasions. He compiled a record of 19 wins, with four inside the distance, and 7 losses. His brother Robert also fought as an amateur.
Joe Rosella was another remarkable fighter with Lebanese roots. Named William Joseph Rosella, he was born in Cape Town on June 26 1897 and died at the age of 93. According to reports, he had his first professional fight in Cape Town when he was only 16 years old.
He won the SA welterweight title in Kroonstad on February 8 1921 when he beat Ronnie Dumar on points over 20 rounds. On August 27 1921 he also lost to Bob Storbeck in a challenge for the SA middleweight title in Dundee, Natal.
He had a reported record of 4-7-1; 3 but probably had more fights. After retiring, he became a trainer with his own gym in Johannesburg.
THE KARAMS AND OTHERS
Paul Karam was a promising lightweight who fought as a professional between 1950 and 1957 but never realised his potential. He beat the likes of Harry Walker, Jackie Solomon and Ginger Jonker and drew with Angus McDonald.
Paul fought GW (Mannetjies) Roux on the undercard of the tournament in which Gerald Dreyer took on Jimmy Toweel on August 26 1950. Roux also fought under the name of Kid Valentine. In one of the best fights of that year, Karam won on points.
He also went in against SA lightweight champion Jimmy Toweel and lost on points over four rounds to Hottie van Heerden, a future SA middleweight and lightheavyweight champion. Karam retired with a reported record of 10-6-1; 2.
One Peter Karam fought as a lightweight against Len Johnson, Dolf du Plessis, Barney Hanekom and Solly Kahn in the late 1920 s and early 1930s.
Peter Smith, son of former SA light-heavyweight champion Kosie Smith, also fought in the United States in compiling os record of 20-2; 9. His mother, nee Saffy, was Lebanese.
Smith fought for the inaugural WBU cruiserweight title in January 1997 but American John McClain stopped him in the first round.
Steve Jacobs was the trainer of the first Zulu boxing team to visit the United States. Other trainers of Lebanese background were Tony Farah, George and Tony Karam of the Phoenix Boys Club in Pretoria and Tony Anthony and Paul Cheketri, who guided many fighters at the Mayfair YMCA Club.
Alan Toweel Jr followed his dad and opened a gym in Linden, Johannesburg.
Other SA fighters of Lebanese extraction were middleweight Brian Karam, who fought under the name of Brian Joseph, and welterweight Tony Leischer. Brian was also a time-keeper for many years.
In October 1955, Joseph lost on points to Shorty Smook at the Olympia Ice Rink in Johannesburg. Smook was an outstanding amateur who never made it as a professional.
Leischer was twice beaten, in 1972, by future SA junior middleweight champion Gert Craemer.
Another one on the list was Peter “Ticky” Mansour, who boxed as a welterweight from 1948 to 1951.
Mansour fought 1948 Olympian Duggie du Preez and Tony Liversage, who later won the SA light-heavyweight title. He beat Maurice Ouezman, a Frenchman, in Salisbury, now Harare, in May 1949.
As far as can be ascertained, only two fighter of Lebanese heritage have won world titles.
The first was Vic Toweel, who won the universal bantamweight title on May 31 1950 when he outpointed Mexican-American Manuel Ortiz at the Wembley Stadium in Johannesburg.
Billy (Bilal) Dib of Australia, whose parents had emigrated from Lebanon, won the IBO junior lightweight belt in July 2008 and the IBF featherweight belt July 2011.