The origins of boxing in SA
From bare-knuckle fights in mine camps to world title bouts at modern venues in first-world cities, boxing in South Africa has compiled a fascinating history.
Illegal at first and over-controlled for many years, boxing rose and fell with the times, growing into a popular sport watched by thousands at ringside and many, many more on live television broadcasts.
To follow the history of SA boxing through those years is an arduous task because much of it was never properly recorded. But some of the best and brightest moments occurred during the days of modern communication.
The origins of SA boxing is even harder to trace accurately.
Most fans and students of the 'noble art' know that the global history of the sport shows that, despite many protestations and outcries from abolitionist, boxing has been practised for a few thousand years.
In South Africa, most of the early action took place during the years when diamonds and gold drew characters of all kinds from all over the world to Kimberley and Johannesburg.
However, fist-fighting as a sport came to South Africa only during the first British occupation of the Cape in 1795.
Bouts were conducted under the London Prize Ring rules for close on a century but illegal bare-knuckle fights-to-a-finish were common in military camps in Cape Town and the Eastern Cape.
One of the earliest references to boxing in South Africa is a report about the arrest of two characters, Japie and Mahmoud, after a fight in Cape Town in the early 1860s.
FOUR FAMOUS FIGHTS
Four significant fights over a 100-year period can be regarded as examples of how SA culture and history have been shaped by the sport.
These were between James Couper and Joe Coverwell, Couper and Woolf Bendoff, Bob Foster and Pierre Fourie and Gerrie Coetzee and John Tate.
But it began long before that.
After the first British occupation of the Cape, bare-knuckle fighting, although generally illegal, continued on a larger scale. The fights were mostly crude and brutal affairs until one James Robertson Couper gave the 'sport' some respectability.
Couper fought from 1882 to 1889 and lost only one of his nine fights. Thanks to him, boxing became a popular sport.
Couper has been regarded as the 'father' of SA boxing and it has been said that what the Marquis of Queensbury did for pugilism in England, he did for the sport in South Africa.
Jamie, as he was called by his friends, was unaware that he was lured into one of the earliest examples of racism in SA sport.
In the 1880s, while Couper was teaching boxing in Cape Town, a handsome Malay by the name of Joe Coverwell – his supporters nicknamed him 'The Ladies’ Pet' – roamed the diamond-mines of Kimberley as an unbeaten boxing champion.
When Coverwell beat a Yorkshireman called Denton, there was great joy among his supporters, who were mostly Malays and other dark-skinned people. These admirers followed Coverwell in the streets wherever he went, proud to be seen in the company of a coloured man who had beaten a soldier.
They found in Coverwell a person to lift them socially. Their attitude caused resentment among other communities and there were many disagreements.
Things got worse when a man called Gibbs persuaded 'a dusky beauty' at a local dancing saloon to accompany him home. They were followed by some 'coloureds' and it was later reported that Gibbs shot three of them. He received a very light sentence.
In 1883, Couper was still in Cape Town when he received a letter, said to be almost a petition, from former pupils who had returned to Kimberley.
They wrote that Coverwell was becoming more of a bully and “would Professor Couper please come to Kimberley to teach this man his manners?”
It was a challenge and the Scotsman departed for Kimberley.
According to another version of the history of that time, the amorous 'Ladies Pet' had disturbed important people, such as Messers Lowenthal, Barnato and others and they summoned Couper.
It was recorded that Barney Barnato, a mining magnate and a keen boxer, as well as some others, “nourished the quaint delusion that, pound for pound, no coloured boxer would ever master a white man”.
The proposed fight created extraordinary interest and many bets were made, mostly in favour of
'The Ladies Pet'. who was almost 45 kg heavier than Couper.
To everyone’s surprise, the fight lasted only two rounds.
Couper closed one of Coverwell’s eyes in the first round and nearly blinded him in the second to become not only Kimberley’s undisputed boxing champion, but also that of South Africa.
Couper’s last fight was also his most famous one. Barnato apparently imported a bruiser from London’s East End, one Woolf Bendoff, to put an end to Couper’s reign.
Bendoff was a highly-rated pugilist and the odds were all in favour of him. Abe Bailey was one of a few who believed the 35-year-old Couper could still win.
The fight was set for July 26, 1889, with a total purse of £4 500.
One uncertain factor was President Paul Kruger’s attitude. Prize-fighting was illegal in the Transvaal and Kruger did not favour this 'uitlander' (foreigner) sport.
One Harris, an employee of the Transvaal Republic, was sent to speak to Kruger.
“President,” he began, “there’s a big Englishman in Johannesburg who says he can thrash any man in the Transvaal.”
Legend has it that Kruger replied: “Shoot him! “
But after hearing the full story, the president signed an order that the police were not to interfere with the fight.
After 27 rounds, Bendoff was beaten to a pulp, unable to continue.
As a result of that fight, professional boxing became extremely popular in South Africa.
LEGALISING THE SPORT
Ludwig Japhet, a brilliant student who passed the Cape Law Examination in 1908 at the age of 18. spent some more years studying before he opened a law practice in Johannesburg in 1914.
He had a passion for boxing and, in 1918, soon after World War I, began working on plans to legalise boxing.
With the aid of friends, he drafted a bill and persuaded George McAllister, the member of parliament for Germiston, to introduce the bill to parliament in 1923.
At the end of the first day, it seemed as if all was lost, but that night a young girl was raped and her escort beaten up.
Japhet later said he believed the report of the rape in the next day’s Cape Argus influenced the decision.
John X Merriman joined the debate in favour of boxing and it was soon agreed that if the girl’s escort had some boxing knowledge he might have been able to protect her.
The opposition fell away and the act that legalised boxing was promulgated. It is, after amendments from time to time, still in force.
BOXING VS APARTHEID
Many years later boxing would play a role in the struggle against apartheid.
During the early days, few blacks took up boxing, in contrast to Indians and 'coloureds'.
But the situation changed after World War ll. Black boxers began to dominate the sport and Indian and 'coloured' champions became a rarity.
Until 1973, interracial fights in South Africa were illegal.
The return fight between Bob Foster and Pierre Fourie for the world light heavyweight title will always remain a landmark in SA boxing history. They met at the Rand Stadium in Johannesburg on December 1, 1973.
Their fight was a breakthrough in the battle to remove racial discrimination from professional boxing in South Africa.
CHANGING OF THE ACT
Just as Paul Kruger had changed the law, at least temporarily, to ensure that the bout between Bendoff and Couper would take place, SA prime minister John Vorster amended, in November 1973, the Boxing and Wrestling Control Act of 1954.
Interracial boxing was still prohibited but Proclamation R2173 allowed the sports minister to approve any departure from some or all of the provisions of the regulation in the case of a world title bout.
It included internationally-recognised eliminating bouts for a world title, tournaments that complied with the requirements of a SA multinational event and in which registered SA boxers participated.
This allowed the minister of sport and recreation to introduce fights between black and white professionals at a restricted level.
For the first time since professional boxing was placed under legal control in 1923, a white and black man met in the ring in front of a racially-mixed crowd of 37 474 people.
Pierre Fourie’s influence spread far beyond the ring. His fight with Foster in Johannesburg was really a test run for integrated sport.
It is no exaggeration to say that the clock would have been turned back years had it resulted in the racial disturbances that had been predicted at the time.
Instead, the professionalism and business-like approach of the contestants laid firm foundations for racially-mixed boxing in front of racially-mixed audiences.
Mixed bouts between South Africans were legalised in 1977, but the last vestiges of the colour bar disappeared only two years later when the system of white, black and supreme titles was abolished.
The first multiracial SA title fights were held at the Rand Stadium in Johannesburg on November 27, 1976 when Gerrie Coetzee and Elijah 'Tap Tap' Makhatini became undisputed champions.
White middleweight title holder Jan Kies was stopped in three rounds by Makhatini and the black heavyweight title holder, James Mathato, was knocked out in the seventh round by Coetzee.
In 1980, the WBA world heavyweight title fight between Coetzee and John Tate in Pretoria had further implications.
First, commercial sponsorship became a vital factor. A crowd of 77 530 produced gate takings of $2 819 996. To that had to be added television income. Suddenly, professional boxing in South Africa was transformed into a major business.
Second, national authorities, unlike their predecessors, encouraged racial integration in sport.
In 1984, Douglas Mapisa from the Eastern Cape, a ring announcer at professional tournaments in the 1960s, became the first black man to be appointed chairman of the Border Boxing Board of Control.
The early history of 'black' boxing is regrettably vague and incomplete.
Amateur boxing began on the Kimberley diamond fields when the founder of the De Beers diamond company, Barney Barnato, established an amateur club in 1878.
African mineworkers were interested in these bare-knuckle fights but did not take up the sport. However, boxing was one of the main sports organised by the Bantu Sports Club.
The American Board Missionaries also introduced boxing in the townships. Boys Clubs were formed to encourage youngsters to keep “good company” and “not run wild on the streets”.
One of the earliest clubs was the St Mary’s Boys Club in Orlando, Soweto.
That was where Jake Tuli, who won the Empire flyweight title in 1952, had learnt to box.
During the 1940s and 1950s boys clubs, such as Dougall Hall in Marabastad, near Pretoria, the New Mai Mai Boxing Club, at the BMSC, and the G-Man Boxing Club, in Sophiatown, were established.
Other active amateur clubs were Denver Brown Bombers, Yanks, Orphiton, Bull and Bush, Allons and Pals Boys Club in Alexander.
The first Bull and Bush Club in Transvaal was started by William Dixon in a yard in Alexandra Street, between Main and Fox Streets in Johannesburg. Charlie Timm took over the club in 1939 and produced some outstanding young fighters.
Allons originated in 1949 when Isaac Davis decided to start an amateur club in his own backyard. With the help of Billy le Roux and Claude Bindeman the club produced fighters such as Leslie Tangee and Richard Borais, who became professional African champions.
The influence of American boxing was strong during the 1940s and 50s. Local boxers had names such as 'Kid Dynamite' Lekwete, 'Homicide Hank' Mohlo, 'Ace Chocolate' Matloha and Rueben 'Panama Flash' Zondi.
The first official 'non-white' professional SA champion was Sonny Thomas, who knocked out Battling Shabane in Cape Town on October 2, 1946 to win the vacant SA 'Non-European' lightweight title.
'Non-White' professional boxing in Transvaal got off to a slow start when only three tournaments where held in 1948 and one in 1949.
The first 'Non-European' professional fight in Transvaal was held at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre on March 13, 1948. The contestants were flyweights Joel 'Fly' Mohahleli from Evaton and 'One-Round' Hank.
Mohlahleli, after leading on points, collapsed in the fifth round. He was taken to hospital. Docters diagnosed a subdural haematoma but his parents refused to allow the doctors to operate. Mohlahleli was treated at home, according to tribal customs. He never fully recovered and remained an invalid.