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Boxing | Features

Stan Christodoulou at the grave side of James Robertson Couper © Jeff Ellis

Father of SA boxing



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 who fought from 1882 to 1894 and lost only two of his recorded 15 fights 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.

Born James Robertson Couper in Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 12, 1855, at the age of 25 he left England to accept the offer of a commission in a volunteer corps raised for service in Basutoland during the Gun War (1880-1881).

After the war he ran a tavern and a boxing school in Cape Town and made claim to the South African heavyweight title when he knocked out the handsome Malay heavyweight James William Coverwell in the second round in July 1884.

In his recently published book James R. Couper – Vader van Suid-Afrikaanse Boks, Floris van der Merwe a retired professor from the Department of Sports Science at Stellenbosch University, has written an intense, perceptive and well researched book revealing previously unknown facts on the life of Couper.

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.

Coverwell who was known as Joe and named the “The Ladies’ Pet” by his followers roamed the diamond mines of Kimberley as an unbeaten boxing champion.

“The Ladies Pet” was becoming arrogant and a bit of a bully; and while was still in Cape Town Couper received a letter, said to be almost a petition, from former pupils who had returned to Kimberley, asking him to come to Kimberley to teach this man some manners, which Couper did in fine fashion.

Couper’s most famous fight was against a bruiser from London’s East End, one Woolf Bendoff, who was apparently lured to South Africa by Barney Barnato to put an end to Couper’s reign.

The fight was set for July 26, 1889, with a total purse of 4 500 pounds the biggest ever in the prize-ring.

On a cool wintery morning at 9:30am Couper and Bendoff met at a spot called Eagle’s Nest, on the property of the still-to-be-formed Eagle Mining Company about ten kilometres to the south of Johannesburg. They fought for 1 hour and 20 minutes, with the much lighter and smaller Couper winning against the odds.

Couper also developed into an outstanding trainer, boxing promoter, journalist and also authored a book Mixed Humanity, on camp life in Kimberley.

He also did well on the stock market and owned valuable properties but when the market crashed in the 1890’s he lost a huge amount of money.

Together with this, a divorce and the loss of a son, by July 1897 he admitted he was tired of life and shot himself.

Even 118 years after his death there are still many mysteries and myths about his life.

The book is written in Afrikaans and comes in paperback with 119 pages and published by FJG Publikasies, Melkbosstrand. The author is hoping to have the book translated into English in the near future.



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