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Master of the art

A South African was once described as a professor of punch, master of movement and probably the most stylish boxer in the world.

In some ways, George Angelo was indeed a master of the art of boxing.

In the early 1950s, an English reporter wrote: “If Ray Robinson had not been called 'Sugar' the tag should have been given to George Angelo. For if ever there was a 'sweet' boxer it is the ex-shoemaker from Johannesburg.

“Wherever this South African boxes – I nearly said fights – you can take it for granted the crowd will be applauding his beautiful style.

“Women who attend his fights will talk about the performances of Angelo quite differently... They chatter about him as in as much the same way as they would an American singer at the Palladium.”

There was also a story about two cockneys discussing Angelo after his first fight in London. “He ain’t no bleeding George Angelo!”, one said. “He’s Michael bleeding Angelo!”

The boxer's grandfather was a Greek seaman, Angelos Pithelios Angelos, who survived a shipping disaster near the Cape coast in the late nineteenth century. He settled in South Africa and married a German girl.

One of their children was Marcus, who married an Afrikaans girl, Elizabeth Botha. George was their son.

Born George Theodore in Johannesburg on August 26, 1925, Angelo married an English-speaking girl, Gladys Wright. They had two children, Mark and Diana.

When George was eleven years old, his father, a good amateur boxer in his day, told him, “It’s boxing or boarding school for you.”

George immediately set off for the famous Booysens Amateur Boxing Club, not too far away from family's home in Turfontein.

Under the guidance of Jack Eustice, Angelo won numerous titles as a junior. These included two Johannesburg, one Transvaal and one SA title.

However, he never won a senior SA amateur title because national championships were suspended from 939 to 1945 because of the Second World War.

As a beginner, George wanted to knock out every opponent, but Eustice taught him the art of self defence and how to pile up points.

In 1946, George was an apprentice at a shoe factory. With the London Olympics only two years away, he was regarded as a certainty to represent South Africa as a welterweight.

Apparently, he was told he would have to sign a contract to remain an amateur for three years after the Games. That convinced him to turn professional on June 22, 1946, when he was 20 years old.

As an amateur he lost only a handful of more than 150 fights – some reports say 250.

As a result of his decision, Duggie du Preez, who had lost to Angelo twice, went to the Games and finished fourth. Those days the losing semifinalists did not receive bronze medals.

Angelo was also a promising footballer who played inside right for Wanders Wits in a Johannesburg league. However, as a professional fighter he lost his amateur status and had to drop out of football.

His father, who had introduced him to boxing before handing him over Eustace, became his manager and Eustace continued to train him even after he had turned professional.

Make his debut, Angelo knocked out Stan Geoghegan with a short right in the first round. He then won on points against Willie Browne, and twice against Lennie Mills who was one of the main characters in the “Oil Drum” murders not long afterwards.

Angelo also beat George Bushney, Fred Storbeck and Bill Geoghegan on points in his first year as a professional.

In 1947, he was forced to retire with a badly cut eye in bthe first round of a fight against Don Carr, a future SA welterweight champion.

However, he outpointed Carr in a return match and twice beat Maurice Ouezman from France. He also won on points against Gielie van der Westhuizen and Rudy Zadell, a bustling American.

All his opponents failed to overcome his tight defence and stinging left jab.

On January 24, 1948, Angelo won the SA welterweight title that had been vacated by Laurie Stevens. Despite the rain that left the crowd of 5 000 drenched, he outpointed former national lightweight champion Alf James over 12 rounds at the Wembley Stadium in Johannesburg.

Not everyone agreed that Angelo, six years younger than James, did enough to win what was described as a classic fight. Many spectators booed when referee Peter Murrell held up Angelo’s hand.

Minutes earlier, while the crowd awaited the decision, a confident Eustace strolled over to James’s corner and said, “Thanks for your gloves, Alfie.”

The practice at the time was for the loser to hand over his gloves to his conqueror. James’s trainer, Harry Ralston, was still protesting when the result was announced.

The next morning Eustace apologised to James. “I thought we had won the fight by eight points and in my exuberance I forgot myself,” he explained.

A former holder of the British version of the world bantamweight title, Willie Smith, was one of the judges. He said, “I made Angelo a clear three-point winner.”

Four weeks later James reversed the decision and took the title from Angelo, outboxing his younger opponent over 12 rounds.

Angelo responded by beating the highly regarded Sten Suvio from Finland on points. Suvio, who had won the welterweight gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, had no thumb on his left hand. He had lost it while firing mortars at the Russians during the Second World War.

Angelo then defeated Maurice Ouezman from France, Henry van Wyk, Ronnie Meyer and Piet van Staden before stopping James, who had lost the SA welterweight title to Carr, in the tenth round.

In January 1949, he won vacant SA middleweight title when he outpointed Ewie Ehlers. He then stopped a fading James in two rounds before outpointing Harry Bos, a durable Hollander.

In one of his best performances, Angelo outpointed former British middleweight champion Vince Hawkins at the Umbilo Stadium in Durban.

He also won against Jackie Marr, a brave Australian and beat Joe Maseko in what was then Lourenco Marques. Maseko later won the SA “Non-European” middleweight and light-heavyweight titles.

In 1950, Angelo beat Joe Munro, whose real name was Jacobus van Dyk. But he then lost to Duggie Miller, who always seemed to have his number. Angelo won the return match but in their third fight, in London, he was beaten again.

In September 1950, at the Albert Hall in London, he beat the highly regarded American Mel Browne.

During his stay in the UK, he was managed by Jim “The Bishop” Wicks, a most able manager who later guided Henry Cooper.

In his second fight in London, Angelo, handicapped by a hand injury, lost on a controversial points decision to Alex Buxton, a future British light-heavyweight champion.

One of the unhappy spectators shouted, “Why don’t they shoot the referee?”

Those days the referee was also the sole judge.

The Transvaal National Sporting Club, in association with British promoter Jack Solomons, lured Angelo back to South Africa in January 1951 to fight hard-hitting middleweight Les Allen at the Wembley Stadium in Johannesburg.

The fight was on the same card as the one for the vacant British Empire welterweight title between Welshman Eddie Thomas and SA welterweight champion Pat Patrick. Patrick was stopped in the thirteenth round.

In the rain-soaked Wembley ring, Angelo used all his boxing skills to outpoint his weaving and crouching opponent from Coventry, England.

On the same card, SA lightweight champion Gerald Dreyer beat Billy Thompson, the British lightweight champion, on points.

After outpointing the rugged Jerry van Wyk in Durban on February 7, Angelo returned to the UK to take on Eric McQuade at the Albert Hall in London.

Some spectators booed when Angelo was declared the winner on points against the man from Downham, but it seemed to be a clear-cut victory.

In his next bout, Angelo outpointed Frenchman George Royer in London. But on April 17, 1951,he lost again to Duggie Miller. They fought at the Streatham Ice Rink and Miller won on points, making the score 2-1 in fights between them.

Miller’s two-handed attack to the body swayed the decision in his favour but some ringside observers felt Angelo had done enough to win, despite a cut near one of his eyes.

At the time Miller was the leading contender for Angelo's SA middleweight title. He had applied to the SA Boxing Board to challenge Angelo for the title in an overseas match, but the request was turned down and the match went ahead as an eight-rounder.

Angelo met Eric McQuade in a return match in London on May 8, 1951. This time there were no arguments. Angelo gave his opponent a boxing lesson and stopped him in the ninth round.

Five South Africans fought in that tournament. Piet van Staden lost on points to Billy Ambrose of London in a welterweight bout; cruiserweight Billy Wood had to retire with a badly cut right ear at the end of the fourth round against the Dutch champion, Willie Schagen; Miller beat Michael Lappourielle of France at middleweight and Kalla Persson beat Glyn Davies of Wales in a bantamweight fight.

The London Evening News reported that McQuade started well but was caught by a right to the head in the ninth round.

McQuade went down, holding a glove against his temple. As the time-keeper began his count, referee Jack Hart asked, “What’s wrong?”

McQuade replied, “I’m dizzy.” Hart took it to mean the boxer wanted to retire and stopped the bout.

Only seven days later, at the Empress Hall, Angelo gave away nearly three kilograms but handed a boxing lesson to American Les “Baby” Day. He then also beat Burl Charity from Ohio on points.

Angelo was down for a count of two in the opening round against Charity and suffered a cut eye in the sixth round, but recovered to outbox the American.

After an absence of nearly four months, Angelo returned on March 6, 1952 and beat Jimmy Davis of Bethnal Green at the Seymour Hall in Marylebone, winning on points over ten rounds.

He was then offered a bout with Randolph Turpin for the Empire middleweight title, which had been left vacant by the tragic death of Dave Sands.

Turpin, who had knocked out Don Cockell a few months earlier, held the Empire light-heavyweight title, which would not be at stake. Turpin had also won and lost the world middleweight title from Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951.

There was even talk of Angelo getting a crack at Robinson for the world title if he beat Turpin.

While Angelo was training at former South African Joe Bloom’s gym in London, Steve Fagan of the Daily Graphic wrote:

“Strange things happen even at Joe Bloom’s. It has suddenly become scholarly because South Africa’s George Angelo, professor of punch, master of movement and probably the most stylish boxer in the world, is training there.”

The fight with Turpin, of Leamington, took place at the Harringay Arena on October 21, 1952.

It was one for the connoisseurs. Angelo had been described as a master of the art of riding a punch and dancing out of trouble. However, Norman Hurst of the Daily Graphic described the bout as 15 of the dreariest rounds he had seen.

There was no doubt about the decision when referee Sam Russell held up Turpin's hand.

However, Angelo had been hiding a terribly secret. He was all but blind in one eye as a result of a detached retina, which had come about in the gymnasium during training.

He was admitted to the Moorefield eye hospital soon afterwards. Doctors repaired the damage and, before Angelo's release three weeks later, urged him not to fight again because of the danger of suffering a similar injury.

Taking the advice, he retired at the age of 27 with a record of 27 wins, four inside the distance, and 6 losses.

About a year later, a Johannesburg eye specialist gave Angelo the go-ahead to box again.

Weighing 76 kg, he sparred with SA amateur welterweight champion Grant Webster at the Booysens gymnasium, watched by his old trainer, Jack Eustice.

Angelo felt he could comfortably make the middleweight limit of 72.58 kg and would like to fight for the national title, which had been relinquished by Jimmy Elliott.

However, after a while he decided it was not worth the risk and gave up the idea of boxing again.

He worked as a foreman at a factory near the Jack Eustace Hall in Booysens where he had learnt to box. At one time he was also sales manager of a motorcar company.

In 1980, Angelo returned as a trainer at the Braamfontein YMCA gym and worked with boxing manager Slagter van der Merwe.

He often attended boxing functions until he died in his sleep at a retirement village in Randburg on October 21, 2005.

Older boxing fans remember Angelo as a good-looking, debonair fighter and one of the most skilful exponents of the “noble art”.

Footage of his peerless footwork was used in the film The Square Ring, starring Robert Beattie and Kay Kendall. He also played the part of a Russian in another brief excursion into the movie world.

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