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Boxing | Features

Jim McDonnell and Brian Mitchell © Gallo Images

My 10 best in SA boxing history

To beat Floyd Mayweather may be an easier assignment than selecting the ten best boxers in history.

Mayweather is still undefeated but he could still lose if he continues boxing for much longer. But to get a panel of experts to agree on the ten greatest boxers is almost impossible.

Even selecting just one country's ten best boxers is tantamount to looking for an argument.

Bert Randolph Sugar wrote a book, The 100 Greatest Boxers of All Time, in which he lists elements involved in “greatness,” such as stamina and the competition.

You have to fight the best to be the best, he wrote. Another factor is durability, and it should be judged at a fighter’s peak.

Many factors should be considered when one tries to measure greatness.

Using five important elements – longevity, historical impact, quality of opposition, achievements and talent – I tried to rate South Africa’s top ten fighters since the start of the 20th century.

Working on a scale of 1 to 10 for each category, I came up with a list with which many people will probably not agree. Some may even express outrage at some of my selections, but here we go.

1 Vic Toweel and Brian Mitchell

3 Vuyani Bungu

4 Willie Toweel

5 Laurie Stevens

6 Gerrie Coetzee

7 Enoch ‘Schoolboy’ Nhlapo

8 Baby Jake Matlala

9 Jake Tuli

10 Dingaan Thobela

Among the many who were strong candidates for inclusion were Jack Lalor, Ernie Eustice, Andries Steyn, Mbulelo Botile, Lehlohonolo Ledwaba and Zolani Petelo.


No 1

In explaining the selections one has to quantify certain aspects and facts. But even after weighing up many factors I was unable to separate Mitchell and Vic Toweel.

Mitchell scored well in longevity. His 14-year career from 1981 to 1995 included 49 fights. He lost only once and drew in three bouts. Toweel’s career spanned only five years, from 1949 to 1954, and included 28 wins, 3 losses and a draw.

In the historical impact category Toweel must rate highest of all. He was South Africa’s first world champion if one discards Willie Smith’s claim to the British version of the world bantamweight title in 1927.

Toweel won the world bantamweight title from Manuel Ortiz in May 1950 when there were only eight champions in eight recognised divisions.

He was a universal champion and the only South Africa to claim that distinction. All the other SA “world” champions held only versions of titles. Mitchell, therefore, does not rate highly in this category.

In quality of opposition, Mitchell and Toweel are about even. Both fought top-class and rather ordinary opponents. When Toweel won the title, some critics claimed Ortiz was past his best. Likewise there were claims that Alfredo Layne was weakened by weight reduction when he lost his WBA junior lightweight title to Mitchell.

Luis Romero, whom Toweel defeated in the second defence of his title, was also an excellent boxer. Mitchell’s two wins over Tony Lopez – I say two because I don’t believe he lost the first fight when Lopez was given a hometown draw – were outstanding. Going into the cauldron that was the Sacremento Arena and taking the IBF junior lightweight title was a wonderful achievement.

However, Mitchell held only a portion of the junior lightweight title. Azumah Nelson and Jeff Fenech were considered superior to the South African.

But Mitchell was probably ahead of Toweel in terms of achievements. He won two versions of the junior lightweight title and made 12 defences of his WBA title; a record at the time.

Even though Toweel won a universal crown, he defended his title only three times before weight problems contributed to two disastrous defeats against Jimmy Carruthers.

In terms of talent, Toweel has the edge. His talent took him through one of the best amateur records in the history of SA boxing, leading to an undisputed world title. Mitchell, I believe, did not have the same talent, but had the dedication to work ceaselessly to hone his skills.

No 3

My No 3 is Vuyani Bungu, only fractionally behind Mitchell and Toweel. Bungu rated highly in longevity and achievements, thanks to a record of 37 wins and only three losses in a career of 18 years. It included 13 defences of his IBF junior featherweight title. In historical impact Bungu does not score well, but he did have exceptional talent. The quality of his opposition fell between really good and not so good. His victory over Kennedy McKinney, when he won the IBF junior featherweight title, stands out.

No 4

Willie Toweel also campaigned in the days of only eight world champions, which must count heavily in his favour. He obtains high scores in quality of opposition and talent. He was given a debatable draw in his challenge for the undisputed world bantamweight title against Frenchman Robert Cohen and later earned a ranking as a top lightweight. Toweel, Vic’s younger brother, was unfortunate not to get a crack at the title when he was considered one of the best lightweights in the world.

In historical terms, Toweel does not rate highly. He won four SA titles and an Empire title, but his achievements would have rated higher had he won a world title. His longevity rating is fair, with a seven-year span from 1953 to 1960 during which he compiled a record of 46 wins, six losses and two draws against the best in the world.

No 5

Laurie Stevens, an Empire Games silver medallist and Olympic gold-medal winner, scores well in all categories. Had it not been for the World War II he would probably have come close to fighting for the world title.

In a 14-year-career that included a nearly five-year break because of the war, Stevens fought the best of his time, including two world champions, Petey Sarron and Jack Kid Berg. He beat Berg for the British Empire lightweight title in January 1936 and lost only two fights and drew once in an 39-fight career.

No 6

Gerrie Coetzee was undoubtedly South Africa’s best heavyweight. Despite problems with his hands – he broke bones in both in his second fight against Mike Schutte – Coetzee rates highly in the historical impact category. He won the WBA heavyweight title in September 1983 when he knocked out Michael Dokes. He does not score well in longevity, but does reasonably well in all other categories.

No 7

Enoch “Schoolboy” Nhlapo scores high marks in the talent and longevity categories. Towards the end of a 20-year career he retained the SA welterweight title by beating Mackeed Mofokeng in February 1973, only three weeks before his 40th birthday. Because of apartheid laws, this highly talented fighter was denied the right to fight the best. He cannot, therefore, be rated highly in historical impact. Had Nhlapo fought a few decades later he would have won at least one “world” title.

No 8

Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala scores highly in the longevity and achievements categories, having won three “world” titles in a 20-year career. But the quality of his opponents is debatable despite his outstanding victory over Michael Carbajal. However, nothing can be taken away from this charismatic fighter who achieved little early in his career, but did well as late developer. He retired with a record of 50 wins, 12 losses and 2 draws.

No 9

Jake Tuli must rate a close second to Vic Toweel in the category of historical impact. During the days when black SA boxers were at a huge disadvantage, Tuli, with only ten professional fights under his belt, travelled to England. In September 1952, he dethroned the British Empire flyweight champion Teddy Gardner in his home town of Newcastle by stopping him in the twelfth round. He went on to beat the best flyweights around and held Ring Magazine’s No 1 position for two years. (Those days, Ring’s rankings were the only universally recognised list.) Japan’s Yoshio Shirai, the world champion at the time, refused to fight Tuli.

No 10

When it comes to talent, Dingaan Thobela had more than just about all other SA boxers. The former SA junior lightweight and super-middleweight champion held the WBO and WBA lightweight titles. He showed his class by winning the WBC super-middleweight belt. Thobela was an outstanding fighter but was probably guilty of a lack of application and dedication. Thanks to a 14-year career and three “world” titles Thobela scores well in longevity and achievements, but not high in historical impact.

In choosing my top ten, I tried to be completely objective, but as my friend Patrick Myler said in the introduction to his book A Century of Boxing Greats: “Name your top hundred anything and you’ll get one hundred arguments. Choosing the greatest fighters from 1900 to the present is like saying a glass of wine is better than a pint of beer. It’s a matter of personal preference.”


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