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Boxing | Features

Challenger refused entry into stadium

Before Nick Wolmarans could challenge South African heavyweight champion Tommy Bensch for the title on March 9, 1946 at the Wembley Stadium in Johannesburg he had another problem to solve.

He had left his admission ticket at home and the gatekeeper refused him entry into the stadium. A rather frustrated Wolmarans and his 62-year-old father-in-law eventually had to climb through a window in the stadium’s office.

Despite the frustration he went on to outpoint the rather cautious Bensch and become heavyweight champion of South Africa.

Born Nicholaas Gerhardus Wolmarans on March 5, 1916 in Zastron in the Orange Free State he was an outstanding amateur before joining the professional ranks in May 1938 under the guidance of Sonny Rolt in Pretoria.

He won the light heavyweight title at the South African amateur championships in 1934 and 1937 before being selected to represent South Africa at the 1938 Empire Games in Sydney, Australia.

The boxing advisor was W. Lathan and the other five representatives were Johannes Joubert (flyweight), Hendrik Knoesen (bantamweight) Bertie Worrall (featherweight), Jackie Hahn (welterweight) and Claude Sterley (heavyweight).

In his first fight Wolmarans beat Joseph Wilby from England on points and his second fight in the final he outpointed Cecil Oversall of Australia to take the gold medal.

After returning from the Empire Games he made his professional debut on May 28, 1938 against Jan van der Walt at the Johannesburg City Hall, winning on a second-round stoppage.

In his second fight less than two months later at the same venue he beat Corporal Dunn on a second-round technical knockout, but in his third fight he was knocked out in the fifth round by Dave Carstens who had won a gold medal at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics in the light-heavyweight division.

After this setback he returned in 1939 to win his four fights, against Willie van Rensburg on two occasions, Archie Smith for the vacant Transvaal light-heavyweight title and Jimmy Britt, all on points.

He only had two fights in 1940, a points decision over Al Conquest and then he beat Archie Smith in a clash for the vacant South African light-heavyweight title, but remained inactive until November 1945 due to the Second World War.

Wolmarans did not join the armed forces as he was committed against the war effort and became a member of the Ossewa Brandwag, an organisation which caused General Jan Smuts a number of headaches.

He never engaged in any sabotage and his only subversion was hiding Robey Leibbrandt who had scored three victories over him as an amateur, in his home while the former South African heavyweight champion had slipped back into the country from Germany in an abortive attempt to mobilise support for the Nazis in South Africa.

Wolmarans, who was never really a heavyweight, used a crouching, weaving style to compensate for his lack of height. On November 3, 1945 he outpointed Tommy Bensch for the South African heavyweight title but this was not recognised nationally.

However, after he stopped Big Bill Horn in the tenth round in a gory encounter he met Bensch in a return fight on March 9, 1946 at the Wembley Stadium in Johannesburg and won on points over 12 rounds to win the South African heavyweight title. The fight was refereed by Willie Smith, South Africa’s first claimant to a world title.

After Wolmarans won the heavyweight title he was challenged by Johnny Ralph. However Reg Haswell who was managing Wolmarans’s affairs knew that Ralph would beat him so he kept him waiting for a long time, in order that Wolmarans could make some money.

Less than five months later he knocked out Jack Kukard in the fourth round before going in against Jack London (real name John George Harper) on August 24, 1946 at the Wembley Stadium in Johannesburg, losing on points over 10 rounds.

London, who had lost his British and Empire heavyweight titles to Bruce Woodcock a year earlier, outweighed Wolmarans by nearly 23 kilograms and was just too big and strong for the plucky Wolmarans.

Wolmarans then met Ralph and lost on points in a non-title fight before stopping Jack Kukard in four rounds to close off 1946.

On February 17, 1947 he defended the heavyweight title against Ralph at the Wembley Stadium in Johannesburg. The March issue of Fight magazine described the finish of the fight in the sixth round as follows: “Battered and bruised, left eye closed but game to the last Nick Wolmarans lay on the resin covered canvas – a defeated title holder. He fell like a poled ox while 15 000 spectators tense with excitement looked on in awe.”

Only 45 days later Wolmarans fought to a ten-round draw against Johnny de Villers in Durban and on April 29 of the same year he went in against Freddie Mills, the British and Empire light-heavyweight champion.

Mills was originally scheduled to meet Johnny Ralph on Monday April 14, 1947 but Ralph broke a knuckle in training and had to withdraw from the fight. Wolmarans was brought in as a substitute.

In the battle against Mills Wolmarans fought without fear, and put up a stand-up battle against Mills who was having his 92nd fight, but this was not enough before he was knocked out in the fifth round.

Mills would subsequently go on to win the world light-heavyweight title against Gus Lesnevich and then return to South Africa and shatter the dreams of Johnny Ralph in a much-publicised fight to knock out Ralph in the eighth round at the Wembley Stadium in Johannesburg on November 6, 1948.

Returning to action on November 8, 1947 Wolmarans stopped Willie Quentenmeyer from the Netherlands in the third round.

On March 24, 1948 Wolmarans defied the odds as he fought to a ten-round draw against the capable Alf Gallagher from Australia and in his next fight once again showed tremendous courage in losing a ten points decision against Frenchman Stephane Olek.

In his last fight on January 29, 1949 he lost on a fifth round stoppage against Welshman Johnny Williams who would later win the British and Empire heavyweight titles.

Wolmarans retired with a record of 14-7-2; 6 and after boxing he tried his hand at professional wrestling.

Wolmarans, who had started out as a motor mechanic, was possibly one of the gamest fighters ever in South African boxing history. He earned a fair amount of money in boxing and invested in a garage and filling station in Pretoria North. In later years he worked at the dynamite factory in Modderfontein and a few years before his death I visited him at his home near Edenvale and was most impressed with this stocky, thick-necked man as we sat chatting in the lounge.

He died in Kroonstad in the Free State on August 17, 1994 at the age of 78.


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