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Boxing | History

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South Africa’s first super fight

South Africa's first super fight took place nearly 128 years ago when James Couper, the son of a Scottish preacher, a very modest and quiet personality, met Woolf Bendoff, a prominent London prize-fighter who had fought some memorable battles under the London Prize Ring Rules, in the Booysens area south of Johannesburg on 26 July, 1889.

This fight took place only 18 days after John L Sullivan and Jake Kilrain had battled under the broiling sun in Richburg, Mississippi in the United States.

The Sullivan-Kilrain fight, the last championship fight of the bare-knuckle era took place on 8 July, 1889, with Sullivan winning on a 75th round stoppage.

Couper was a popular Victualler in the city of Johannesburg with an established gymnasium. He enjoyed writing and produced a novel of early camp life and adventures on the diamond fields entitled "Mixed Humanity".

Couper was a small man and only weighed in the region of 65kg, but fought as a heavyweight and had done well to defeat men like Bloomfield and Coverwell when conceding up 45kg in weight.

Even though he was a prize-fighter, Couper was inclined to be a snob who enjoyed his acceptance in the cream of Johannesburg society life. He was one of the founder members of the Wanders Club when it was established in 1889 as a haven for the sports conscious upper class of the Witwatersrand.

It was possibly at this stage that his relationship with the mining magnate Barney Barnato became strained. The so-called rough habits of Barnato irritated Couper, as much of Couper's mixing with the tea-and-cucumber set must, in turn, have annoyed Barnato.

Whatever the reason for the strained relationship between the two men, Barnato publicly stated that he was determined to find someone to whip Couper.

It was generally accepted that it was Barnato who brought Woolf Bendoff to this country to beat Couper. Bendoff's arrival in Johannesburg caused quite a stir as he was certainly the best-known fighter ever to have visited these shores up to that time.

Bendoff was a strong bruiser and his only loss had been against the champion of England, Jem Smith. The champion had been given the decision but many members of the fancy were not too happy with the stoppage in favour of Smith in the seventeenth round.

In those days boxers did not receive a purse and their winnings came from backers, who put up the money on a winner-take-all basis. Barnato encouraged Bendoff to challenge Couper to a fight to the finish and he and his friends offered backing up to 2 500 pounds.

To make the match more attractive, Couper and his backers were only asked to put up 2 000 pounds, making a total stake of 4 500 pounds. This was an enormous amount of money for those days and remained a record for purses under the London Prize Ring rules.

As was done at the time, the 27-year-old Bendoff issued a formal challenge in "The Standard" newspaper. Couper, then 35 years old and a rather wealthy stockbroker and property owner, was not inclined to make a comeback to the ring after having done no training for some time, but his pride would not allow him to ignore the challenge.

Couper replied in the newspaper that although he had advertised for some time his retirement from the ring, he would meet Bendoff with small gloves in a fight to the finish on condition that he weighs no more than 144lbs (65.30kg). The condition as to the weight did not suit Bendoff, since he weighed in excess of 152lbs (68.94kg). There was a hint that Couper was using the weight factor to get out of the challenge.

However, after further meetings between the backers the weight difficulty was sorted out and the fight was on. Both men set up training camps, Couper at halfway House and Bendoff at Maraisburg. The challenger, trusting his superior weight and brawn, took things a little easy, whereas Couper being 5ft 6 inches (168cm), some five inches shorter and possibly 36lbs (16.32kg) lighter than Bendoff, prepared very thoroughly with a carefully prepared training programme.

The fight venue was on a spot called Eagles Nest some 9.66 kilometres south of Johannesburg in the Booysens area, and the battle would commence at 9 o'clock on the morning of 26 July, 1889.

On the morning of the fight business of the town came to a standstill and stock exchange dealings were suspended as ox wagons, spiders, horseman, bowler-hatted men and even bearded farmers made their way to the arena where the ring had been set up and encircled with corrugated iron.

The gloves were of kid and had half the length of the fingers cut off so that the fist could be clenched easily. They were fastened with tape bound around the wrist.

The rules of the day stipulated that a round was over the moment a contestant went down. The boxers would then retire to their corners for a period of half a minute before being called to scratch for the next round.

Being the lighter man, Couper had to rely on counter-punching and avoid wrestling and slugging. Bendoff started off with wild swinging in the first round and caught Couper with a crushing blow to the body. Couper spent the remainder of the round dodging and weaving.

Couper was knocked down with a blow to the body in the third round, but gradually condition told as he stabbed his left into Bendoff’s face, drawing blood from his battered nose.

The fight began to turn from the sixth round as the clever Couper banged away at the bigger man's head until he needed a breather, and then as Bendoff touched him - no matter how lightly - he would go down to end the round and take a rest.

These tactics caused Bendoff to lose his temper and he wasted energy with wild swings as he tried to knock his opponents head off and became more sluggish as the fight wore on, with his face becoming lumpy and cut up from the sharper punching from Couper.

At the end of the seventeenth Bendoff contemplated retiring, but was urged on by his backers who were about to lose their money.

The nimble-footed and better-conditioned Couper continued to pound his adversary and by the 26th round Bendoff was in bad shape with his face disfigured, half-blind with blood pouring from the cuts on his eyes and lips.

In the 27th round after 30 minutes fighting Couper landed two successive lefts to the jaw to end the fight, as Bendoff's seconds threw in the sponge. (some sources have the fight as finishing in the 26th round).

Thus ended one of the epics of the South African ring that has become the cornerstone of our fistic history, which officially began nearly 128 years ago.

Bendoff, when he recovered, returned to London and tried to make a comeback but was never the same after the terrific beating he took from Couper.

As for the victorious Couper, his end was rather sad, He made money out of his book and his investments, but was not a happy man as he suffered with rheumatism and depression.

Believing that he had lost his money on the stock market which had dipped badly, he ended his life with a bullet and died on the morning of 24 July, 1897.

James Robertson Couper was only 42 when he died and was buried in the Braamfontein cemetery, where in later years an impressive tombstone was put on his grave by his friends and some supporters, where it still stands today as a monument to South Africa's first boxing champion.

Few people know that Bill Heffernan, who won the South African middleweight title in May 1896, and a certain Mr Caldwell were responsible for the Couper Memorial that was erected at the Church of England cemetery in Braamfontein in 1902. Caldwell acted on behalf of Mr L Lowenthal, a life-long friend of Couper, the father of SA boxing, who took part in the famous fight with Bendoff in July 1889.

The monument was sculpted by a LA Cawsey of Johannesburg and shows a figure representing Hope. It was about three metres high, beautifully carved in marble, standing on a carved die and on a base of the same material.

The grave was enclosed with an ornamental wrought-iron railing.

The total cost of erecting the monument came to 105 pounds. It was paid through public subscriptions and by Lowenthal.

The monument is still standing at the Braamfontein cemetery but the foundations have sunk on the one side and it is listing badly. The railings have disappeared.


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