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The Junior Weight Divisions - by Terry Pettifer

The birth of the junior weight divisions in boxing was initially regarded with some skepticism since many believed that there should only be eight traditional weight limits, namely flyweight, bantamweight, featherweight, lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, light heavyweight, heavyweight.

Yet ever since the first junior lightweight world champion was introduced back in 1921, when Johnny Dundee defeated George ‘KO’ Chaney on a 5th round disqualification in New York City, the junior weight groups gradually gained more acceptance with the junior featherweight (1922) and junior welterweight (1925) divisions next to follow.

Mind you, even then the concept of having ‘junior’ (perhaps it was the name) world champions never appealed to most fight buffs and it took many years before other divisions followed suite. In chronological order, they included the junior middleweight (1962), junior flyweight (1975), junior bantamweight (1980), super middleweight (1984) and straw-weight or as some prefer mini flyweight (1987) divisions. The cruiserweight division was officially formed in 1980, to address the considerable weight gap between light heavyweight and heavyweight.

Because of the ‘Alphabet Soup’, which denotes the overbearing number of sanctioning organizations that have sprung up over the past 30 years, it follows that certain ‘world’ titles have lacked legitimacy. So much so that more recently The Ring magazine took a forceful stand and ignored many marginal titular claims, awarding their championship belts only to fighters who’ve earned the recognition of the sport’s longest running publication.

What with the scandalous proliferation of so-called world titles, the WBA, WBC,
IBF, IBO, WBO, IBC, WBF, and IBA now face the realization that fighters and fights, rather than Alphabet straps determine which athletes receive laudable
recognition.

Certain sanctioning groups replaced the term ‘junior’ with the word ‘super’, hence they refer to a junior middleweight as a super welterweight and so forth.

With 17 weight divisions having replaced the sport’s original tally of 8, we’ve consequently witnessed a great deal more action in the lighter weight brackets, where countries like Thailand, Mexico, South and North Korea, as well as the Philippines, have produced an abundance of champions, several of whom earned legendary status.

Over the years South Africa has had a plethora of outstanding boxers in the junior or super weight divisions, the most conspicuous being Hall of Famer Brian Mitchell, Vuyani Bungu, “Baby” Jake Matlala, Lehlohonolo Ledwaba, Dingaan Thobela, Thulani “Sugarboy” Malinga and Cassius Baloyi.

The consensus choice as South Africa’s greatest boxer of the 20th Century, Mitchell won both the WBA & IBF junior lightweight titles and fashioned a tally of 12 successful title defences, that translated into 10 wins and 2 draws. Bungu made 13 defences of his IBF junior featherweight crown and Baloyi collectively penciled in a record number of championship defences (15 in total), that were spread over three weight divisions (junior featherweight, featherweight, junior lightweight) and 6 title reigns. The winner in 21 of 24 championship bouts, Baloyi has won a record number of Alphabet titles for a South African, namely, the WBU junior featherweight, WBU featherweight, IBO junior lightweight (twice) and IBF junior lightweight (twice). That this number will ever be bested by a South African remains uncertain.

Ironically there were a number of local fighters who never had the opportunity of competing at their best fighting weight, simply because there were no junior divisions around at the time. Fighters like Jack Lalor, Johnny Ralph, Pierre Fourie, Jannie “Smiler” Van Rensburg, Eddie Thomas and Johnny Squires, would probably have relished boxing at their ideal poundage level, had they been afforded the opportunity to have done so.

Lalor was never much more than a junior welterweight, but that never prevented
him from winning SA titles as a heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight, an enormous feat for a man of his size. Pierre Fourie began his career as a middleweight and won the national title in that weight division en route to obtaining a world rating. Best known for his four unsuccessful cracks at the world light heavyweight title in the 1970’s, against Bob Foster (twice) and Victor Galindez (twice) respectively, Fourie’s best fighting weight was around 76 kg, which would have made him a perfect candidate for super middleweight honours, had the division existed at the time.

Local heavyweight idol of the Forties, Johnny Ralph was seldom heavier than 85 kg, and would have slotted perfectly into the latter-day cruiserweight ranks.

And Eddie Thomas? A brutal puncher with an abundance of killer instinct, Thomas won both the national welterweight and middleweight championships, and participated in the most feverishly fought trilogy of fights on South African soil, when he took on the tigerish Mike Holt during the 1950’s. Years after retiring, Thomas admitted that he was always 3 kg too heavy as a welterweight and 2 ½ kg too light as a middleweight. Yes, you guessed it … Eddie would have been great as a junior middleweight!

Johnny Squires was a blown up light heavyweight back in the 1920’s and like Ralph could conceivably have made a telling impression as a cruiserweight. Instead, the Bloemfontein boxer had to campaign as a heavyweight, where he forged a fine reputation.

Jannie “Smiler” Van Rensburg remains the only South African boxer ever to have won two Empire titles, which he garnered in 1955 and 1958 by defeating Joe Lucy and George Barnes for the lightweight and welterweight titles respectively. One wonders how Van Rensburg would have enjoyed fighting as a junior welterweight?