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Rating the Light Heavyweights - by Terry Pettifer

Whereas South African boxing has always had a wealth of exceptionally talented fighters in the lighter weight divisions, our list of light heavyweight torchbearers has been far less noteworthy. Not that the 79 kg class hasn’t produced a number of world-class exponents. It’s simply a matter of numbers, and considering that this country’s first acknowledged light heavyweight championship bout was to have taken place in 1916 between Jack Lalor and Johnny “Jack” Rutherford, only for the
contest to be cancelled when Lalor injured his shoulder, it’s somewhat surprising that South Africa has never produced a world light heavyweight champion, albeit in one of the ‘Alphabet Soup’ strongholds of recent vintage.

Moreover it was over 17 years after the ill-fated Lalor/Rutherford contest before
Eddie Peirce outpointed Dave Carstens in Johannesburg to become South Africa’s first official light heavyweight champion. That Peirce went overseas later that year, where he campaigned successfully as both a middleweight and light heavyweight, meant that for the next seven years the title remained vacant.

Sad to say, several outstanding local boxers plied their trade during that time,
including numerous middle weight/light heavyweight’s like Barney Kieswetter
(1929-1939), who left South Africa in 1931 to pursue a boxing career abroad,
Willie “Snowy” Unwin and Billy Harms, another globe-trotting pugilist who traveled
much of three continents in search of fights. Dave Carstens, having lost to
Eddie Pierce never again showed interest in national light heavyweight honours,
though it’s likely he was the best man at the weight in South Africa during the pre-war era.

Nick Wolmarans, who was knocked out by Carstens in 1938 generated some zeal in the light heavyweight division when on April 27, 1940, he defeated the cagey and vastly underrated Archie Smith over 12 rounds in Pretoria to win the vacant national light heavyweight crown. However, Wolmarans soon lost interest in the light heavyweight title and after relinquishing his title, chalked up victories over name opponents like Tommy Bensch (whom he beat to win the SA heavyweight title) and Jack “The Giant Killer” Kukard. He subsequently fought and lost to the likes of England’s Jack London and Johnny Ralph (for the national heavyweight title), as well as world light heavyweight champion Freddie Mills. Though beaten in all three bouts, the lion-hearted Wolmarans, who only stood 1.70m in height, continued tackling fully-fledged heavyweights like Alf Gallagher (D 10), Stephen Olek (L 10) and Johnny Williams L KO by 5) before finally retiring with a record of 14-7-2.

Following Wolmarans’ abdication as light heavyweight champion, another eight years passed before Fred Vorster beat Johnny De Villiers to claim the national throne only for him to lose it the following year to former Olympic gold medal light heavyweight winner George Hunter by a knockout in 10 rounds. A rocksolid
boxer who succeeded in winning the prestigious Val Barker trophy at the 1948
Games, Hunter was, however, preoccupied with winning the South African
heavyweight title and according to reliable reports was desperately unlucky not to have earned the decision when he fought the lanky Piet Strydom for the vacant
crown in 1950. As national light heavyweight kingpin, Hunter’s exploits were unremarkable and after beating Fred Vorster for a second time, he retired from the ring in 1951. He subsequently made a come back in April 1954 but was stopped in the second round by Andries Nieman and then retired with a record of 13 victories in 19 fights.

Former world ranked heavyweight contender Johnny Squires was never much
more than an ‘overblown’ light heavyweight, but like numerous other South
African fighters he immediately realized that the heavyweight ranks had richer
pickings and after beating Nick Van Den Bergh in 1922 to win the national heavyweight championship, he reigned supreme in the division for almost eight
years before eventually being deposed by Don McCorkindale.

Tommy Bensch was yet another local light heavyweight who put on additional poundage before competing amongst the big guns and he admirably succeeded by winning the South African heavyweight title in 1938 in a vacant championship battle with Dave Carstens. By Bensch’s own admission, the decision may well have gone the other way.

What of Robey Leibrandt? A fiery competitor who became heavily embroiled in
the politics of World War 11, Leibrandt was an outstanding amateur and represented South Africa as a light heavyweight at the Olympic Games in Berlin
during 1936. Deeply impressed by the Nazi ideology, Leibrandt was eventually imprisoned for sabotage and in later years managed the ring career of Louw Strydom, a powerfully built heavyweight of whom much was expected. Mind you,
Leibrandt’s professional ring career started off exceptionally well and he won the SA heavyweight title by halting Jim Pentz in 1937, but a subsequent campaign in Britain resulted in an inexplicable loss of form and consequently he suffered defeats at the hands of several fighters he was expected to have beaten.

Because a number of South Africa’s pre-war and immediate post-war heavyweight
monarchs were natural light heavyweights, it’s hardly surprising that the national light heavyweight championship saw comparatively little action and though national titleholders like Tony Liversage and the wicked hitting Stan Lotriet, were both honest practitioners, their efforts failed to evoke any hope of international stardom.

That all changed, however, when former SA middleweight champion Mike Holt
knocked out Lotriet in the opening round of their light heavyweight championship
bout on May 9, 1957.

One of the most colourful and arguably the most exciting fighter ever to have
been produced in this country, Holt was a promoter’s dream and his baseball-bat
left hook could flatten any fighter he hit. World rated as both a middleweight and
light heavyweight, the Pretoria-based Holt accounted for a number of local light heavyweight title contenders like Tommy Du Preez (TKO 6), Doug Nicholas (KO 5) and Gerrie De Bruyn (KO 12) and he also competed against a number of the finest international fighters in the world, including world light heavyweight champion Willie Pastrano, Yvon Durelle, Yolande Pompey, Donnie Fleeman, Gordon Wallace, Jerry Luedee, Eric Schoeppner and Eddie Cotton.

By his own reckoning, Holt was a better light heavyweight than middleweight,
though the majority of homespun analysts doubt it. Yet because of his extensive
impact in both weight fields, Holt is one of comparatively few South African fighters who deserve a Top 10 ranking at 72 kg and 79 kg. From the outset of this exercise, your writer stipulated that boxers would be rated in relation to both their achievements in a particular division and their most suitable fighting weights, yet because of Holt’s irrepressible presence, I found it impossible to omit him from this resume. Remember too that the Pretoria-based fighter had two unsuccessful attempts at winning the Empire light heavyweight title, against Yvon Durelle (L TKO by 8) in 1958 and Johnny Halafifi (D 15) in 1960.

Holt’s successor to the national 175 lb (79 kg) title was Gert “Hottie” van Heerden, a brilliant southpaw who outpointed the Pretoria panel beater over 12 rounds on January 17, 1964. Ironically Van Heerden had already been a professional since 1956. One of the finest pound-for-pound fighters that this country has ever known, van Heerden was nonetheless a maverick, and his out of the ring activities often landed him in serious trouble with the authorities. Impressive victories over England’s Harry Scott, who the following year outpointed the savage hitting Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and Lou Gutierrez of the Argentine were eclipsed by the South African’s erratic social behaviour and led to Van Heerden being stripped of his national light heavyweight crown in 1965. Then after being stopped by Gerrie de Bruyn in a futile attempt at winning the SA heavyweight title, Van Heerden went on
to regain the national light heavyweight crown in February 1967 by outclassing Willie Jansen in the fourth round. But in his next championship outing, Van Heerden’s ears of chaotic living finally caught up with him and he was knocked
out by Jan “Happy” Pieterse in the 10th round of their national light heavyweight
championship bout on August 28, 1967.

However at his best Van Heerden was a gem of a fighter and more is the pity
that he wasted more talent than most boxers even dream of possessing. At
one stage in his career Van Heerden was officially recognized as a leading contender for Willie Pastrano’s light heavyweight championship of the world, but
when a tentative agreement between the South African’s manager Alan Toweel and America’s Angelo Dundee for a title bout in Johannesburg fell through, Van Heerden had only two contests in 1965, beating the Frenchman Michel Vinot and Paul Roux.

Observers agreed that the South African’s form was far below standard in both fights.

Shortly afterwards, the enigmatic Van Heerden’s career ground to a halt when he suffered knockout defeats in two of his last three fights.

That Van Heerden (46-6) was a brilliant all-around fighter cannot be denied, but
despite attaining a #2 world rating as a light heavyweight, the consensus of expert
opinion preferred him as a middleweight, where he defeated some of the finest international competitors of his time. Consequently your writer hasn’t included him in this Top 10 analysis.

Between 1970 and 2009 the local light heavyweight scene has seen an assortment
of national champions, like Sarel Aucamp (who also held the national heavyweight title), Kosie Smith, Pierre Fourie, Dawie du Preez, James Mathatho, Sydney Hoho, Doug Lumley, Piet Crous, Thulani “Sugarboy” Malinga, Sakkie Horn, Ginger Tshabalala, and Soon Botes amongst others. The most notable of these were indubitably Aucamp, Smith, Fourie, Crous and Malinga.

Aucamp, whose tremendous physical strength belied his weight, achieved a world rating and took the more illustrious Pierre Fourie to a very close decision in the first of two highly publicized fights in the early Seventies. A late bloomer, Aucamp possessed one of the finest left jabs in the business and had the murderous punching Kosie Smith’s number in all but one of their six bouts.

Trainer Willie Lock remains adamant that Aucamp would have beaten Mike Holt and though there is merit in his reckoning due to their respective styles, it would be unrealistic to rank him above Holt based solely on personal perception and Aucamp’s victories over the likes of Dickie Owens, Calso Calzi, Brian “Burden” Kelly and Eddie Avoth.

Kosie Smith came within one punch of knocking out WBA light heavyweight
champion Victor Galindez in the fourth round of their title contest during the
latter part of the Seventies, but the South African’s impetuosity cost him a
dearly and he was soundly outpointed for the remainder of the fight. Though
one of the hardest ‘one punch’ slayers in the annals of SA boxing, Smith would be
the last to blow his own trumpet in an essay of this type.

Piet Crous (27-2-1) will best be remembered for his totally unscripted defeat of
America’s Ossie Ocasio at Sun City on December 1, 1984 for the WBA ruiserweight
title, but as a former national light heavyweight ruler, the modest and uncomplicated Crous deserves an accolade. After winning the SA light heavyweight championship from Durban southpaw Doug Lumley in 1981, the Brixton pugilist made 5 title defences and it’s extremely doubtful whether any local boxer of his time was more dedicated to his profession. A tough and gallant boxer with an understated right hand, methinks Crous would have given most of South Africa’s light heavyweights of the past a torrid evening!

Thulani “Sugarboy” Malinga (44-13) won a brace of WBC super middleweight titles at an age when most fighters have already gone to pasture, but even as a 40-year-old the transplanted Natalian was one of the finest ring technicians to have been produced in this country. Malinga also won national titles in three weight divisions;
middleweight, light heavyweight and super middleweight en route to claiming a special niche in the annals of local ring lords. Oh yes, Sugarboy had two separate
reigns as SA light heavyweight champion, during which he collectively defended the 79 kg crown five times.

But the best light heavyweight in the history of South African boxing was undoubtedly Pierre Jacey Fourie. An incredibly durable fighter, “Pierrie” as he was called, hailed from the hard-bitten streets of Malvern, where he earned a fearsome reputation as a “joller” and back-alley brawler. Unmindful of fear, Fourie went on to win the SA middleweight and light heavyweight titles and remains the only man in history to challenge for world light heavyweight laurels on four occasions. Having lost the first of his world championship bouts against Bob Foster in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1973, Fourie made history in the rematch, which was held at the Rand Stadium, Johannesburg, in December of the same year, by being part of the first official ‘multiracial’ bout held in South Africa since professional boxing was placed under legal control in 1923.

Moreover the return match was held before a racially mixed audience and although
Foster retained his title on points, everyone agreed that it had been an extremely close fight. One of the finest jabbers the South African ring has ever known, Fourie, who was never more than a super middleweight at his best, subsequently challenged WBA light heavyweight champion Victor Galindez on two occasions, losing both bouts by the narrowest of margins.

So which fighters make the Pettifer “Top 10”? Here for what it is worth is the list
I’ve pulled together.

1. Pierre Fourie
2. Mike Holt * also rated amongst the middleweights
3. Thulani “Sugarboy” Malinga
4. Sarel Aucamp
5. Piet Crous
6. Dave Carstens
7. Nick Wolmarans
8. George Hunter
9. Archie Smith
10. Kosie Smith