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Rating the Middleweights - by Terry Pettifer

South Africa’s earliest claimant for national middleweight honours was William
“Billy” Kelly who was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1869. Kelly arrived in this country
twenty years later and won homespun recognition as SA middleweight champion
when he defeated the great Barney Malone in February 1891. A colourful succession of fighters followed, most of who were foreigners that journeyed to South Africa from various parts of Britain and Australia. Over the next thirty years, they included the likes of Lachie Thompson, Bill Heffernan, Bill Doherty, the immortal Kid McCoy, Billy Edwards, Jack Valentine, Jimmy Holloway, Dan Erasmus, Tom Duggan, Jewey Cook, Jack Lalor, Jack Palmer, Tom Dingey, Fred McKell, Ted Nelson, George Anderson, and Bob Storbeck.

Possibly the most formidable of these was the phenomenal Jack Lalor, who between 1904 and 1914 laid claim to the national middleweight crown on five different occasions. Certainly one of South Africa’s greatest pound-for-pound fighters in history, Lalor also won the national welterweight championship and though normally weighing in the region of 145 lbs, he went on to lift the SA heavyweight crown numerous times over a stretch of 10 years (1908-1918).

That Lalor ranks amongst the ‘blue ribbon’ performers of the South African
prize ring is irrefutable and before retiring three months before his 44th birthday,
he’d compiled an overall record of 56 wins, 9 losses and 5 draws. I’d hazard a guess that most greybeards placed him #1 in terms of his all-around boxing
ability.

Yet was Lalor really a middleweight? Moreover, if one agrees to assess boxers
in accordance with their legacy and at their best fighting weight, Lalor would
ideally be rated among this land’s standout welterweights, or as some historians
believe, junior welterweights.

Reggie Hull is another old-timer who warrants acclaim and although his professional career only encompassed 12 fights, (9-1-2) lasting from 1920-1926,
he was good enough to win both the national welterweight and middleweight titles
and outpoint South Africa’s future world rated heavyweight champion Johnny Squires in 1922.

Tall for a welterweight, Hull essentially relied on guile and skill to beat his opponents, counted amongst whom were the impressive scalps of Ginger Corrigan,
Ron Dumar, Percy Carson, Llewellyn Probert (Wales) and Alf Simmonds (London). Hull’s only loss was to Ernie Rice, a former British and European lightweight titleholder.

Methinks Hull must have been an extraordinary pugilist, but since he did most of his fighting as a welterweight, local historians have been cautious of including
him in an assemblage of leading middleweight performers.

Wally Baker and Roy Ingram were bitter rivals during the 1920’s, and would unquestionably have been popular crowd pullers in this day and age. Baker (12-4-
2) in particular earned a reputation as a powerful puncher and according to reports could fight like an enraged wild cat when his temper was aroused. A former
Olympian in 1920 and 1924, Ingram’s professional ring career was far less remarkable (3-3-2) yet he was highly thought of by several leading oracles of the past.

A fighter who definitely competes for the premier spot amongst our former
middleweight fighters was Eddie Peirce.

A tough and gallant boxer, Pierce fought professionally for a decade (1932-1942) during which he exchanged punches with a number of the world’s leading exponents such as the savage hitting Lloyd Marshall, Charlie Burley, Tommy Farr, Billy Soose ( a future world middleweight champion) and Young Joe Louis. Peirce’s victory over Louis (not to be confused by the immortal heavyweight of the same name) was particularly noteworthy, since it marked the American fighter’s first defeat in 66 bouts. Though never regarded as a particularly heavy puncher, the wavy-haired Peirce possessed exceptional durability and he left South Africa after only 9 professional contests, having defeated former Olympic gold medalist Dave Carstens to win the national light heavyweight title on May 20, 1933. Thereafter he campaigned abroad, where he chalked up impressive wins over the likes of Ken
Overlin (a future world middleweight titleholder), Ted Lowry (the only fighter
who twice went the distance with the great Rocky Marciano), Archie Sexton, Del Fontaine, Tom Curran, Darkie Ellis and Kid Tunero. Equally comfortable as a
middleweight and light heavyweight, Peirce fashioned a career best of 68-23-
15 and is the choice of a number experts as the finest 72 kg (160 lb) ringman ever
to have come out of South Africa.

Another vintage craftsman who deserves honourable mention is the late Eddie Maguire. Handicapped by thin skin tissue around his eyes, Maguire (51-42- 14) suffered an unusually high number of TKO defeats, but at the peak of his prowess was one of the most competent middleweights in Europe.

Like Eddie Peirce, the stocky Maguire elected to pack his boxing togs and campaign abroad and besides defeating world light heavyweight champion-to-be
Freddie Mills in one of several bouts, he also fought Jock McAvoy, Teddy Yarosz
(a former world middleweight champion), Eric Seelig, Solly Krieger (a future
world middleweight titleholder), Dave Carstens, Dick Turpin, Barney Kieswetter,
Dai Jones and “Cast Iron” Jack Casey. In all, Maguire’s professional career
lasted twelve years (1929-1941) and needless to say he occupies a slot on most experts’ lists of outstanding South African middleweights.

A contemporary of Maguire’s was Barney Kieswetter. Ranked amongst South
Africa’s finest defensive boxers of yore, Kieswetter fought from 1929 to 1939
compiling a record of 47 victories, 8 defeats and 11 draws. An athlete who regarded boxing as a means to globe trot, he campaigned in Britain, Europe and
Australia and not surprisingly only boxed 15 bouts in South Africa. However hav- ing left South Africa in 1931, he returned three years later to win the national middleweight title from Eddie Maguire near the tail-end of his remarkable career. By then Kieswetter had competed against numerous foreign fighters like Ron
Richards, Del Fontaine, Darky Ellis, Archie Sexton, Jack Hyams, Len “Tiger” Smith, Jack O’Brien and Wally Hutchings. On the home front, Kieswetter
numbered Willie “Snowy” Unwin, Tommy Bensch, Jim Holloway and Andrew Johnson amongst his more reputable foes. Like several other ringmen of his era,
Kieswetter frequently laced on the gloves against opponents much heavier than himself and also fared well as a light heavyweight.

A no-brainer for inclusion on any resume of great South African boxers was
George Angelo. Indeed there are many experts who regard “Gentleman George”
as the best middleweight this country has ever produced. A dignified man outside
the ring, Angelo was one of this land’s most scientific boxers and he had a rapier-like left hand. A former SA welterweight and middleweight champion, Angelo wasn’t much of a hitter but his ring artistry and rugged chin –which was seldom tested because of his superb defence – made him one of the most lauded South African fighters of the late Forties and early Fifties. In fact Angelo’s footwork was so highly thought of that it was used for some of the scenes in the overseas film ‘The Square Ring’. While Angelo lost on points to former world middleweight titleholder Randolph Turpin (at a time when the South African had a detached retina) he was good enough to defeat the likes of Britain’s Les Allen, Vince Hawkins, Burl Charity, “Jolting” Joe Maseko, Baby Day, Duggie Miller (in one of three meetings) and the wicked punching Mel Brown. Angelo retired from the ring in 1952 with an overall record of 37 wins and 6 losses.

The vastly underrated Duggie Miller (48-17-4) never won an SA title but he was definitely one South Africa’s toughest and most courageous fighters in history.
A humble personality in his private life, Miller was an aggressive boxerfighter with an excellent left hand and besides beating George Angelo in two of their three fights he was a match for any international middleweight of the 1950’s. He proved as much by going the distance with the great Randolph Turpin twice, before and after the Englishman had held the world middleweight title.

Indeed not even the brilliant Australian Dave Sands could knock him out. Moreover,
whilst campaigning abroad, Miller served as a sparring partner for a number of ring immortals such as Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Archie Moore, Kid Gavilan, Marcel Cerdan and Jake La Motta. After a lengthy career in the professional ranks (1946-1961) Miller hung up his gloves and became a respected trainer and matchmaker.

Eddie Thomas (25-6-1) was a man’s man if ever there was one and his thrilling trilogy of fights with Mike Holt are now part of South African ring lore.

A savage puncher with either hand, Thomas first won the national welterweight title from Pat Patrick before winning the middleweight crown, and encountering Holt in the first of three primitive wars! Having won their first meeting on a sensational come-frombehind knockout in the 6th round, Thomas lost the next two contests by 12th round stoppages. He ended his explosive career in 1957, and in later years became good friends with his arch rival Holt.

A pin-up fighter for ‘tough guys’ Mike Holt (54-19-4) was arguably the most
exciting South African fighter of all time and during his prime brought a unique
brand of ferocity to a contest. Holt combined crushing power with an instinctive
lust for battle and his left hook earned him most of his victories over an 11-year
stretch (1953-1964) that saw him win both the SA middleweight and light heavyweight titles. Best remembered for his grim enmity with the equally dangerous Eddie Thomas, the Pretoria panelbeater was an enormous drawcard and
once he had an opponent in trouble he would rip and tear at his rival with the ferocity of a jungle cat. Moreover Holt’s potency of clout accounted for numerous
heavyweights like Daan Bekker, Gerrie de Bruyn, Billy Lotter and Gawie De Klerk and he earned a world rating in both the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions. On the international circuit Holt fought a number of the planet’s finest fighters such as world light heavyweight titleholder Willie Patrano, former world middleweight champion Carl “Bobo” Olsen, Yvon Durelle, George Barnes, Gustav Scholz, Sixto Rodriguez, Eric Schoeppner, Jerry Luedee, Eddie Cotton, Yolande Pompey, Johnny Halififi, Donnie Fleeman and Gordon Wallace.

One of this country’s most murderous pound-for-pound punchers, Holt challenged Pat McAteer for the Empire middleweight title in 1955 but was beaten on points over 15 rounds. He also had a brace of unsuccessful attempts at winning the Empire light heavyweight championship against Yvon Durelle (L TKO by 8) and Johnny Halafifi (D 15) in 1958 and 1960 respectively. Interestingly Holt felt that he was a better light heavyweight than middleweight, though most purists tend to
disagree.

Another of Holt’s local adversaries was the smooth-boxing Jimmy Elliott whom
he fought on two memorable occasions (1-1) before Elliott’s fatal contest against Pat McAteer. It has often been said that the brutal punishment which Elliott endured in those two bouts substantially contributed to his tragic demise when he
later fought Pat McAteer on May 4, 1957 at the Wembley Stadium, Johannesburg.

What of the ill-fated Jimmy Elliott (26- 6)? Handsome and magnificently built,
Elliott was considered as one of South Africa’s finest defensive boxers of the
post-war era, and his contests with Mike Holt produced two of the most unforgettable middleweight classics seen in this country. Elliott lost the first contest on points but in their return engagement bravely weathered a blistering rally to win the bout on points. Most pundits believe that the hammering Elliott sustained in the rematch was indirectly responsible for his death ten months
later.

“Jolting” Joe Maseko (27-8-1) has always been a popular choice as one of South Africa’s most technically gifted boxers of the Fifties and his exploits in Britain during 1951-1952 earned him the plaudits of some notable English scribes. Maseko was in fact an extremely clever fighter and though he lost a points decision to his countryman George Angelo during 1949 in Lourenco Marquez, he fought and at times defeated some of toughest middleweights in England.

Amongst the competitors Maseko faced were Bert Sanders, Alex Buxton, Wally
Beckett, Bob Cleaver and George Hazell. Moreover while living in Britain, the slick
boxing South African also fought and knocked out one of South Africa’s proverbial ‘ironmen’ Joe Munro inside 6 rounds.

Which brings your writer to the man I personally regard as the most talented
middleweight South Africa has ever known: Gert “Hottie” van Heerden. His own worst enemy, Van Heerden was once rated second in the world as a light heavyweight although most experts feel that he was at his best as a middleweight. Nicknamed “Hottie” (derived from the Afrikaans word for southpaw which is ‘hotklou’) Van Heerden was constantly in the news, but often for the wrong reasons. Indeed Van Heerden had numerous brushes with the law and even served a prison sentence for robbery. Yet as a fighter he was brilliant and before his ring career was inevitably ruined by bright lights and ruinous living, he’d defeated such vaunted opposition as Mike Holt (three times), Ron Redrup (England), Don “Bronco” Jones (Australia), Earl Nikora (New Zealand), Del Flanagan (USA), Teddy Haynes (England), Yvan Prebeg (Yugoslavia) and Lou Guttierez (Nicaragua) amongst others.

Born on January 26, 1937, Van Heerden turned professional in 1956, losing
his first three fights, two of which were to another skilful southpaw, Billy Lotter.
Then apart from a disqualification defeat to America’s Del Flanagan in 1961, the
left-handed Van Heerden won his next 43 contests, 23 via the stoppage route
and also accounted for the likes of Billy Lotter, who he defeated to win the national middleweight title, Orlando Paso, Mike Robertson, Sandy Luke, Reg Hayes, Sipa Fine, Chris van Rooyen, Harry Scott and Ivan Kruger. But two near-fatal car accidents and years of hedonistic existence finally caught up with him and by
1966 he was practically finished as a fighter.

After losing two of his last three fights on stoppages, he retired the following
year with a record of 46 wins and 6 losses.Other local middleweights who undoubtedly deserve to be mentioned were Pierre Fourie (52-7-1), Elijah “Tap
Tap” Makhatini (47-14-1) –a merciless hitting southpaw who knocked out Charlie
Weir with such chilling effect - Billy Lotter (32-7), whose best remembered for winning the national heavyweight title, Bruce McIntyre (25-6), a bloodand- guts fighter from South Hills, who carried TNT in both hands and Thulani “Sugarboy” Malinga (44-13).

Anyone contemplating an all-time rating of South African middleweights would possibly omit Fourie from the reckoning since he had far greater influence as a four-time challenger for the world light heavyweight title. The same could be said of Malinga, who went on to lift two WBC super middleweight championships.

Terry Pettifer’s Top10 SA Middleweights:

1. Gert “Hottie” van Heerden
2. Eddie Peirce
3. George Angelo
4. Mike Holt
5. Eddie Maguire
6. Barney Kieswetter
7. Duggie Miller
8. Jimmy Elliott
9. Joe Maseko
10. Bruce McIntyre