Tuli - South Africa's greatest Flyweight - by Ron Jackson
In any list of all time great South
African fighters there is no doubt that
Jake Tuli must be rated as the greatest
flyweight of all time.
Jake became an overnight sensation
when he stopped Teddy Gardner on
September 8, 1952 to win the British
Empire flyweight title – in his first fight
Gardner a veteran of 65 fights held
the British, European and Empire flyweight
titles when he faced Tuli and after taking a beating from the South African he retired from the ring.
Jake whose birth name was N’Tuli was
born to a Zulu ‘coloured’ father and a
Motswana mother on 7 July 1929 and was one of twelve children. His early years were spent in and around Fox Street where the family lived in the centre
In 1934 the government removed
Jake’s family from the centre of Johannesburg
and dumped them in Orlando like thousands of others, outside one of the small houses that soon became known as matchboxes.
This is where Jake first attended
school and being small was always a
target for the bullies, so he turned to
his half brother Johnny Mokoena for
help. Johnny bought some secondhand
boxing gloves and gave Jake boxing
lessons until Andrew ‘Pele Pele’
Mkhwanazi, who later helped start Orlando
Pirates football club took over his
Tuli was an alter boy at St Mary’s Anglican
Church in Orlando and was encouraged
further by Father Lunnis the Parish priest to continue with his boxing.
After winning all of his estimated 25
amateur fights Jake made his professional debut in April 1950 at the
Bantu Men’s Social Centre in
Johannesburg in a ten round
non-title fight against the South
African flyweight champion
Jacob Thathe who fought under the name of Kid Snowball. Tuli stopped him the tenth round.
After winning five more fights
Jake won the Transvaal flyweight
title when he knocked
out Gilbert Seabela in the first
round and his next fight he
moved up a division to win the vacant South African bantamweight title in March 1952 when he knocked out Pancho Villa (a.k.a. Abednigo Mnguni) within forty seconds of the first round in Durban.
In May 1952 fighting at his
natural weight Jake won the
vacant South African flyweight
crown when he defeated Kid
Sweetie also called Young
Sweetie with a tenth round
stoppage. He made the first defence
of his bantamweight title
with a points win over Shaik Osman.
Jake’s step-brother worked for American Express and the manager at the time was George Crewe a keen fight fan who arranged for Jake to join the Jim Wicks stable in London.
Teddy Gardner was looking for
a so called easy fight so Wicks
put him in with the experienced
veteran and against the odds Tuli
stopped him the 12th round. He only received
R400 for the fight but gained instant
recognition overnight. It was after
this fight that Jake decided to box under the name of Tuli instead of N’Tuli, making it easier for the English to pronounce his name.
Only five weeks later he knocked out
Jimmy Pearce and then in November
1952 outpointed Honore Pratesi, of
France, in London. After the fight
Pratesi collapsed and died two days
later. The deeply religious Tuli wanted
to pack his bags and go home, but Jim
Wicks arranged for an Anglican priest,
Father Royle to council him and between
him and Wick’s they convinced
Jake he was not responsible for
Only 27 days after the Pratesi fight
Tuli fought Emile Delplanque in Nottingham and stopped him in the fourth.
In the first five months of 1953 he
went undefeated beating Tommy Profitt,
Nazzareno Gianelli, Vic Herman, Robert Meunier, Amleto Falcinelli, Eric Marsden
and Robert Meunier again before returning home for successful defences of his
national bantamweight title against Kid Bogart, Pancho Villa and David Gogotya.
Meanwhile Jim Wicks had arranged for
Jake to meet top bantamweight and future
world champion, Frenchman, Robert Cohen on 14 December 1953 in Manchester. In a real slugfest Jake suffered his first defeat in the professional ring. However, the loss to Cohen did not affect his ranking as a flyweight and in August 1954 he went to Manilla to meet Leo Espinosa in what was regarded as a final eliminator for the world flyweight title held by Japan’s Yoshio Shirai.
The humidity in Manilla proved too
much for Tuli and his corner had to pull
him out in the ninth round. Prior to this defeat Tuli had been ranked number one
contender by the Ring magazine, the only recognised ratings at the time, from August 1952 to March 1954. At the time there were only eight champions and
ten contenders in each division. The champion Yoshio Shirai was reluctant to
meet Tuli despite numerous challenges.
This defeat took a lot out of Tuli and in
his next fight he lost his Empire flyweight
title to Welshman Dai Dower
over 15 rounds. He won his next fight
against Henk van der Zee and then lost
inside the distance to Nazzareno Gianelli.
In 1955 after good victories over Guy
Schatt, Emile Delplanque and Ola Enoch
he made a terrific effort against Peter Keenan for the British Empire bantamweight
title in Glasgow before a crowd of 30 000 all rooting for the local boy.
Early in the first round he had Keenan
down for a count of three and then sent
him down for the second time for a count of eight. Even though Keenan was badly punished for the next four rounds, the Scot managed to recover and knocked out Tuli in the fourteenth round.
He was beaten on points in a return
bout with Dai Dower for the Empire flyweight
title in December 1955 and was then inactive for 22 months before returning
to the ring and losing three fights in a row. He announced his retirement in 1958 and decided to return to South Africa.
Jake was appointed as boxing correspondent
for the Zonk magazine and
wrote many thought provoking articles
in his column called Neutral Corner.
In 1966 at the age of 37 Jake decided
to make a comeback because he was
not impressed with the current crop of fighters and felt he had the beating of
Jake had 8 fights wining three, losing
four and drawing one and after losing to
Leslie Tangee on points in October 1967 he decided to hang up his gloves for
After retiring from the ring Jake lived
with his wife Peggy in Noordgesicht near
Soweto and as a qualified printer worked at the World newspaper for many years.
In later years Jake suffered from diabetes
and lived on a disability pension.
Jake who had a career record of 31 wins, 14 losses and 2 draws was a pioneer
in an era when black sportsmen were barely recognised and was always the perfect gentleman.
Jake died in Johannesburg on 24 November 1998, aged 68, after a long illness.