The World’s Greatest Fighting Family - by Ron Jackson
May 31 remains one of the red-letter days
on the SA sports calendar, but not many
fans remember what happened on that date in 1950. On that day, more than 20 000 people saw Vic Toweel beat Manuel Ortiz to become bantamweight champion
of the world.
They saw the 22-year-old South African
climb through the ropes of the ring in the
Wembley Stadium in Johannesburg, to the sound of the popular Afrikaans song Sarie Marais.
A band played The Stars and Stripes Forever as the champion, a 33-year-old Mexican- American, climbed through the ropes.
Toweel had been in over 300 amateur
fights, of which he lost only two. A South
African named Andrew Engelbrecht once beat him on points and at the 1948
Olympic Games he lost to Arnoldo Pares of Argentina. It was reported to be a poor
After turning professional, Toweel had
ten fights against SA opponents. Only
three went the distance and he won the national bantamweight and featherweight
His first overseas opponent was Stan
Rowan, whom he beat for the British Empire
bantamweight title. Toweel then won against former world flyweight champion
Jackie Patterson and Fernando Gagnon before challenging Ortiz for the undisputed
world bantamweight title in only his 14th professional fight.
The odds were stacked against the young man from the East Rand. He was taking on a 115-fight veteran who was having his 22nd world title bout. It turned out to be the greatest night for SA boxing. Toweel clearly outpointed Ortiz and there were unprecedented scenes when the gong sounded at the end of 15 rounds of all-action fighting. Anyone who saw the fight will always remember the courage Toweel showed in rounds four, eight, nine and 13 when Ortiz hit him with everything except the bucket.
Trevor Dovale wrote in The Star: “He
(Toweel) tottered about the ring under a
rain of blows. His right eye was closing fast. Another hammer blow pounded his
nose…he felt the bone giving away. “A left ripped into his mouth again…blood
spurted from his pulpy lips. He stumbled helplessly into the ropes before the frenzied champion, fighting like crazy to hold on to his slipping crown… “ He went after Ortiz again, boxing him, attacking every gap left by the now weakening champion, bringing the crowd to its feet when he had him going in the 14th round.
prevented him finishing the job. But
Toweel had his hand raised in victory. He
was the new bantamweight champion of
the world…bloody, battered and sore…but
not too dazed to realise the magnitude of
his achievement, or to wish that his late
mother could have been there to see it.
Such was the simplicity of the champion.”
Toweel has every claim to be called the
greatest fighter in the history of SA boxing.
He won the title when there were only
eight weight divisions with eight world
There were only ten contenders in each
division those days; not the multitude of
champions and challengers promoted by a host of organisations that we have
Toweel died in Sydney, Australia, on August
It remains a travesty of justice that he
was not inducted into the International
Boxing Hall of Fame during his lifetime.