Don of the South - by Pete Moscardi

The hand-shake I received from Lionel Hunter, a former light-heavyweight and middleweight fighter of the ‘80s, had a grip like a vice. It caused me to steal a glance at his hands which were placed on the restaurant table. They told a story all of their own. The metacarpal joints on both hands are grotesquely distorted, resulting in large swollen mounds in the area between the knuckles and the wrists. The knuckles on his right hand had fresh scabs. I had been informed, prior to my interview with Lionel, that he had a reputation as a hard man and that it was not unknown for him to get involved in more than a few close encounters So I asked him the obvious question. Pointing to the knuckles on his right fist I asked: “Have you been in action recently, Lionel? His answer surprised me. “Yes, but not the way you might think. This happened when I was lifting pigs onto my bakkie to transport them to the abattoir. It can be a rough business.”

The introduction to Lionel was made by Jeff Ellis, publisher of African Ring, at the well patronised Aroma coffee shop in the Glenvista Centre in the “Deep South”. “Perhaps you should be aware that Lionel is regarded as the ‘Don’ of the South. It is a reputation he has earned over the years. He is still the person to whom people turn to sort out their problems.” This background information fascinated me. I knew of Lionel Hunter the fighter – and, in fact, had seen several of his fights. But I knew nothing about Lionel Hunter the person.

Lionel, I was soon to learn, is a man of many parts and many activities. Today the 48-year-old ex fighter retains the ruggedly handsome good looks of his younger days, and still looks like he could get into a ring and provide anyone with a good argument. But there is, as I was to discover, a mellow side to his nature, and any hardness in Lionel Hunter’s eyes disappears when he talks about his family. Married to Shereen, the couple has an 18-month-old daughter, Chelsea. “I also have three children from a previous marriage who all live with me and my wife – a 21-year-old daughter, Logan, an 18-year-old son, Cameron and a 14-year-old daughter, Lacaela, as does my adopted daughter, Vanessa, who is 17.

“I live on a six acre plot in Walkerville which is something of a menagerie as I have 26 pedigree dogs of various breeds – including pedigree pit bulls, 60 pigs, turkeys, sheep and some 20 Capuchin monkeys which I breed.” When Lionel is not spending time caring for his family and his animals, he is looking after his two active auto-spares businesses – Auto Fever and Auto Fever 2 located in Selby and Booysens respectively.

The earliest memories Lionel has of boxing was when his father took him to a boxing tournament when he was six. “My first reaction was that I was never going to box as I remember thinking ‘how they got their faces crippled’. However, after a while I changed my mind and all I wanted to do was to box,” he recalls. Lionel Hunter joined the Southern Suburbs club when he was just 10 – but he was disappointed in never been given a fight. “I was always a reserve but never got into the ring,” he says.

After a while he joined the Mayfair YMCA where he started competing as a junior before moving on to the Huguenot Club under legendary trainer, Naas Botes.

When he turned 16 and was eligible to fight as a senior he joined the famous Booysens Club under the auspices of Herbie Vermeulen. “I won a Transvaal title every year I boxed as both a junior and senior and also won an open Border Championships. I won the SADF title in the middleweight division when I was a senior and was serving in my two-year National Service call-up and also competed in the SA champion ships, but I never managed to win a title. I ended up having around 99 amateur contests, of which I lost 20,” he says.

Hunter’s childhood was, he says, a happy one and he had a great relationship with an elder brother and a younger sister. “We were a very close family and there are many of us. The other day we had a family reunion and there were 300 people in the form of aunts, uncles, cousins etc. I started off at Aloe Ridge and was boxing at the school when I was in Standard 4. I then moved on to Mondeor High. It was a happy childhood.” Lionel still has close ties to his family – and is very close to his father who is 67.

“I had a long amateur career at the end of which I decided to dedicate myself to boxing and I turned professional, having my first fight for money in March, 1983. I was also doing my apprenticeship as a printer with the old Rand Daily Mail. I joined up with “Oom” Andries Steyn and, together with Aladin Stevens, we trained in his garage at his home in Krugersdorp. While I was at home my Dad also got involved with my training and I was unbeaten in my first 12 fights while still living at home. A draw against the tough Kosie van Vuuren in my second professional fight in May 1983 was the only blot on an otherwise perfect start.”

Weight was a problem for Lionel. “There was no super-middleweight division in those days. I battled to make the middleweight limit and I recall not drinking a drop of water for up to three days to make the weight. I would dream of streams and waterfalls and in the morning, when I first got out of bed, I would rush to the tap and just wet my mouth.

When I fought at light-heavyweight my opponents were always naturally bigger. The light-heavyweight division was, at the time I was boxing, the most competitive in the country. There were some very good fighters around such as Sakkie Horn, Freddie Rafferty, Solomon Zuma, Prince Tukane and Sakkie Enslin. In November 1985 I lost a close decision to Sakkie Horn for the Transvaal lightheavyweight title. I thought I had done enough to win the fight, but the decision did not go my way. The fight was also a virtual title eliminator and Sakkie went on to win the SA title,” he says.

In July the following year Hunter lost on a seventh round cut eye stoppage to Gregory Clark at West Ridge Park in Durban. With his heart no longer fully in it, he decided to call quits on his career, ending up with a 12-5-1 record. “I never ducked anyone and I fought all the best guys who were around at the time. I had wins over Freddie Rafferty, Sakkie Enslin, Martin Barnard, Prince Tukane and Michael Motsoane among others,” he says. Lionel did not have to think long and hard as to how he was going to make a buck after retiring – an offer came to him.

“A club owner who had three clubs in Rocky Street, Yeoville asked me to work for him as a full-time bouncer, looking after all three clubs. I worked six nights a week. Normally each club would have two bouncers attached to it – but I covered all three on my own. “The work was not always smooth sailing at the clubs, and very often Lionel had to use his fists when gentle verbal persuasion failed to work. “I always adopted a softly-softly approach. I would approach a person who was causing trouble and politely ask him to leave the club. If he put up an argument I would pretend that I could not hear what he was saying and would ask him to come somewhere more quiet and private. When we were out of sight from the rest of the patrons I would repeat my request. If there was still a problem a quick punch to the chin usually did the trick. There were times when I had to sort out guys who had pretty notorious reputations for being really tough heavies. I quit after five years – and finished up with both my hands badly busted up as a result of the club fights and a few encounters in the streets ,” he says.

Lionel left the club scene and went to work at an auto spares business in Booysens where he sold spares. After becoming a 10 percent shareholder he gradually increased his shareholding in the business and, after 14 years, bought it out completely. He then opened a second operation – Auto Fever – in Selby, while still retaining the Booysens operation which trades under the title of Auto Fever 2. Today Lionel employs a work force of around 40 and both businesses are thriving.

One day Lionel Hunter’s personal life underwent a total turn-around. “I started to go to church – something I had never done in the past – and one morning I just woke up my wife and kids and asked them to come to church with me. From that moment I became a born-again Christian and today I am in my second year of religious studies at the Christian Family Church Bible School in Boksburg. My wife, who is a qualified but non-practising psychologist, is now in her third year of religious studies. I will qualify with a degree in Theology when I have completed my third year. Shereen does a lot of charity work and we have a happy home on the farm in Walkerville. Much of my time today is divided between my family and my bible studies, and on Fridays we have “cell” evenings at our home. I am the “cell” leader for the area and Shereen is a keen participant in this activity,” he says.

I ask Lionel how he thinks he is regarded by the people he knows and his answer, like everything else he has told me, is frank and honest. “My friends love me – and they would call me a fair person. That is why I get calls from people asking me to sort out their problems,” he answers. Lionel Hunter has, no doubt, turned his back on his tearaway days of bouncing in the clubs. And he has, no doubt, turned his life around and today is the peaceful and Christian living, happily married family man. But, as Jeff Ellis pointedly observed, he still remains the “Don of the South” and, no doubt, there would be few people who would care to argue with that title.