Terry Pettifer’s SA Welterweight Analysis - by Terry Pettifer
Reggie Hull was a Kimberley-born national welterweight and middleweight champion of the 1920’s and a family member of Herbert Long, who along with fellow Communist Strike Union members Samuel Long and David “Taffy” Lewis perished on the gallows in 1922.
As a professional fighter, Hull was tall for his weight and competed from 1920- 1925, when he officially retired at the age of 33.
Talented enough to outpoint Johnny Squires, a future world rated South African heavyweight champion, Hull was indubitably one of this country’s most remarkable boxers and although his professional career only encompassed 12 fights (9-1-2) his performances were impressive enough to register fervent support from ringside observers who saw him fight. Moreover, several local fight historians such as Chris Lessing and Charles Zastron later bolstered his legend, as did old-time admirers like Jack Eustice, Ron Dumar and Bob Beetson, all of whom rated Hull among the finest local ring technicians of his age.
Accepting the fact that Hull must have been a really outstanding tactician, his abbreviated exploits within the squared circle, are undeniable negatives when assessing his place in the annals of SA boxing.
Hull won the national welterweight title in 1921, in only his second professional outing, by defeating the rugged Ron Dumar and two years later, added the SA middleweight crown to his collection when he outpointed Ginger Corrigan over 20 rounds. He also triumphed over the likes of Johnny Thompson, Martin Koenig, Llewellyn Probert, who was an imported opponent from Wales and the vicious hitting Alf Simmonds of London.
A 20-round bout with Roy Ingram ended in a hard-fought draw. Hull’s only loss occurred in 1925, when he was stopped by Ernie Rice, a former British and European lightweight titleholder, who eventually retired with a record of 51-24-2.
So where does Hull rank in a compilation of this land’s welterweight elite? While many oldsters felt he was the best 147-pounder ever to have been produced in South Africa, modern analysts find it difficult to place him above certain fighters who had four to five times as many contests. The bottom line: Hull’s resume lacked the numbers with which to merit such lavish acclaim and consequently it impacts on his overall legacy. Veteran historian Paul Hetz said: “Hull must have been a grand fighter but since he only had a dozen bouts, it would be suppositional in the extreme to select him as our finest ever welterweight”.
African Ring published Jeff Ellis supported Hetz’s sentiments. “Reggie Hull turned professional at the age of 28 and retired after only 12 contests” said Ellis. “Yes, he must have made a telling impression as a fighter, but it would be fatuous to rate him alongside the likes of Volbrecht, Nieuwenhuizen and Ludick amongst others”.
Jack Lalor certainly set the earliest benchmark for South African fighters and held the national heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight titles at various times in his career. The first boxer in this country to earn legendary status among his peers, Lalor - whose real name was Edmund Lawlor - was born in Ireland and arrived in this country in 1895 as a bugler in the Kings Royal Rifles. After his military service had ended, Lalor decided to permanently settle in South Africa and found that he had an instinctive brain for fighting. Earning a living with his fists obviously appealed to the young Irishman and he first received limited recognition as SA heavyweight champion after he beat Harry Smith in 1908. However it wasn’t until he defeated the powerfully muscled Mike Williams of Galway, in 1912, that Lalor, who had lifted the national welterweight championship in 1903 by knocking out Charley Doherty in 3 rounds, took any real interest in the heavyweight title.
A superb ring strategist who was never much more than a welterweight, Lalor outfought the burly Fred Storbeck twice in 1914 to substantiate his claim to local heavyweight honours and despite announcing his retirement not long afterwards, he later made a comeback to beat the much heavier Nick van den Bergh in 1918 and regain the title. Lalor finally packed the gloves away for good in 1919, three months before his 44th birthday.
During his extraordinary career, he filed a record of 56-9-5 and had fought most of the finest pugilists in South Africa, including Jack Everhardt and Jack Grace of America, Ted Nelson and Tom Duggan of Australia, Tom Dingey of Canada, Jack Palmer of Britain and Jimmy Holloway and Arthur Douglas of South Africa. A wonderfully conditioned man all his life, Lalor still sparred for fun at the age of 66. Clearly this vintage champion belongs high on South Africa’s list of welterweight immortals. Indeed I’d hazard a guess that surviving greybeards would rate him number one in their all-time rankings.
Other locals remain convinced that South Africa never produced a better allaround fighter than the late Bennie Nieuwenhuizen. A product of Belgravia, east of Johannesburg, Nieuwenhuizen was unquestionably one of the finest left hook specialists in the world during the mid-fifties and had it not been for a total lack of self discipline, this freckle-faced welterweight could at the least have won an Empire title.
A converted southpaw, Nieuwenhuizen won the SA welterweight title in 1955 by outpointing Chris van Rooyen, an awkwardly talented boxer from Pretoria, only to be stripped of the title the following year. A brief campaign in Britain resulted in him beating Wally Thom the British champion and the highly ranked Peter King, after which Nieuwenhuizen found it difficult to obtain fights.
An impressive points victory over the Commonwealth welterweight champion George Barnes in Australia, earned the South African a championship rematch with Barnes in Johannesburg during 1956, but with over a dozen summonses waiting for him at his home, an ill-prepared Nieuwenhuizen was halted in the 13th round of the contest.
A free-living spirit with a reputation as a street-fighter, Nieuwenhuizen continued boxing for another decade, often in Maseru and Lourenco Marques, where he had a number of unrecorded bouts. Seldom dedicated to his task, Nieuwenhuizen was nevertheless a brilliant boxer with a needle-threading jab and nimble footwork and listed among his victims a burgeoning young tiger named Mike Holt, Joe “Axe Killer” Ngidi and former Empire welterweight champion Gerald Dreyer, whom he dropped ten times in a disgraceful and one-sided contest in Durban.
Nieuwenhuizen closed off his career in 1966, with a record of 36 wins, 16 losses and 3 draws.
No self-respecting fight analyst would omit Joe “Axe Killer” Ngidi from a roll-call of stand out South African welterweights. An underrated ring craftsman of yesteryear, the rock-hard Ngidi fought successfully as a welterweight and middleweight , winning national titles in both divisions and during an 18 year career (1954-1972) faced a host of world class fighters, among them former world lightweight king Joe Brown, Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, Curtis Cokes (then the world welterweight champion), Freddie Little, Eddie Perkins, Jimmy Martinez, George Barnes and Orlando Paso. It’s doubtful in fact, whether any other South African welterweight faced as formidable a crop of international opponents as the hard hitting Ngidi.
A torchbearer for Black boxing in this country, Ngidi had no problem journeying to Australia and England in search of fights before closing off his career on 96 fights (73-21-2). Ngidi’s most imposing victories were against the wily Joe Brown (whom he defeated on three occasions), George Barnes, Enoch “Schoolboy” Nhlapo, Orlando Passo and Attuquaye Clottey.
A name from the distant past which warrants reflection is that of Andrew Jeptha. The first coloured boxer ever to win a British championship, Jeptha was born in Cape Town during 1879 and as a teenager had impromptu fights in the streets of the Mother City. A professional before his 18th birthday, he honed his skills in places like the Vaudeville Theatre and Fillis’ Circus, before sailing for England in 1902.
There the slimly-built South African gradually established a glowing reputation as a fighter and this despite two evident weaknesses: a fondness for alcohol and deteriorating eyesight. After winning the British welterweight title on March 25, 1907 by knocking out Curly Watson, the South African’s career immediately took a turn for the worst and he lost the title to Joe White less than five months later.
Thereafter Jeptha’s eye condition was so poor that he struggled to see his opponents and though he continued boxing until 1910, he was a pathetic imitation of boxer he’d been when he arrived in Britain. Tragically, Jeptha was destined to spend the final years of his life sightless, sitting on a pavement at the bottom end of Adderly Street, Cape Town, selling a thin booklet of his experience as a boxer in Britain. He had won 43 of his 76 professional fights, losing 26 and drawing 7.
What of local welterweight ace of the Seventies and Eighties, Harold “The Hammer” Volbrecht? During the 12 years (1976-1988) that he dominated the South African welterweight scene, Volbrecht fashioned a record 19 title defences and on two occasions challenged for the WBA world title against Pipino Cuevas (KO by 5) and Mark Breland (KO by 7) in 1980 and 1987 respectively.
A smart and crafty southpaw (though he’s not naturally left-handed) with plenty of power, Volbrecht campaigned vigorously in the Black townships where he became a firm favourite and from the time he won the national welterweight crown in 1976 until his retirement in 1989 he turned back the challenges of an impressive array of homespun contenders, such as Joseph Lala, Fanie van Staden, Johnny Sham, Morris Mohloai, “Duke” Moledi, Gregory Clark, David “Baby Lux” Kambule, Gert Craemer and Peter Mgojo.
After the most distinguished reign in South African welterweight history, he went on to become one of this country’s finest trainers. This writer considers Volbrecht a first-rate fighting man and a helluva nice guy to boot!
Willie Ludick is a plausible candidate on anyone’s list of South African welterweight greats and during the mid-1960’s there wasn’t a bigger drawcard in this land. Tall and wiry, Ludick was a powerful punching southpaw with plenty of courage and he won both the national welterweight and middleweight titles during a career which gleaned 35 victories in 44 fights.
Ludick, who hailed from Vereeniging, shed blood freely in many of his fights en route to an unsuccessful tilt at the world welterweight title against Curtis Cokes in Dallas, Texas on April 16, 1968. Ludick, who’d lost a child just prior to that contest, was stopped in the fifth round. He nevertheless defeated a number of world renowned fighters, among them Johnny Cooke, Joe “Axe Killer” Ngidi, Ralph Dupas, Carmeli Bossi, Oscar Miranda, Brian Curvis and France’s Jean Josselin whom he outpointed in one of South Africa’s most brutal bouts ever. An instinctive gentleman, Ludick retired from boxing in 1970 and died on May 12, 2003.
Other welterweights who deserve consideration for a “Top 10” berth, include Leslie MacKenzie (19-5-2) , a superbly balanced boxer whose career ground to a premature halt in the Fifties, Willie “Baby Batter” Mbatha (16-4), who briefly campaigned in Britain and figured prominently among South Africa’s leading Black fighters during the 1940’s and Eddie Thomas (25-6-1), whose trilogy of middleweight wars with Mike Holt in the 1950’s are the stuff of legend.
Lest the author be accused of forgetting WBU welterweight titleholder Jan “Kid Gavilan” Bergman, let me say that I never considered this murderous punching counter-puncher a bona fide welterweight, but rather a junior welterweight with definite claims to a lofty spot in that weight class. Similarly there is a definite feeling that former Empire welterweight titleholder Gerald Dreyer was really at his best as a lightweight.
Jannie “Smiler” van Rensburg is the only South African fighter ever to win two Empire titles and he did so as a lightweight (1955) and welterweight (1958) respectively. Some pundits may feel he warrants inclusion in this listing but the Roodepoort traffic officer was far better as a lightweight, where he fought five local classics against the great Willie Toweel.
The same was true of former Olympic gold medallist Laurie Stevens, who after beating Jack “Kid” Berg to win the Empire lightweight title in 1936, subsequently won the national welterweight title during 1939. However the outbreak of World War ll curtailed Stevens’ aspirations as a 147-pounder and after hostilities in Europe had ceased, he made only one defence of the title before retiring from the ring in 1945.
TERRY PETTIFER’S ALL-TIME RANKING OF SA WELTERWEIGHTS!
1. Jack Lalor He was a natural welterweight who defeated fully-blown heavyweights and one of his opponents, who also fought the immortal Dixie Kid of America, found it difficult separating the two. Nuff said!
2. Willie Ludick The man beat, some of the world’s best and though he was outclassed by Curtis Cokes, the South African was arguably past his best at the time!
3. Harold Volbrecht He enjoyed an uninterrupted reign as champion and when is another local titleholder likely to equal his record of title defences?
4. Bennie Nieuwenhuizen Despite an ill-disciplined, topsy-turvy career, he was talented enough to inspire countless plaudits from the most respected analysts of his day. Yet while Bennie had more natural talent than the two boxers rated immediately above him, he falls short in terms of his overall accomplishments.
5. Joe Ngidi His longevity and victories over numerous world class opponents, speaks for itself. If he doesn’t belong on this list, then who does?
6. Reggie Hull Notwithstanding his lack of fights, the eye doesn’t lie and Hull was good enough to earn a marquee rating by fight addicts who knew what they were talking about.
7. Andrew Jeptha He owns a unique slot in South African boxing and must have been a highly talented fighter at the time he won the British welterweight title.
8. Willie Mbatha In his sought after work, “My Baby and Me”, Benny Singh rated Mbatha as the finest South African fighter he’d ever seen and despite the fact that Mbatha was Singh’s fighter, “Baby Batter’s” prowess was strongly supported by other sober-minded experts of his era.
9. Eddie Thomas A natural junior middleweight, Thomas scored some resounding victories as a welterweight, en route to dethroning a really good champion named Pat Patrick. Moreover, this trip-hammer puncher would likely have accounted for the vast majority of South African welterweights, past and present.
10. Leslie MacKenzie A fighter with specialized skills, he quit the ring at an early age but the feeling here is that he could have gone on to greater things had he been born in this day and age!