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Jimmy Richards - by Pete Moscardi

The response I received from Jimmy Richards, former South African heavy-weight champion, when negotiating a time to meet him in order to conduct an interview was not quite what I anticipated. I had asked if I could meet up with him on
a Friday morning. “Friday morning is not possible. I go to choir practice on Friday mornings and will not be available until after midday,” he replied. So we settled for lunch and went off to a steakhouse managed by his 31-year-old son, Phillip, in Pretoria’s suburb of Arcadia. Jimmy met me outside Eden North, the large block of flats in Sunnyside in which he lives with his wife, Adelaide. Jimmy has two sons from a previous marriage - Phillip, mentioned above, and 34-year-old Jonathon who is a diesel mechanic. “I live in Eden North, but there is also an Eden South right opposite and, in total, the two blocks have 118 apartments. I live in one of
these in return for acting as manager/caretaker for both blocks,” he told me. This occupation is how he spends much of his time in his full-time retirement.

Jimmy was not only abnormally physically large for his age, he was also mentally well advanced for his years. “I went to Hillview High School and due to my academic ability I was placed in a standard which was two years ahead of my age group,” he recalls.

Jimmy Richards’ professional boxing career commenced in June 1969 with a first round TKO over Tommy Miller at the Ellis Park Tennis Stadium in Johannesburg. But this event was preceded by an extraordinary amateur career which few fighters could ever hope to replicate. Recalling his earliest memories of his involvement in the fight game, Jimmy says: “In 1963 when I was 14 my brother was preparing for military training and he took me along to the Protea Boxing Club where the trainer was Carel Brown. I was very large for a 14-year-old and I was told that I would
have to box as an “extra” heavyweight in the junior ranks.

“My trainer soon picked up that I was very strong for my age and, although I had no previous amateur experience, he entered me for the Northern Transvaal junior championships. I got to the final with a walkover where I came up against the champion, Chris Roos, who was later to go on to win a South African heavyweight professional title. In those days the finer points of boxing were somewhat ignored and I went into the fight without my very large hands being bandaged. In the first round I caught Chris with a big right hand and he went down and out. The punch also broke a finger, causing me to miss the following year’s championships – which Roos went on to win.”

The broken finger kept Jimmy out of boxing for a year and when he was finally able to return to the gym it was as a senior. He had left school at this stage and had then apprenticed himself as a motor mechanic. “I then joined the Phoenix Boys Club which I was persuaded to do by Anty Ferreira who was a trainer at the club and who also worked as a car salesman at the garage in which I worked as a trainee mechanic. Another trainer at the club was Tony Karam, who was the club’s main trainer and who went on to look after me during part of my subsequent professional career. By this time I’d moved into the light heavyweight division and in 1966 I was selected for the South African side to fight against Rhodesia. Although I won my fight I discovered that I was having weight problems so I decided to move up to heavyweight.”

Jimmy went on to enter the Northern Transvaal championships in 1967, beating Japie Pretorius in one round to win the light heavyweight title. “This was the second last time I made light heavyweight as the weight shedding had become a real strain.” A second round KO over Kosie Smith – who had a notable career as a professional – saw him win the Transvaal and SA lightheavyweight championships. Jimmy then entered the South African championships in its heavyweight division where he won the title in 1968 with a walkover. En route to the final he beat Johnny Britz in the Transvaal championships, after which he was nominated to participate in the SA Games to be held at the Free State resort of Maselspoort in the first half of 1969.

His amateur career ended on a high note. Jimmy recounts the event in his own colourful words. “The championships took place over three days and there were nine heavyweight entries. I drew a bye on the first two days and therefore missed the quarter and semi-final, but found myself up against Mike Schutte in the finals held on the Saturday night. We got into the ring and went through all the introductions before the bell. Round one and….first minute……. first punch……. and the first Gold Medal won by the Honourable James Thomas Richards,” he recalls with pride.

“By this time I had run out of all amateur opposition in the country and so in June 1969 I decided to make some money out of the sport. I turned professional with my amateur trainer, Tony Karam and scored a first round KO over Tommy Miller. I followed this up in August of that year with a six-round points decision over Gerrie de Bruyn, a former Empire Games medalist and a South African heavyweight champion.

“Ten days after beating De Bruyn I was entered in a round-robin heavyweight competition called ‘The Night of the Heavyweights’ which was held at the Wembley Arena. I emerged the winner of this event by scoring three 1st round KOs over Danie Vosloo, Dawie du Preez and Jan Delport respectively.”

After having engaged in just six completed rounds of boxing Jimmy was given his first overseas opponent in his sixth professional fight. Roger Tighe was a high-rated and experienced Yorkshireman who came to South Africa with a 20-3-1 record. Tighe was right at the top of the tree in the British heavyweight division at the time and such a fight today would be considered gross overmatching. However, Jimmy rose to the occasion and got a 10-round drawn decision against his seasoned opponent. But if this could be considered a tough proposition, it had nothing on Jimmy’s next opponent, the 6’4” American, Jack O’Halloran (17-5-1).

“O’Halloran was the scariest boxer I ever fought. He looked like some monster from a movie set and, indeed, was to later play the part of ‘Jaws’ in one of the Bond films. He had been fighting some of the leading heavyweights of his day – including the British heavyweight, Joe Bugner, who was later to become a British and European heavyweight champion,” Jimmy recalls. For a second time in succession Jimmy saw both his and his opponent’s hand raised when a drawn decision was announced.

Jimmy scored a further four victories, including a 10-round points win over another top-ranking British fighter, Carl Gizzi of Wales and a fifth-round stoppage over Gerrie de Bruyn. Then came the first losses of his professional career – but dropping points decisions to the German, Arno Prick and top-rated British heavyweight, Jack Bodell was no disgrace. The losses to Prick and Bodell took place in May and July 1970 respectively.

He got back on the winning track again with a 10-round points victory over Manuel Ramos, a tough Mexican journeyman, who he outpointed at the Ellis Park Tennis Stadium in August of that year. Two months later, a mini-disaster happened when Jimmy suffered his first inside-the-distance defeat, losing on a 10th round TKO to the hardened Canadian, Bill Drover (28- 6-2). “Drover remains in my mind as being one of the hardest men I fought, and he was certainly one of the hardest punchers. Bodell was probably my most difficult opponent as he was so awkward and unorthodox,” he says.

Jimmy maintains that one of the major disappointments of his career was when he went to Britain with South African promoters Reg Haswell and Danie van Zyl with a view to fighting any of the top British heavyweights of the day. “I was particularly interested in fighting Joe Bugner who I think I would have beaten. But when Jack Solomons, the British promoter, studied my record, he simply told me I was ‘too dangerous’. After kicking our heels in London for two or three weeks, we all returned to South Africa, disappointed in the extreme,” he adds.

Between Jimmy’s losing fight against Drover in October 1970 and his points win over Chris Roos for the South African title in March 1973, he notched up 12 fights with six wins, a draw and five losses. Two of these losses were against the gargantuan Mike Schutte who outpointed Jimmy over 10 rounds at the Badminton Hall in Pretoria in September and November 1972. Jimmy was to fight Schutte a total of five times during his career, with “The Tank” Schutte winning three of these and Richards two.

In 1972 Jimmy switched trainers from Tony Karam to Billy Lotter who, at that time, had a large stable of leading fighters in his gym which included Charlie Weir and Kallie Knoetze.

The seventies was a vibrant era for South African heavyweight boxing and this division sported numerous very capable fighters. Jimmy fought each and every one of these boxers, winning victories over them all and also losing some along the way. Apart from Schutte, Chris Roos, Japie Pretorius, Johnny Britz and Dawie du Preez are names which appear more than once on Jimmy’s record, but there were still more challenging international fights to come.

Two leading Germans, Rudiger Schmidtke and Conny Velansek were top European heavyweights who came unstuck in their fights against Jimmy in 1974 and 1975 respectively. Velansek was twice beaten on points in their fights in Pretoria and Schmidtke was disqualified after eight dirty rounds in their fight which was also held in the Badminton Hall in the capital city. “Schmidtke was dreadful to fight. He was shorter than me and he kept boring in with his head thrust out. He managed to ram his head into my forehead time and time again and by the eighth round my eyes were cut to ribbons and pouring blood. The referee finally lost patience with him and disqualified him,” he says. A glance at Jimmy’s rugged features reveals a mass of scar tissue over both eyes – although his nose has remained surprisingly straight.

After fighting a 10-round draw against leading American, Henry Clark, at Wembley Stadium in August 1975, Jimmy was to meet his nemesis, Mike Schutte, for the fifth and final time in their fight at the Rand Stadium just one month later. Schutte got a controversial 12-round decision over the tough Pretorian, taking his South African heavyweight title with the win. Jimmy disputes this decision to this day. ” I still believe I had the beating of ‘The Tank’, and I truly feel I won all my five fights against Mike,” he says with conviction.

Jimmy’s career ended in April 1976 after he was stopped in nine rounds by Gerrie Coetzee. This was his second successive loss to the former WBA world champion, and having notched up a 28-11-4 record after fighting professionally for seven years, he decided to call it a day.

Jimmy met his present wife, Adelaide at a dancing club. Explaining that he and his wife are still avid participants in a local dancing club, Jimmy says: “When I turned professional I was instructed by Tony Karam to go and join the Arthur Murray dancing school to improve my footwork. I enjoyed it and have never given it up. With his enormous hands, massive neck and upper torso, Jimmy Richards and ballroom dancing look like they would be unlikely bedfellows. However, Adelaide is quick to assure me that he is capable of some fancy footwork around the dance floor.

I ask him if he has any regrets and if he would do it all again. “I would do it all again tomorrow if I could. And, in fact, I could still give anyone an interesting spar session over three rounds - even today.” Jimmy’s recreational life today consists of his ballroom dancing classes and his choir, in which he partakes as a tenor. “I sing in the Arcadia Choir which is very active as it goes around the old age homes giving concerts,” he says. At this stage in the conversation Adelaide chips in, saying “Jimmy has a deep sense of social responsibility and drives the church minibus in which he transports the elderly to church services and activities.

Ballroom dancing and singing in a choir do not really seem the sort of occupations one would associate with a former heavyweight fighter. But one look at Jimmy Richards’ battle-scarred face and rugged frame would not tempt one to question any lack of macho characteristics in this gentle giant.