Ewart Potgieter- SA giant bigger than Valuev - by Ron Jackson
It may sound hard to believe but South Africa once had a heavyweight who was bigger than Nikolay Valuev, the biggest champion in boxing history.
Valuev, as most boxing followers know, is a Russian, and until recently the WBA heavyweight champion. He is 2.13 m (7 ft) tall and weighed 143.3 kg (316 pounds) when he lost his title to David Haye.
Ewart Potgieter was 2.18m tall and weighed around 150 kg.
Potgieter was the son of a cattle farmer in Vryheid in what was then Natal. He became an overnight sensation when he made his professional debut in 1954.
His first fight, at Hoy Park in Durban on July 30 that year, was against a Transvaal heavyweight, Fred McCoy, who was sent sprawling out of the ring within 30 seconds.
The 4 000 spectators and other observers were impressed. They felt that, in those few seconds, he did not look clumsy and ponderous as one would expect from a man of his size.
At that time, 1948 Olympic Games heavyweight bronze medallist Johnny Arthur was the SA heavyweight champion but Potgieter was the one who made headlines; more than any other SA heavyweight since the rise of Johnny Ralph.
Those days, the average weight for heavyweights was around 86 kg and not many were taller than 1.90 m.
Ewart Frederick Potgieter, or Pottie as he became known, was born in Vryheid on December 28, 1932. He never fought as an amateur but Norman Weiner, who owned the Royal Hotel in Vryheid, persuaded him to take up professional boxing.
Johnny Holt, who had held the SA bantamweight title in 1934, was brought in to train Potgieter. Holt was confident that the novice would turn into a successful boxer.
Potgieter’s parents, his two sisters and his brothers were all well above average height, but Ewart was by far the biggest in the family.
However, he was well built, proportionally, and showed good balance and thinking in the ring.
Of course, his size was a burden at times. All his clothes, including his ties, had to be custom-made. Normal hotel beds were too short for him and he always had to duck to go through doors.
He wore size 13 shoes and his hands were so big that his boxing gloves had to be specially made as well.
Early in his second fight, against George Strydom in Salisbury (now Harare) in September 1954, Potgieter took two solid blows to the head.
However, he merely kept moving forward until he knocked out Strydom 95 seconds after the first bell.
When he signed to fight Ray Sands in Johannesburg 13 days after the Strydom fight the rush for tickets was reminiscent to the days when Johnny Ralph was the big attraction.
But the spectators hardly got a glimpse of him as he disposed of Sands with in one round.
After first-round wins against his first three opponents, big heavyweights lined up to challenge Potgieter.
One of them was a Somerset East farmer, Lucky Lampbrecht, a former paratrooper in the Royal navy.
The 29-year-old Lambrecht weighed 121.50 kg and was 2 metres tall. He had fought only as an amateur and his boxing experience was limited to tournaments while he was in the navy. He had won the heavyweight championships of South East Asia Command and the Home Fleet.
Jack Jansen, a Natal heavyweight, became the first fighter to hear the bell at the end of the first round of a fight against Potgieter. Their fight in Port Elizabeth, was an untidy affair and the referee stopped it in the second round after Jansen had been down a few times.
In 1955, Potgieter made short work of Isaac Kukard, who was knocked out in the first round, and Buddy Walker and Ben Miller, who both went out in the second.
By then, the giant was considered ready to embark on a campaign in England.
In London in September 1955, Potgieter struggled against a club fighter, Simon Templar, before stopping him in the sixth round. But in his next bout, he showed improved form when he beat Noel Reed in the third round.
Former British and Empire heavyweight champion Jack Peteresen had been assisting and advising Potgieter in training; the same Peteresen who had fought another South African, Ben Foord, in August 1936. Foord had knocked him out in the third round to take his titles.
Potgieter’s third fight in England was at the Harringay Arena in London. The result was a disputed ten-round draw with Canadian cowboy James J Parker. Most of the spectators thought Parker had been robbed.
After the fight, Potgieter suddenly announced his retirement from boxing. It came as a major surprise to his manager, Weiner, and trainer Holt.
London promoter Jack Solomons had already made arrangements for Potgieter to fight at Bellevue, Manchester, on December 16, 1955.
In an interview with a London journalist Potgieter said: “It’s no use. I am convinced I am no good. I have no punch and I have decided I have no future (in boxing).
“Nobody has hurt me, but that’s not much use if I am apparently unable to hurt anybody else. Still worse, I have no desire to do so. Apparently I do not have the necessary vicious instinct. From what I have seen, you have to be born with this and brought up in the boxing business.”
The big man returned to South Africa, having apparently lost interest in boxing.
One journalist wrote: “I got the impression that he secretly disliked the idea of being put on show like a bearded lady, the circus fat man or a two-headed calf.“
About ten months later Potgieter decided to make a comeback. He was scheduled to fight Dries Niemann, but the Transvaal Board of Control for Professional Boxing withdrew his licence.
The reason was that the Board’s doctors had found Potgieter to have an enlarged gland at the base of the brain.
After a legal wrangle with Weiner, Potgieter’s affairs were taken over by Johan Eloff.
To fight outside the jurisdiction of the SA Boxing Board of Control, Potgieter went to the United States. But he was barred from fighting Jeff Dyer after a Boston doctor had found the big man had a tumour on the pituitary gland. He needed immediate surgery.
The operation was successful and Potgieter was later allowed to meet Dyer in Holyoke on January 14, 1957.
Potgieter weighed 150.57 kg and Dyer 100.45 kg. The American spent the fight crouching low to frustrate Potgieter and scored an easy points victory.
Most American boxing writers felt Potgieter was a novice and should look for some other occupation.
However, he stopped Davy Roy of Vancouver in five rounds on February 16 and two weeks later went to Portland Oregan to take on Bruce Olsen.
A right uppercut knocked out Olsen in the sixth round and he was taken to hospital where he underwent an operation for a for a brain haemorrhage.
The magazine Fight reported: ”Pottie is now managed by Sid Flaherty, one of the leading American managers who has an ‘in’ with the big promoters. Johan Eloff is now ‘joint’ manager but the probability is that the captain (Eloff) is now a mere figurehead”.
Potgieter’s last fight was in Portland, Oregon, on September 4, 1957. He lost to Johnny Holman, probably the first really good heavyweight he had met. He was badly beaten on points by the former title contender.
He finished his career with 11 wins, all inside the distance, two loses and a draw.
The ever popular giant returned to farming in Vryheid. His health deteriorated over the years and he became emaciated, walking with difficulty. He was virtually crippled when he died at the age of 64 on April 1, 1997.
* I had an opportunity to appreciate his size when he sat next to me on the night of March 19, 1956 when Willie Toweel fought Hubert Essakov; an abiding memory of a proverbial gentle giant.