Alan Toweel Junior by Pete Moscardi

The large and imposing sepia family portrait is mounted centerpiece on the wall of the garage gym in Linden. At first glance one would be forgiven for mistaking it for a photograph of the set of the Oscar-winning film, The Godfather. The large-as-life figure in the middle of the picture frowns down on the activity which is happening in the gym below. The man in the picture bears an extraordinary resemblance to Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Don Corleoni.

The portrait dates back to the 1960s. In the picture are Willie and Vic Toweel, Fraser and Jimmy, Alan (senior) and Maurice. “The Godfather” in the centre is Papa Mike Toweel, who was indeed the godfather of the Toweel dynasty gathered around him in the photograph. It is a picture which provides a vivid reminder of one of the greatest boxing families the world of boxing has known.

The name Toweel is rightly associated with boxing greats, and the older generation in today’s world still recall in awe the skills of Vic, former world bantamweight champion, and Willie, Jimmy, Fraser and Alan (senior), whose boxing career was cut short by chronic asthma, but whose skills as a trainer are legendary.

The home of this portrait is Alan Toweel junior’s gymnasium at his 2nd Street home in the quiet suburb of Linden, northern Johannesburg. The facility, which occupies an extended double garage behind the house is compact, but has all the accoutrements of a boxing gym. A four-roped ring stands in the centre, with heavy bags, speedballs and pear balls in its surrounds .There is just enough space for skipping and floor work. This is Alan Toweel’s workplace – his second home if you like. As the son of this one-time legend goes through the paces of training the fighters in his sweat shop, the passion which emanates from him is tangible. Toweel is upbeat. There is a palpable air of pride generating from him. I discover the cause. “I was told just recently that I have been awarded ‘Trainer of the year’ by the WBF. It’s a huge honour and it means so much to me,” he says.

The Malawian light-heavyweight, Isaac Chilemba, is being put through his paces in preparation for his up-coming fight against his British opponent, Tony Bellew on 30 March in Liverpool. The fight is a final eliminator for the WBC title and there is little abatement in the intensity of the preparation. I notice that Chilemba’s sweat-soaked T-shirt bears a logo on its back which says: “In the shadow of legends”. This could not be a more fitting phrase, given the milieu and the Toweel name which dominates it.

Alan is merciless. An hour of observing Chilemba and Prince Ndlovu on the bag and pads and I am exhausted just watching.

But just when one thinks the moment has arrived for the boxers to ease off and get changed, they are marched off to a nearby park. Each of them is then given a heavy steel axe and is told to chop the blackened remains of wattle stumps. They are told to do so while still bouncing on their toes. It is agonizing to even watch this explosion of energy.

Finally, and somewhat to my relief, it’s over and I can sit down and talk to this 47-year-old former SARS executive about his life and his love of boxing, both of which are intrinsically entwined.

Growing up in a famous fighting family, it was inevitable that Alan had to enter the boxing world. “When I was about five I used to go to the gym at the Booysens Boys Club every day with my dad. And when I came home I used to watch tapes of fights every night. I learnt about the art and skills of boxing, which inevitably became part of me,” he says.

I ask him what it means to him personally to be a member of such an illustrious dynasty. “I am so proud to be a part of the Toweel family. I have loved this sport from childhood and have been passionate about it from the start. The aura of past Toweel greats is with me every day. In any of the homes occupied by a member of the Toweel family, the talk is always boxing,” he adds.

I ask Alan about his grandfather – the don in the picture. “My grandfather (Papa Mike) was a terrific amateur and in 1924 he was selected to represent South Africa at the Olympic Games. However, his hopes and aspirations were dashed by his very strict mother who refused to allow him to participate on the grounds of her dislike of the sport. However, he went on to train some of our great Olympians and gold medal winner, such as George Hunter, who also won the Val Barker trophy, bronze medal winner Johnny Arthur and also Kenny le Grange, all of whom represented this country in the 1948 Olympics.”

Alan Toweel senior’s life as a boxing trainer was cut short by his premature death in 1995, but he had, up to that stage, established a legacy which will probably remain unequalled in time to come.

His son spent every living moment with his late father, and assisted when he was training some of our great champions such as his brother, Willie, Pierre Coetzer, Pierre Fourie, Bushy Bester and, Gerrie Coetzee. He also assisted his brother, Willie, in the corner with Piet Crous. Alan junior was an avid follower of his father and he also helped in the corner and learnt the skills of a top cornerman. So, how did Alan junior get to where he is now?

“I was working for SARS and at the time was training a Mozambican lightweight called Pedro Malgas. He was a fantastic prospect with a 9-1 record, with his only loss being due to a cut. Then he ‘popped’ his shoulder which never came right, even after surgery. This happened in 1998, and when Pedro was forced to quit I took a hiatus from the sport to concentrate fully on my work as a senior manager with SARS. But boxing is in my blood and I could not leave it, so, in 2006 I built my gym under the banner of the Toweel dynasty. At that time I had been offered an executive post with SARS. I had reached a crossroad situation in my life, and I knew it was a case of going one way or the other, but not both. Boxing won and I resigned from SARS to focus full time on the sport.”

But Toweel’s reintroduction into the South African boxing scene met a closed door due to the politics which prevail in the sport. “All my efforts to get back into the mainstream of the fight game were thwarted and, up until August 2011 I simply found myself walking into closed doors. Then a friend of mine mentioned me to Jodi Solomon who came to see me and asked me to train Isaac, Prince and Zolani Marali. I was thrilled to oblige. They all had forthcoming fights lined up and I went into full training mode with them, ending up going to the US with Isaac for his fight with Edison Miranda. I studied Miranda and worked out a game plan for Isaac which worked to perfection when he pounded out a unanimous points win.

Marali’s first fight under the mentorship of Alan came in November 2011 when he faced the formidable Ali Funeka for the vacant WBF junior-welterweight title at Montecasino in the northern Johannesburg suburb of Fourways. Marali appeared to have been robbed when the decision went to Funeka, who had been dropped in the 11th round and had appeared to have been out-boxed. Marali was to gain revenge when he pounded out a unanimous decision in East London in December last year to win the WBF title.

Behind every successful man is a woman! In this case it is his lovely 37-yearold Portuguese wife, Marisa. “I did not know the Toweels and had hardly heard of them until I met Alan. I knew nothing about the sport but I understand Alan’s passion for it and he has my full support. Boxers are a very different breed of people – so likeable and endearing. I have now become an integral part of them and have cooked meals for Zolani and Prince before their fights,” she says. The family has three children, Julia (11), “who loves boxing”, Alan (8) “who does not regard boxing as his first love” and Leila (7) “who loves being in the gym and follows the boxers”. It is indeed a well rounded and complete Toweel boxing family.

Alan Toweel jnr. and Zolani Marali WBF Jnr. Welterweight Champion workout on the pads

(Back): Jimmy Toweel, Nelson Mandela, Willie Toweel, Alan Toweel snr., (Front): Michael Toweel, Maurice Toweel and Alan Toweel jnr.