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Remembering SA’s Greatest Amateurs who never turned Professional - by Terry Pettifer

Who was South Africa’s greatest amateur boxer never to have turned professional?
Amidst a sea of possible response, one has to admit that the question evokes a fantasy flight for any lover of the amateur ranks, or as some traditionalists like to call them; the “simon pures”.

The first outstanding amateur one has to consider is undoubtedly John Hopley,
an all-round sportsman who was born in Grahamstown but did most of his amateur
boxing at Cambridge University in England. A heavyweight, Hopley must have been a remarkably talented athlete and it’s said that aside from winning every one of his fights, few of his opponents managed to last beyond the opening round. While studying at Cambridge, the powerfully built Hopley also played rugby for England and in 1905 represented the M.C.C cricket team which toured Canada and the United States of America.

Theuns van Schalkwyk achievements at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand during 1950, where he took the gold medal in the middleweight division and the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, when he finished runner-up to the legendary Laszlo Papp of Hungary, made him a household name in South African amateur boxing. Moreover, Van Schalkwyk was a modest gentleman who endeared himself to everyone in the sport and this writer was honoured to have met him through a mutual friend during the mid-Eighties.

Southpaw Hennie Loubscher was one of the hardest pound-for-pound punchers in the history of amateur boxing in this country and indubitably ranked among the most memorable thrill fetchers of his era. A superior body puncher, Loubscher won a gold medal in the light welterweight division at the Cardiff Commonwealth Games (1958) and represented South Africa on five separate occasions, including the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia in 1956, where he won a bronze medal as a light welterweight. A six-time SA champion, Loubscher was triumphant as a light welterweight (1955/1956/1957) and welterweight (1959/61/64) and had one of the longest amateur careers of any South African fighter.

The light heavyweight division has produced a number of extraordinary punchers, but few locally reared amateurs hit as hard as former three-time national titleholder Piet van Vuuren. A championship winner in 1952/53/54, Van Vuuren won the gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Canada and was an exciting fighter who could land punches from almost any angle.

Ricky Knoesen was one of South Africa’s most prolific amateur champions, having lifted no less than eight national titles in the bantamweight, featherweight and lightweight divisions. A Natalian, his formidable exploits earned him Springbok colours ahead of the 1966 tour to Britain and like Hennie Loubscher he enjoyed a lengthy ring career. Indeed, over the period of a decade, Knoesen won South African honours in 1961/62/63/65/68/69/70/71 that translated into 3 bantamweight, 1 featherweight and 5 lightweight titles.

The name Grant Webster has become synonymous with amateur boxing in South Africa, much like that of his former mentor Jack Eustice, who first formed Booysens ABC back in 1929. A brilliant boxer with a devastating left hook, Webster had an amateur record of 240-8 and won six SA titles (1951/53/54/55/56/57) in three weight divisions; light welterweight, welterweight and light middleweight. A gold medal winner in the light middleweight division at the Cardiff Games during 1958, Webster is a popular choice as South Africa’s finest pound-for-pound amateur boxer never to have turned professional.

Another first rate amateur star of yesteryear was Len Leisching. Born and raised in the south of Johannesburg, Leisching played first division football for Rangers and Southern Suburbs as well as league cricket, yet his instinctive talent as a fighter eclipsed anything he achieved in either ball game. A natural featherweight, Leisching mastered some of the finest professional boxers in the country during sparring sessions and represented South Africa at the Helsinki Olympic Games (1952), Vancouver Commonwealth Games (1954) and Melbourne Olympics (1956). The author’s choice as the finest pure amateur produced in this country, Leisching won a gold medal in Vancouver and lifted the bronze medallion in Helsinki. In Melbourne he advanced to the second round before being beaten on points. Leisching’s loss at the Helsinki Games, however, was considered one of the worst decisions ever rendered at the prestigious event.

Rhodesian-born Reg Gaskon was a snappy puncher with exceptional speed and he had the distinction of winning five SA titles,(1960/62/64/65/67); two as a light welterweight and three as a lightweight. A gracious man with impeccable manners, he was certainly one of the cleverest amateurs boxers of his time.

No one can deny that Herbie Vermeulen ranks with the finest amateurs this land has ever known and his resume of 232 wins and 11 defeats speaks for itself. A four-time SA amateur champion (1965/67/68/70), Vermeulen competed as a light welterweight and was a consummate boxer/fighter with brilliant defensive skills. Short and compact, it’s noteworthy that his kudos were earned during one of the most competitive eras in local amateur fight history.

Who can ever forget Harry Finlay? Another four-time SA amateur champion (1958/62/63/64) Finlay ruled supreme over the South African lightweight field for three years and after the 1963 trials, was selected as a member of a multiracial team that competed in the USA open championships. Fighting as a light welterweight, Finlay, along with flyweight team member Lucas Matseke, won a gold medal which effectively made them the two best amateurs on the planet in their respective weight divisions.

Finlay later won Springbok colours for the first time during a 1966 tour of Britain.

Some of the other imperishable names of the past include Dennis Shepherd, Leon Weitz, Len Hall, Japie Smith, Jan van der Kolff and Jopie Greyling, all outstanding amateurs who wore their fighting vests with gallantry and honour.