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Who was South Africa’s greatest lightweight? - by Terry Pettifer

Hardly anyone who’s followed boxing in South Africa would refute the assumption that the lightweight division has produced the most prolific number of stars.

Mind you, the world stage hasn’t been that much different either, where immortals such as Roberto Duran, Benny Leonard, Joe Gans, Carlos Ortiz, Tony Canzoneri and Ike Williams left an indelible impression on the sport.

To the boxing purists, who still believe in eight –instead of 17 weight classes - the lightweight division is the fourth lightest weight bracket; above flyweight, bantamweight and featherweight and below heavyweight, light heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight. With the passing of years, however, the game has undergone significant changes and the universal acceptance of ‘junior” or as some sanctioning organizations would have it; “super” weight categories have been added to the mix.

Be that as it may, the lightweight division has always been one of the most vibrant and exciting on the planet and in South Africa in particular, it’s extremely difficult to settle on an abbreviated list of fighters, given the wealth of talent which abounded at both national and international level. Needless to say, your writer considers it fortuitous that he cannot be held accountable for any popular omissions in an essay of this type, which traces all the way back to 1892.

Selecting South Africa’s 10 finest lightweights of all-time requires a great deal of time, research and perseverance. Simply put; there have been so many quality fighters who tipped the beam at the 61.24 kg mark that it’s hardly a question of which names to include but rather which boxers one has to omit.

Consider the fighters which immediately spring to mind; Laurie Stevens, Barney Malone, Jimmy Holloway, Ernie Eustice, Willie Toweel, Alf James, Anthony “Blue Jaguar” Morodi, Gerald Dreyer, Enoch “Schoolboy” Nhlapo, Elijah “Ellis Brown” Mokone, Andries Steyn, Jannie “Smiler” van Rensburg, Dingaan “The Rose of Soweto” Thobela, Phillip Holiday, Norman “Pangaman” Sekgapane, Charlie Els and Stoffel Steyn. Phew!

There has also been George “Panther” Purchase, Arthur Cupido, Jackie Solomon, Jimmy Toweel, Richard Borias, Fred Buckland, Isaac “The Angel” Hlatshwayo, Billy Allen, Billy Fairclough, Henry “Fighting Machine” Seabela, Gladstone “Homicide Hank” Mahlo, Aladin Stevens, Kid Sathamoney and Johnny Linda among others.

Certain fighters such as Morodi, Els, Sathamoney, Allen, Cupido and Eustice won more than one national title and consequently were excluded from this reckoning.

For my money the best lightweight of the lot was Willie Toweel (46-6-2), whose still the only South African fighter ever to win four national titles (bantamweight, featherweight, lightweight and welterweight). A brilliant boxer with a razor-sharp left hand and inspirational courage, Willie was younger brother to Vic, who in 1950 became South Africa’s first and only undisputed world champion when he beat the legendary Manuel Ortiz to win the world bantamweight crown. Some analysts even rated Willie as a better all-around boxer than his more celebrated sibling, though the closest Willie got to win a world title was a controversial 15-round draw with Algeria- born world bantamweight titleholder Robert Cohen on September 3, 1955 in Johannesburg.

Having turned professional in 1953 at the age of 19, Toweel won both the national bantamweight and featherweight titles before challenging Cohen and most experts felt that the 21-year-old South African was robbed of the decision in that fight despite being floored by Cohen three times in the 2nd round and once in the 10th.

After losing to local arch-rival Jannie “Smiler” van Rensburg in their first fight, Toweel went on to defeat his most persistent adversary in a rematch to win the Empire lightweight title on June 16, 1956. The two men fought another three times and the best that Van Rensburg could manage was 1 draw. A world rated contender, Toweel was especially popular in Britain where he successfully campaigned during much of 1957/1958, winning eight of nine fights. Toweel returned there in 1959 and lost his Empire title to a tenacious southpaw named Dave Charnley, whom he’d previously beaten on points.

Later that same year he travelled to the USA and defeated the highly fancied Lenny Matthews, who entered the ring with a 21- 2-1 record, in the headline attraction of a tournament held at Madison Square Garden. The bout, which ended in a split decision, again illustrated Toweel’s massive fighting heart, as he rose from a double knockdown in the 8th round to capture a hard-earned 10 round decision.

By then, however, Toweel was having serious weight problems and although he outpointed Bennie Nieuwenhuizen to win the vacant SA welterweight title in August 1960, he lost three of his last six bouts.

Numbered among the other internationally renowned fighters that Toweel beat were Jimmy Carter (a former world lightweight champion), Guy Garcia, Orlando Zulueta, Al Nevarez, Richie Howard, Henry “Pappy” Gault, Wally Swift and Billy Kelly. The South African’s last contest took place at Madison Square Garden in 1960, where he was stopped inside eight rounds by future Hall of Fame inductee Emile Griffith.

It’s an irrefutable fact that Toweel’s biggest career setback occurred in 1956 when Hubert Essakow died after their fateful bout in Johannesburg. Many pundits believe that if it had not been for that tragedy, Willie may well have won a world title.

Pressing Toweel for the number1 spot on this list is former Olympic gold medallist at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, Laurie Stevens (39-2-1). Style wise, Stevens and Toweel were as different as chalk and cheese, because whereas the ex-Olympian lightweight champion was a non-stop buzz saw who tossed punches at ninety-to-thedozen, Toweel was the facsimile of a scientific boxer, high on his toes with a darting left jab and jolting combinations.

Certainly Stevens was the harder hitter of the two and his relentless stamina and twofisted body punches were signature strengths that made him South Africa’s biggest box-office magnet from 1936-1946. It’s an educated guess that Stevens would appear on the ballot lists of most local historians as one of the 10 best pound-forpound fighters in the history of SA boxing!

Stevens won the Empire lightweight title on January 11, 1936, after an epic battle with the great Jack “Kid” Berg at the old Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg, in what had to be one of the closest fought 12 round epics ever seen in this country. He subsequently established a reputation on the international scene and was world rated for a period of two years.

Among the finest imports Stevens fought were the likes of Petey Sarron, the world featherweight champion, Aldo Spoldi, Wesley Ramey and the swashbuckling Eric Boon. Other foreign opponents included Jimmy “Red” Ainscough, Phil Zwick, Ernst Wohler and Saverino Turiello.

South Africa’s most popular fighter of his time, Stevens won both the national lightweight and welterweight titles and had four memorable bouts with Alf James, one of this land’s most tricky boxers of the 1940’s. Arguably the greatest body puncher ever to have been produced in South Africa, he also defeated George “Panther” Purchase, a truly fine boxer and this country’s most prolific professional (126 contests) in the annals of the sport.

Undoubtedly the outbreak of World War 11 thwarted the aspirations of hundreds of outstanding fighters and though Stevens made a comeback in 1944, after four years of inactivity, his skills had been markedly reduced. Indeed notwithstanding his wins over Alf James, Bob Bradley and Jimmy “Red” Ainscough, he suffered a brutal 3rd round knockout at the hands of England’s Eric Boon, before announcing his retirement.

After Stevens, there’s a clutch of outstanding lightweights who deserve consideration for a place in the “Top 10”; namely Enoch “Schoolboy” Nhlapo (100-15-4), Andries Steyn (42-7-1), Elijah Mokone (34- 10), Dingaan Thobela (40-14-2), Jannie “Smiler” van Rensburg (32-13-3), Alf James (49-15-3), Phillip Holiday (38-7-1) and Gerald Dreyer (41-8-2).

Nhlapo unquestionably deserves a high all-time ranking and his achievements were spread over three weight divisions; lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight.

The only South African pugilist ever to top the 100-mark in terms of victories, Schoolboy was a thinking man’s fighter whose ring career lasted two decades (1953-1973) and incorporated bouts against a truckload of outstanding opponents, which included experienced foreign boxers like Roy Jacobs, Percy Lewis and Paul Armstead.

“Segede” as Nhlapo was also known, mastered the vast majority of local talent, among whom Levi “Goldenboy” Madi, Henry “Fighting Machine” Seabela, Sexton “Blue Sexton” Mabena, Johnny Linda, David “Slumber David” Gogotya, Gabriel Dlamini, Joe Africa, Mackeed “Man-eater” Mofokeng, and Joas Maoto were notable inclusions.

An impressive fact is that Nhlapo remained unbeaten from the time of his contest with Kid Cobra in 1957 until almost the end of 1964, a stretch that encompassed forty fights! An accomplished left hooker, Nhlapo possessed excellent infighting ability and could slip and block punches with relative ease.

It’s doubtful whether this land produced a more naturally gifted boxer over the past thirty years than Dingaan Thobela. The “Rose of Soweto”, as Thobela became known, was blessed with exceptional skill and on his night could fire uppercuts with deadly effect. There were, however, negaAntive factors which seriously hampered his transcendence from being a breathtaking young prospect to a possible Hall of Famer.

Alas, the Sowetan always preferred the bright lights and fast lane to the rigours of training and his out-of-the-ring activities often took precedence over staying in shape. Undefeated in his first 29 bouts, Thobela won the national junior lightweight title in 1988, en route to capturing the WBO lightweight championship two years later via a 12-round split decision over Mauricio Aceves in Brownsville, Texas and on June 26, 1993 he defeated Tony Lopez to lift the WBA lightweight crown.

However the charismatic South African’s reign only lasted four months before he surrendered the title to Orzubek Nazarov, essentially because he was weight drained and ran out of steam. After winning 12 of his next 16 bouts, Thobela posted a massive upset by stopping Glen Catley to win the WBC super middleweight title on September 1, 2000 in South Africa, thus becoming the only local boxer to win world titles in weight divisions 15 kg’s apart.

In his early thirties at the time, the Rose of Soweto never won another fight and after losing the title to Eric Lucas in Canada the following year, he was beaten in his last five fights, which culminated in a tenth round capitulation against Soon Botes on October 27, 2006. Thobela retired with a resume of 40 victories, 14 defeats and 2 draws.

Andries Steyn was one of four brothers who took to the professional ring and when he wasn’t plagued by nagging injuries, he was very nearly the perfect boxer, with excellent reflexes and a cracking left hook. One of this land’s cleverest fighters, Steyn parried and caught blows with computerlike precision and during his action-packed career won national titles in three weight divisions; namely featherweight, lightweight and junior lightweight.

Two of Steyn’s finest wins were against Kuniaki Shibata (1972) and Ricardo Arrendondo (1973). At the time Shibata was a former WBC world featherweight champion and a future WBA world junior lightweight titleholder, while Arrendondo still held the WBC version of the world junior lightweight crown.

A non-title match with world lightweight champion Ken Buchanan, however, resulted in Steyn being stopped inside three rounds.

Among the fair-haired South African’s most famous local victims were worldchampion- to-be Arnold Taylor, Norman “Pangaman” Sekgapane, Anthony “Blue Jaguar” Morodi, and the aggressive Kokkie Olivier whom he beat in three blistering contests. Steyn lost his first bout against Sekgapane by a controversial split decision but in a rematch, boxed brilliantly to regain the SA lightweight title.

The only South African ever to win two Empire titles was Jannie “Smiler” van Rensburg, a tough and gallant fighter whose scalps included those of Willie Toweel, Bennie Nieuwenhuizen, George Barnes, Joe Lucy, Tony Lombard, Brian Kelly and Billy Lotter. A debilitating bodypuncher, Van Rensburg remained unbeaten during his first three years as a professional and his five-bout series with Willie Toweel are considered to have been local ring classics. Van Rensburg’s Empire title victories were achieved in 1955 and 1958 against Joe Lucy and George Barnes for the lightweight and welterweight titles respectively. Regarded by many experts as the most underrated South African fighter in history, Van Rensburg defeated the wily Barnes in three out of four bouts and was the enigmatic Nieuwenhuizen’s nemesis, winning all three of their encounters.

It’s uncertain how vintage lightweight heroes like Jimmy Holloway (63-13-6) and Barney Malone (40-10-11) would have fared against their latter day counterparts, though both of these lion-hearts often fought opponents much bigger and heavier than themselves and would have fostered no fear or trembling by confining their efforts to the lightweight ranks.

If some experts are to be believed, South Africa never had a more perfectly oiled fighting machine than former national featherweight and lightweight champion Elijah “Ellis Brown” Mokone. One of this land’s most stylish boxers of the 1950’s, Mokone was an icon in the Black Townships, where he was considered almost unbeatable, and in 1953 impressed British fight manager Mickey Duff to such a degree that he was invited to campaign in England. At that point of his career, the clever boxing Mokone, who was known for his educated jab and ripping combinations, had won all but one of his fights and looked like a sure bet to lift an Empire title.

But Mokone’s trip abroad turned out to be a disaster and without having a single contest the homesick boxer returned to South Africa shortly afterwards. From then on his form hit the skids and he was stopped by the likes of Johnny Linda, Alby Tissong, Eddie Kekane and Sexton Mabena. Analysts agree that while Mokone had a wealth of talent, he lacked the temperament with which to fulfil his undoubted potential and after an abortive comeback in 1963, “Ellis Brown” retired with a record of 34 wins and 10 defeats.

Phillip Holiday never claimed to be a murderous puncher, though he was certainly ‘tasty’ as they say in fight parlance, nor was he the most scientific boxer ever to have graced our rings, but this stockybuilt warrior won the IBF lightweight title in 1995 by fetching a surprise win over the much respected Miguel Julio, who was 29- 1-1 at the time. Moreover he defended his title half-a-dozen times against unbeaten opposition like Rocky Martinez (19-0-0) and Ivan Robinson (23-0), as well as willing rivals; Pete Taliaferro (33-6), Joel Diaz (16-2) and John Lark (22-4).

Possibly his most inspiring win, however, was a second round demolition of Australian ring legend Jeff Fenech (28-2-1). Holiday was eventually outpointed by future American great Shane Mosley in August 1997, but even hard-bitten critics felt that the South African had more than held his own in that bout. Ultimately, Holiday’s major strengths were his incredible work ethic, durability and courage and methinks this classic overachiever would have given most South African lightweights of the past an uncomfortable night at the office.

Though born in South Africa, Alf James honed his fighting skills as a seventeenyear- old at Blackfriars in England and after returning to this country, he rapidly developed into a serious contender for Laurie Stevens’ national welterweight title. However in four bouts against Stevens, the best that James could muster was a draw, although he remained one of South Africa’s leading fighters for a number of years.

Perhaps James’ most memorable contest was when he took on Britain’s fearsome hitting Eric Boon in 1947. Seemingly in control of the fight, James dropped the Englishman with a series of body shots in the seventh round, before walking into a sledgehammer right that knocked him unconscious.

James later trained, managed and promoted boxers before immigrating to Britain. A clever boxer who combined rough tactics with slippery skills, James posted some impressive victories during his career, most notably against local middleweight- legend-to-be George Angelo, Giel de Roode, Charlie Catterall, Maurice Ouezman and Don Carr.

Sharp-shooting Gerald Dreyer became national lightweight champion when he defeated Jimmy Toweel in 1950 and then decided to campaign in America, where, over the course of separate visits, he won 19 out of 25 fights. A clinical boxer with a fine left hand, Dreyer eventually moved up in weight and having briefly returned to South Africa, he defeated Britain’s Cliff Curvis of Wales in December 1952 to win the Empire welterweight title.

Only 22-years-old at the time, Dreyer was expected to become a world title contender, but his career took a wrong turn after losing the Empire crown to Barry Brown on a seventh round stoppage in New Zealand and following several more defeats, he left the USA and returned to South Africa where he retired from the ring at the age of 26.

The Pettifer top ten
1.Willie Toweel
2.Laurie Stevens
3.Enoch Nhlapo
4.Andries Steyn
5.Dingaan Thobela
6.Jannie van Rensburg
7.Phillip Holiday
8.Alf James
9.Gerald Dreyer
10.Elijah Mokone

Footnote: After much deliberation, your scribe decided to incorporate both Jimmy Holloway and Barney Malone in my All- Time rating of SA junior welterweights!