Garry Gordon by Pete Moscardi

One of the most colourful and vibrant eras of South African boxing was the fifties. This decade produced fighters of the ilk of Vic and Willie Toweel, Gerald Dreyer, Bennie Nieuwenhuizen, Johnnie “Smiler” van Rensburg and Mike Holt among others. These were world-class fighters who today would, at the very least, be challenging for world titles. While this was an era which boasted many colourful characters in the boxing world, one of the stand-outs was a Natal fighter called Gary Gordon. Gary was never a South African champion – nor, indeed, did he ever acquire a provincial title, although he once fought for the Natal welterweight title, and in an elimination contest for the South African title.

Gary Gordon’s career spanned the period from May 1952 to August 1958 and he ended up with a record of 12 wins and 5 losses. He boxed from featherweight through to welterweight, and in his short career of just 17 fights he fought the best at his weight in the country.

Gary was born in Durban on 3 May 1934 and was christened Gary Schwegmann – which was the name of his father. The name Gordon has a story attached to it. “My father came back from the war in 1945 and took up his old job as a postman. But this didn’t last long as he suddenly took a dislike altogether for working and elected to become a hobo instead. My mother divorced him when I was about four years old, and she later married a man by the name of Morton Downey Campbell Gordon, and I adopted the name of my stepfather,” he explains.

Gary, on his own admission, says he was a hopeless failure academically at school, with the one exception of English composition which he was very good at. He started his working life as an apprentice plasterer and started to take an interest in boxing. After beating a South African amateur champion, Evan Stokes, in the Natal amateur championships Gordon turned professional on his 18th birthday when he was matched against a dynamic puncher by the name of Piet Kriel. Recalling his debut fight, Gordon says: “The fight was over four rounds and was staged in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. I nearly came unstuck in the first round. My girlfriend was sitting up in the gallery and as the bell commenced for the first round I came out of my corner and looked up at her and gave her a wave. The next thing was a huge right hand which crashed against my jaw and I was flat out on the canvas. I managed to get up by sheer instinct to beat the count, but I definitely fought the last three rounds in a daze. I managed to get the decision, and Fight magazine named me ‘Prospect of the Month’.”

A strange thing happened immediately before this fight. While Gary was having his hands taped in the dressing room a strange and scruffy-looking man knocked on the door and entered. “He put his hand out as if to shake my hand and said: ‘Make a monkey out of him, son.’ As he said this, a little plastic monkey, which came out of one of those tickey lucky packets, fell out of my hand. The stranger asked if I knew him and I obviously said I did not. He told me he was my father and that we should meet up after the fight so that we could have a chat. But when I looked for him, he had disappeared – perhaps the call for a cold beer or a brandy was too much to resist. I never saw him again for many years.”

Gary was being trained at this stage by a British trainer called Ron Franks who had come to South Africa to promote a major tournament in Durban. Franks had taken to South Africa and decided to stay. “He handled a few boxers, such as Peter Galleymore, Tiger Brandon and others and he was close friends with Benny Singh, who owned a gym where we all trained and sparred with the likes of Leslie McKenzie, Shaik Osman, Rocky Ramiah and Gilbert Petros, the South African Black welterweight champion.”

Gary saw his father on one other occasion which was in July 1979. “I received a call from Norman Elliott, the well-known Durban City soccer boss who was also a trainer and promoter. Norman phoned me to say there was a guy who claimed to be my father who sometimes lived in the Salvation Army home and who also slept in the graveyard opposite the pub where he was phoning from. I drove quickly into town, but by the time I arrived at the pub Arthur Schwegmann was pissed as a coot and so I returned him to the Salvation Army complex. I never saw him again after that.”

With the mention of Norman Elliott, Gary recounts an amusing anecdote. “Norman and I had been invited to attend the funeral of Seaman Chetty, a leading Indian boxer in his day with whom Norman had a close association. We had to attend a larney function at the Durban Country Club thereafter. Norman was attired in a smart suit, but as he was standing by the graveside, he lost his balance and toppled in. When he managed to extract himself he looked a real mess. Chetty’s wife remarked to him: ‘Gee Norman, you must’ve loved Seaman very much.’ On way to the Country Club, Norman extracted a promise from me not to mention this mishap to anyone. However, I could not resist the temptation, and when we had arrived and were having a drink at the bar, I told the story in a loud voice to anyone who would listen. Elliott never forgave me for this.”

The names on Gary Gordon’s record read like a who’s who of the top echelons of the light and welterweight divisions in the fifties. Willie Toweel, Bennie Nieuwenhuizen and Hubert Essakow were among the top fighters against whom Gordon was matched. Gary recounts his fight with Essakow at the Wembley Stadium in March 1956. “Willie Toweel had warned me that Essakow was a huge puncher, although he was severely handicapped by being lame in one leg due to having contracted polio as a child. Willie told me: ‘Gary, even if you think this guy can be KO’d, rather stick and run and box him at all times. Don’t mix with him.’ This fight was a final eliminator to meet the winner of the Willie Toweel v Tony Lombard fight which was for the vacant national featherweight title. I boxed so well in the first round that I went back to my corner and told my trainer that Hubert was an easy target and that I was going to try and knock him out. In the second round I was hitting Hubie so easily that he put his arms out to try and clinch and I thought that this was it. I tore into him and traded blows and the next thing I remembered was walking down the ring steps and asking my trainer: ‘What round did he knock me out in?’ I wished I had beaten Hubie that night, because after my fight with him he went on to fight Willie Toweel which ended in his tragic death.”

Gary has vivid memories of his penultimate fight – a challenge for the Natal welterweight title which was then held by the late, great Bennie Nieuwenhuizen. “Norman Elliott was the promoter and he called up Reg Higgs and offered us £80 win, lose or draw to fight Bennie over 10 rounds. Bennie was to get £100. Reg told Norman that as I was the local boy I should get the lion’s share of the purse. Elliott went potty and told Reg that I was lucky to be getting £80. Reg put the phone down on him. A few days later Reg got another call from Elliott asking us to meet him at the Royal Hotel. Another row developed in the ensuing negotiations, but Reg refused to budge. Elliott stormed out of the bar shouting that the fight was over and that I would never be offered another fight on one of his promotions.

“I was more than a little concerned at the time because, only two days previously, I received a threatening letter from the City Council to say that they were about to cut off my water and electricity unless I paid the bill. My wife had just had a baby and I was going through a rough time financially. I thought the £80 would settle everything, but Higgs was adamant and held out for the £100. With a wry smile he said to me: ’Let’s have another drink, Norman will be back soon. He wants this fight more than we do.’ Reg was right, and Norman came stomping back into the pub with an increased offer of £100.

“Bennie was a brilliant boxer and by the fourth round was well ahead on points as he pushed my head back with his fantastic left jab. I had been trying to box him, but when I went back to my corner I said to Reg: ‘I am now going to do it my way.’ I walked out for the fifth and deliberately missed with the left jab at his ear, but followed up with a butt in the face – hoping like hell that I’d opened one of the many scar tissues he carried around his eyes. But all I got was a severe dressing down from the referee. The next thing I heard the crowd booing and I thought to myself: ‘Hell, I’m the local kid here and I’m the one getting the boos.’ Bennie got me in a clinch and calmly said: ‘Gary, let’s keep this one clean.’ I looked for a hole in the canvas to fall through. By the seventh round his left had made such a mess of my face that the ring doctor, Hugh Johnstone, got onto the ring apron and called the referee over. I had a huge gash over my left eyelid which was pouring blood – which was from a fair dinkum punch - and the fight was then immediately stopped.”

Gary, who is an outstanding racounteur, recalls another amusing incident which took place in his second professional fight which was against Laurie Lawson in Margate in May 1952. “The fight was scheduled for six rounds and the promoter was the ex-fighter, Alf James. The venue was the tennis courts at the Faerie Glen Lake Hotel. Vic Toweel, who was on holiday in Margate with his wife, Julie, attended the fights and Alf spotted him in the audience. Alf persuaded Vic to box an exhibition with both myself and Marcus Temple – so I ended up having two ‘contests’ on the same night.

The Lawson fight came first and I KO’d him in the first round. To get from the ring to the change rooms one had to negotiate a narrow bridge which stretched across the lake. Well, Lawson had concussion, as diagnosed after the fight, and he fell off the narrow wooden bridge on his way back to the dressing room with a large and loud splash. Fortunately the water was only about a meter deep. An inebriated spectator, who had a large tumbler of beer in his hand, shouted out: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll save you’ and jumped into the lake. Well, he appeared out of the water looking like the ‘Creature of the Black Lagoon’ from the movie, with lilies and plants draped around his neck and face.”

Gary’s career ended in August 1958 with a points loss to Sampie Pretorius in Salisbury in the then Rhodesia. His career had been short, but colourful and he had come up against the best in the country. Today he has no regrets as he looks back on his boxing days. “There is one thing for me to be thankful for and that was being around in one of the finest boxing eras – the fifties. Even the amateurs in that period were great. Names like Len Leisching, Piet van Vuuren, Dries Niemand, Eddie Thomas, Jimmy Elliott, Bennie Nieuwenhuizen, Willie Toweel and Grant Webster are just a few of the names which come to mind. I wonder how many of those guys would be fighting for world titles had they been boxing professionally today,” he says.

Gary’s one redeeming academic prowess while at school was, as previously mentioned, a talent for English composition. This served him in good stead after his retirement as he wrote extensively for the publication, SA Boxing World and also edited the much sought-after Veteran Boxers Beat.

He was a dedicated marathon and Comrade’s runner – but this passion was to take its toll in later years as both his knees gave out and Gary required several operations on his cartilages. Today he lives in a retirement village in Durban and is not in the greatest of health. But his spirits remain high and he is always good for a nostalgic chat and a laugh over his halcyon days.