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The “Teachers” of SA Boxing - by Terry Pettifer

South Africa’s greatest ringside raconteur Reg Haswell once told me that while
fight trainers were twenty-to-the-dozen, true “teachers” of the art of boxing were
extremely rare. A London-born cockney who came to South Africa in 1936 as the
manager of the Union Greyhound Association, Haswell was subsequently persuaded
to promote professional wrestling and later exclusively boxing.

An excellent publicist and writer, Haswell, who was born in 1907, capitalized
on the social vibrancy of the postwar era en route to promoting and
staging some of the biggest boxing events ever seen in this country.
Amongst some of the fighters he marketed were the likes of Laurie Stevens,
Johnny Ralph, Eric Boon, Freddie Mills, Vic & Willie Toweel, Bruce Woodcock and Robert Cohen.

Haswell always had a healthy respect for the late Ted Russell, who was said to have
trained 25 national champions, which included Bennie Nieuwenhuizen, Eddie Thomas, Jimmy Elliott, Don Carr and Danie van Graan. “I considered Ted the
best teacher of the game in the country” said Haswell, during a lengthy interview in 1975. Oddly enough Haswell’s opinion of Russell wasn’t widely supported by other professionals of the era. “Ted was a charming man who did a lot for the game but I’d never call him an outstanding trainer” said the late Pat Patrick, who ruled the national welterweight roost from 1949-1953. Incidentally Patrick himself was coached by Germiston’s Cyril Carroll, a man who always claimed to have discovered a sparkling young amateur star named Vic Toweel.

Another ex-fighter who knew Russell well was the late “Irish” Teddy Quinn, who spent much of his boxing career under Russell’s managerial wing.“Ted Russell was a great guy” said Quinn in an interview that took place at his home. “But in terms of real insight, I’d rate men like Johnny Watson and Harry Best amongst the best we ever had”.

Johnny Watson coached both Willie Smith and Laurie Stevens and was in the
corner with both former Olympic gold medalists when they won international
honours as professionals in 1927 and 1936 respectively. Smith in fact laid
claim to the British version of the world bantamweight title when he defeated
Teddy Baldock in England, while Stevens won the Empire lightweight crown after
a feverishly fought 15-round battle with Jack “Kid” Berg at the old Wanderers
Stadium in Johannesburg.

Greybeards who remembered Watson, recall how he graduated from being the
coach of the Springbok amateur boxing team in the 1924 Olympic Games in
Paris, to the realm of truly great professional trainers. “Johnny was in a class of
his own”, remarked the late Laurie Stevens in 1982.

Another trainer who garnered plaudits for his services to the sport was the
afore-mentioned Harry Best. The trainer of SA heavyweight champion Johnny
Arthur during the 1950’s, Best was a Royal Air Force welterweight who’d been
stationed in South Africa in World War 11, and he liked the country so much
that he decided to remain here once the fighting had ended. Besides a life-long
friendship with the powerful Arthur, who was one of this country’s more memorable heavyweights of the past, Best also worked with most of the British boxers who campaigned in South Africa after 1945, which included Eric Boon and Jack London. Those who knew Best intimately claim that he was one of the
most knowledgeable characters in the game and more than a few former fighters,
Eddie Thomas and Duggie Miller amongst them, rated him as one of South Africa’s best ever trainers.

Jim Fennessy and Pelepele Mkwanazi are names that may fail to register
recognition among modern day fight fans, but both men were highly respected
for their prowess as trainers. Fennessy was one of a chosen trio who represented the first-ever South African amateur boxing team when they competed in the British Amateur championships in 1910, and reached the semi-finals of the competition. Yet it was not so much as a result of his boxing skills that Fennessy became remembered, but rather his exploits as a coach. In fact he became one of this country’s finest trainers, both as an amateur and a professional, where he handled the likes of Johnny Squires, Ernie Eustice and Laurie Stevens, during the
former Olympic gold medalist’s first few professional fights. In an interview this
writer had with veteran mentor Cookie Mendoza during the 1980’s, the charismatic
Mendoza went on record as saying that South Africa never had a more versatile and judicious fight trainer than Fennessy.

And Mkwanazi? A legend in township boxing, Mkwanazi’s most famous protégé
was Jake Tuli, who in 1952 became the first black fighter ever to win the
British Empire flyweight title. One of the principals who helped form Orlando Pirates football club, Mkwanazi was an inspiration to thousands of young men
with sporting aspirations and it’s noteworthy that Richard Letsatsi, whose
been involved in boxing since the Forties, both as a matchmaker and trainer,
regarded him as South Africa’s finest boxing coach.

Barney Hayden is an almost forgotten figure in local boxing, but this genial Natalian was one of the first white men in this country to become actively involved
in multiracial boxing back in the 1940’s. Indeed Hayden at one stage had no less
than 27 black fighters under his wing.

Born in 1913, Hayden was a close friend of the late Reg Haswell and their combined
efforts were instrumental in initiating boxing talent shows at the old Johannesburg Drill Hall. Some of the star performers who at one time or another benefited from Hayden’s teaching principles were the great Jake Tuli, “Jolting” Joe Maseko and Willie “Baby Batter” Mbatha.

No one that I know ever doubted the boxing expertise and professionalism of
the famous Toweel family and in respect of their ability as trainers, both Alan and
Willie rated amongst the finest “teachers” that the South African fight game
has ever realized. A brilliant boxer who captured four national titles’ bantamweight, featherweight, lightweight and welterweight, as well as the Empire
lightweight crown, Willie, went on to become a truly excellent coach, where he
handled the likes of Charlie Weir, Bruce McIntyre, Brian Mitchell, Piet Crous and
Thulani “Sugarboy” Malinga amongst others. Decidedly more impulsive than his older brother Alan, especially in terms of matchmaking, Willie’s overall approach to his profession was also a lot different and there’s no doubt that Alan was the far more prudent and versatile of the two.

As a manager-trainer, Alan Toweel guided the career of his younger brother
Willie, who at the time was a world rated fighter, as well as top level performers
such as Pierre Fourie and Pierre Coetzer. He also held the reins for Mike “The Tank” Schutte, Kokkie Olivier, Louie Fourie, Kosie Smith, Morris Wainstein and Sydney Bensch.

Mzimasi “Mzi” Mnguni and Nick Durandt figure among the most successful South African trainers in history, but while there’s no refuting the numbers, numerous critics question their credentials as “teachers” of the sport. “Mzi was never the real coach in his gymnasium” said veteran fight analyst Paul Hetz. “That distinction belonged to two of his top assistants, namely Mveleli Luzipho and Welsh Mnguni”.

Hetz’s estimation of Durandt’s training skills is similarly underwhelming. “The
guy may be a great showman and over the top motivator, but most of his boxers
have yet to proclaim him a top tactician”. Be that as it may both Mnguni and Durandt have had a truckload of world champions between them, which included the likes of Vuyani Bungu, Welcome Ncita, Mbulelo Botile, Hawk Makepula, Zolani Petelo, Thulani “Sugarboy” Malinga, Silence Mabuza, Isaac Hlatshwayo, Malcolm Klassen, Phillip Ndou and Cassius Baloyi.

Whereas comparatively few ex-fighters make outstanding coaches, Brian
Mitchell and Harold “The Hammer” Volbrecht have both achieved admiral success
imparting their knowledge, particularly Volbrecht, who once steered Mitchell himself, Corrie Sanders, Phillip Holiday, Mzukisi Sikali, Sebastiaan Rothmann and Jan Bergman to world championship honours. Rated by many as the finest all-around trainer in South Africa at present, the Hammer currently coaches IBO Youth light heavyweight and super middleweight champion Tommy “Tommy Gun” Oosthuizen.

Soweto’s Norman Hlabane also deserves honourable mention as a trainer, and who can ever forget the outstanding impact he had while coaching Dingaan “The Rose of Soweto” Thobela and later Lehlohonolo “Hands of Stone” Ledwaba?

Job Sebalo was one of the most respected trainers and advisers of the past, and before his death in 1990, this former school principal forged a reputation as the backbone of Meadowlands boxing. A former fighter himself, Sebalo had previously been trained by the renowned Harry Makela in Sophiatown, before moving to Soweto. There he gained the distinction of coaching two national champions thirty-years apart, namely Fondie Mavuso during the 1950’s and Jerry Mbitse in 1983.

Theo Mthembu will always be remembered for the sterling work he did as the trainer of “Baby” Jake Matlala, whom he guided to four world titles. Yet long before Matlala came on the scene, Thembu also coached Anthony “Blue Jaguar” Morodi, another of this country’s truly outstanding ringsters. A wise and respected
mentor, Theo was also one of the finest gentlemen in the game.

Willie Lock, Duggie Miller, Joe Williams, Cyril Carroll, Cookie Mendoza, “Pappa”
Mike Toweel, Joe Rosella and Dawood Bhayet all earned their share of plaudits,
as has current trainer Manny Fernandes. Indeed many observers feel that the
Southern Suburbs based Fernandes is the most versatile coach in the country. “Manny is a fine boxing teacher, of that there is absolutely no doubt” said
Golden Gloves matchmaker Ruben Rasodi.

Willie Lock’s most famous pupil was Gerrie Coetzee, whom he led to winning the WBA world heavyweight title in 1983, and he also held the reins for Harold Volbrecht, Charlie Els, Johnny du Plooy and a long list of others. Moreover, Lock was the man in the corner when Peter Mathebula became South Africa’s first black world champion in Los Angeles.

Cookie Mendoza had a role in the careers of numerous South African champions,
amongst them Bennie Nieuwenhuizen and Mike holt and was one of the most colourful boxing personalities I’ve ever known.