Sugarboy’s sweet and sour career - by Ron Jackson
Sugarboy Malinga has the distinction
of being the first SA boxer to challenge
for an IBF belt and also the first
to win a WBC belt.
Officially, Thulane Malinga was born in Ladysmith on December 11, 1955. However, there have been reports that he was born in 1956; some even say 1958. The mystery of his birth date has never been cleared up. Even he probably does not know the correct date.
He grew up on the outskirts of Ladysmith,
where many people work on
sugar-cane farms, hence the nickname.
He lost his father when he was
only five years old. His mother died
when he was twelve.
As he a youngster, Malinga excelled at school. He had ambitions of becoming a doctor, but he had to work on the farm to help keep the family of ten orphans alive. When he finished school at the age of 20, he went to work in a furniture shop in Ladysmith and stayed there for nearly 12 years.
His eldest brother, John, encouraged
him take up boxing and he was also
helped by his cousin Maxwell Malinga,
an excellent fighter who won the SA
welterweight title in 1973 and the
middleweight title in 1977.
Thulane excelled as an amateur. He won SA amateur titles in three weight divisions and compiled a record of 195 wins and only ten defeats, according to reports.
He had his first professional fight in
Durban on August 8, 1981 when he
stopped Victor Zulu in the first round.
He won his next two fights, in 1981,
against Cyprian Shandu and Werdie
Jacobs. However, in his fourth fight, in
April 1982, he was outpointed over six
rounds by the talented Patrick Tshabalala.
After that setback, nobody
thought he would go on to win the
Natal title, three SA titles and three
versions of a world title.
He beat Morris Mohloai and Graham
Mdingi before claiming the Natal middleweight
title by stopping Shadrack Sithole in the second round.
In February 1983, he won the vacant
SA middleweight title when he outpointed
Samson Mohloai. He retained it against Michael Motsoane, Kosie van Vuuren, Pieter de Bruyn and Gregory Clark before moving up to light-heavyweight in December 1986 when he outpointed Sakkie Horn for the SA title.
After a successful defence against
Freddie Rafferty, he lost the title on a
highly disputed decision to Horn in a return bout in May 1987. In November
the same year he again lost to Horn,
on a controversial disqualification.
Malinga then gave up his job in the furniture store and moved to Benoni to join Maurice Toweel’s Springbok Promotions, with Willie Toweel as his trainer.
Under the guidance of the Toweels,
he was confident of beating Horn in
their third meeting. Malinga was well
ahead when Horn collapsed in the
twelfth round, claiming he had been
hit low. The referee disqualified Malinga.
To make matters worse, his
house in Ladysmith was badly damaged
in flash floods.
Trained by Willie Toweel, Malinga beat Irishman Harry Cowap and Americans Jim MacDonald and Larry Musgrove.
Then, with the help of promoters
Rodney Berman and Cedric Kushner,
Maurice Toweel secured a fight
against unbeaten Italian southpaw
Graciano Rocchigiani in West Berlin
for the IBF super middleweight belt in
The occasion was too big for Malinga and he was beaten on points. However, he bounced back to score impressive victories over Mike Peake, Nicky Walker, Vincent Boulware, Jose Quinones, Oscar Pena and Tony Harridan before losing a controversial majority decision to John Jarvis in Colombia in a challenge for the IBF Intercontinental light-heavyweight title.
In October 1990, he gained revenge
over Sakkie Horn, winning on points
to regain the SA light-heavyweight
Soon after this victory, Malinga became
a born-again Christian. He later
became a preacher.
In December 1990, he received a second crack at the IBF super middleweight belt but lost a close decision to American Lindell Holmes in Rome.
Nick Durandt, who had assisted
Willie Toweel to train his fighters at
his (Durandt’s) downtown Johannesburg
gymnasium, then broke away
and Malinga elected to go with Durandt.
He had only one fight in 1991; against Leonard Friedman, the SA junior heavyweight champion at the time. Malinga won comfortably on points over ten rounds.
In February 1992, promoter Mike
Segal, who had ties with English promoter
Barry Hearn, secured a challenge
for Malinga to fight Chris Eubank for the WBO super middleweight
belt. It was not third time
lucky for Sugarboy. He lost on a split
Only four months later he faced former WBO super middleweight champion Nigel Benn over ten rounds in Birmingham. Malinga was in outstanding form and outboxed the highly rated Benn all the way but referee Paul Thomas, the sole judge in terms of the British system, awarded the decision to Benn.
The disappointed Malinga retained his SA light heavyweight title against Jim Murray, but had to survive a ninth-round knockdown before going on to win on points over twelve rounds. In February 1993, he also retained the title against Gary Ballard in an exciting slugfest.
Fighting Roy Jones Jr
In August that year, Malinga went to
St Louis, Mississippi, to face Roy
Jones Jr, the IBF middleweight champion,
in a non-title fight. Less than
three months earlier, Jones, whose
record was 22-0 at the time, had won
the vacant IBF belt on a unanimous
decision against Bernard Hopkins. Malinga
was never in the fight and Jones
knocked him out 1 minute 57 seconds
into the sixth round.
After stopping Mohammed Isaacs (SA light-heavyweight title), Sugar Ray Acqaye (to win the ABC super middleweight title), Martin Opperman (SA light-heavyweight title) and Soon Botes (to win the SA super middleweight title) he beat Trevor Ambrose on points in London.
Promoter Rodney Berman then secured
a return match with Benn in
Newcastle, England, on March 2,
1996, this time for WBC super middleweight
belt. Malinga was a prohibitive
underdog but he shocked the
local crowd when he outboxed Benn
in one of the finest performances in SA boxing and certainly the pinnacle of his career.
However, only four months later he
lost the belt against the awkward and
tricky Italian Vincenzo Nardiello who
beat him on a split decision. Nardiello
lost the belt to Britain’s Robin Reid,
who made three defences before giving
Malinga – who had remained inactive
for 17 months – a crack at the
belt. Once again, Malinga rose to the
occasion and completely outmanoeuvred
Reid to outpoint him and regain
the WBC belt.
Malinga’s first defence, on March 27,
1998, was against 29-year-old Ritchie Woodhall in Telford, England. Malinga,
who might have been more than 40
years old by then, depending on which birth date you accept, seemed to have
lost his speed and timing. He took a count in the third round and Woodhall won on points.
The failed brain scan
The South African considered retiring but the lure of the ring and the extra money made him decide to carry on. However, he failed to pass a brain scan and his boxing licence was withdrawn. After extensive tests in Denmark, Malinga was given a clean bill of health but Berman refused to promote him. He returned to Mike Segal, who arranged a series of fights for him in Denmark.
He stopped Frederic Alvarez from
Sweden in Copenhagen to win the
World Boxing Federation super middleweight
belt, which he retained
against Peter Madsen. On March 19,
1999, he fought a so-called unification
bout with Mads Larsen for the WBF
and IBO super middleweight belts but
he injured his right hand and retired
at the end of the tenth round.
Many thought this was the end for
Sugarboy Malinga, but he insisted that
he wanted to carry on. So Segal
arranged for him to meet the worldclass
Ole Klementsen in Denmark on
January 14, 2000 for the vacant World
Boxing Federation and International
Boxing Association light-heavyweight belts. Malinga controlled
the fight for the first two
rounds and had Klementsen
down for a count
in the third but his age and many hard fights took their toll and he faded badly until he was stopped in the eighth round.
This was Malinga’s last fight. He finished with a record of 44 wins and 13 losses, with 19 wins inside the distance. Many of his losses were controversial and disputed.
Disaster never seemed
far away from Malinga. A
few months after he retired
from boxing his house in Lakefield, Benoni, caught fire and his grandson Sabelo, 6,
was burnt to death. Sugarboy Malinga was a credit to the game and he must be ranked in the top ten of all SA boxers.
Gavin Evans aptly described Malinga in his book Dancing Shoes :
“Sugarboy is a creator of
moves, a boxer whose
motions were unpredictable,
who seldom moved in straight lines, who made it up as he went along and did things no other boxer had done before. Like many innovators, he relied on an inconsistent supply of inspiration.
“He always looked unusual,
fighting from a low,
crouch, but when
the mood was wrong,
nothing would flow. His
motions would become
jerky, his punches slaps, and he would retreat into a defensive shell.
“But there were moments when his ability to invent was remarkable. He would find angles, exploit gaps and avoid fists in a way that was unique. And on the rare occasion when he put it all together, he had the capacity to astonish. This set him apart”.
In 2005, Malinga received a Premier’s award from the KwaZulu-Natal department of sport and in 2007 was inducted into the SA Sport Hall of Fame.
African Ring in association with Golden Gloves promotions have arranged a Box and Dine on September 29 at Emperors Palace in which tribute will be paid to Sugarboy.