They wasted their talent - by Terry Pettifer
How many times haven’t you heard
someone say, “He could have been
great but he wasted his talent”? In the
sport of boxing, we’ve come to appreciate
the fact that some of the game’s
most lavishly gifted athletes were
never disciplined enough to fulfill their
promise. Not that other sporting codes
experienced less frustration.
Indeed bright lights and hard living
have curtailed or damaged the careers
of a staggering number of world class
sportsmen, amongst them football
legends like George Best, Diego
Maradonna and Paul Gascoigne. In
certain cases alcohol abuse was responsible
for many of the pitfalls as
too were fast cars, loose women and
in more recent times, narcotics.
Did not the great George Best say,
“I spent millions on booze and women
and the rest I wasted!” One of the
most brilliant instinctive footballers of
all time, Best’s drinking binges became
legendary and he was practically
‘washed up’ before he’d turned 30!
South African boxing has had a rollcall of talent squanderers and while they varied in terms of their ability, few were as tragic as former national middleweight and light heavyweight champion Gert “Hottie”van Heerden.
A wonderfully skilled southpaw, who defeated the likes of Mike Holt (three times), Ron Redrup, Earl Nikora, Del Flanagan, Teddy Haynes, Billy Lotter, Bronco Jones, Yvan Prebeg, Lou Guttierez, and Harry Scott amongst others.
Van Heerden was his own worst enemy and he had a number of serious run ins with the law and even went to prison for armed robbery.
Though Van Heerden attained a #2 world ranking as a light heavyweight during the 1960’s, a pair of near-fatal car accidents and years of hedonistic living, finally caught up with him and he was knocked out in two of his last three fights before retiring.
In an interview this writer had
with him during the late 1970’s,
Van Heerden confessed to many of
his shortcomings. “As long as I had
a few pound in my pocket so that I
could go and drink, I was happy,
and my trainer at the time Piet
Lourens had no hope of controlling me” The Victoria Hotel in Pretoria was one of Van Heerden’s favourite stamping grounds spots and he made no secret of the trouble he caused when socializing. In later years Van Heerden became a lay preacher and benignly lectured against the evils of alcohol.
Bennie Nieuwenhuizen is the choice
of a number of experts as the finest
welterweight ever to have been
produced in this country, but even
at the peak of his powers, the Belgravia
left hooker had a decided
preference for John
Barleycorn and his trainer
Cookie Mendoza lost count of
the times he located Bennie in a
suburban park sharing a bottle of wine with his side-kicks. During the Fifties, Nieuwenhuizen was regarded as a sure bet to at least win the Empire welterweight
title, especially after he’d gone to Australia and beaten the champion George
Barnes on points, but by the time he officially challenged Barnes for the title in Johannesburg (April 14, 1956), the freckle-faced South African had over a dozen summonses waiting for him at his home, and being ill-prepared, he was stopped in the 13th round.
“We never saw the best of Bennie”
said the late Reg Haswell. “If he’d only
lived clean he could have made it all
the way to the top. Of that I have no
Former SA middleweight and light
heavyweight legend Mike Holt fought
and lost to both Hottie van Heerden
and Bennie Nieuwenhuizen, and at a
function the former Pretoria panelbeater
attended on the East Rand only
months before his death, he told African Ring publisher Jeff Ellis and I
that he considered Nieuwenhuizen the
slightly better of the two. “Bennie
could have been a word champion!”
said Holt. “He had the finest left hand
I’ve ever seen and he was perfectly
balanced. The trouble with Bennie,
though, was his care-free approach
and total lack of dedication.”
Heavyweight magnet of the late
Eighties, Johnny du Plooy had a
wealth of promise and one of the sneakiest right hands in the business,
but quite frankly Du Plooy was seldom
100% fit and after a meteoric rise to
prominence, and victories over the
likes of James “Quick” Tillis, James
Broad, Mike Weaver and David Bey,
his playboy lifestyle got the better of him and when he challenged Italy’s Francesco Damiani for the WBO heavyweight title he was knocked out inside three rounds.
Former Empire flyweight champion Dennis Adams was undoubtedly one of the hardest pound-for-pound punchers ever produced in South Africa, but this pint-sized dynamo had an intense dislike of training and aside from his impressive dismantling of Frankie Jones for the Empire flyweight championship in 1957 and a 31 second blow-out of WBA world-bantamweight- champion-to-be Arnold Taylor, the fun-loving Adams lost almost as many fights as he won.
Dingaan Thobela won three world
championships, yet everyone agrees
that the once razor-sharp “Rose of
Soweto” could have been genuinely
great if only he learned the meaning
of discipline. A WBO lightweight, WBA
lightweight and WBC super middleweight
champion, Thobela perfected
the uppercut, and even at the
tail-end of his career flaunted the punch with amazing accuracy and precision. “Dingaan hated training and had an ongoing battle with the scales” said former two-time world junior lightweight titleholder Brian Mitchell, who briefly trained Thobela. “Other than that, he was an incredibly gifted fighter and his uppercuts were as good as any boxer I’ve ever seen”.
Thobela’s championship attainments
were stretched over a 10-year period
(1990-2000) and most remarkably
when he knocked out Britain’s Glen
Catley to capture the WBC super middleweight
crown in 2000, he became
South Africa’s only fighter to win
world titles in weight divisions so far
apart…. 15 kg to be precise!
Harry Walker is a name foreign to
modern day fans, but during the
1950’s, this Rosettenville lightweight
was a firm crowd pleaser, and apart
from his countless street fights, the
fair-haired Walker swapped punches
with two of the decades most memorable
performers, former national
lightweight kingpin Tony Habib –who
Walker knocked out without preamble, and ex-world bantamweight titleholder Vic Toweel, who defeated Walker after eight rounds in the Benoni wood-carver’s last professional contest.
Henry Speedie succeeded in winning
the SA middleweight title during the
1950’s but experts agree that this
had the ability to have gone much further
than he did. Speedie, who grew
up in St Georges Home, was a natural
hitter and his street fighting exploits
were almost legendary. Alas, like so
many fine talents, Speedie preferred
partying to the rigors of the gymnasium
and he eventually immigrated to
Australia where he died a number of
Mzukisi Sikali could thread a needle
with his southpaw jab and was
a splendid all-around fighter who
won a number of Alphabet titles as
a junior flyweight, junior bantamweight
and flyweight. Yet Sikali was often unpredictable and his
penchant for ‘painting the town
red’ was an unconcealed fact that
robbed him of more noteworthy
acclaim than the brace of WBU and
IBO titles he won. Then too, Sikali
wasted most of his ring earnings by pursuing social pleasures, before eventually being murdered by thugs a stone’s throw from his home in Uitenhage.
Bruce McIntyre was a free-swinging national middleweight champion in the early 1980’s and remains one of the most courageous fighters that this country has ever known. Yet Bruce, who came from South Hills in the southern suburbs of Johannesburg, had a rather turbulent lifestyle that led to his ultimate downfall in the roped arena, which was hastened by “Mac The Knife’s” acknowledged love of alcohol.
Spider Kelly (real name George
McKenzie) was a lanky belter who
lifted the national welterweight title
during the Sixties, but this multi-tattooed
pugilist had a casual approach
to training and notwithstanding his
ability as a knockout artist, found the
demands of his profession wholly less appealing than having a good time, which Kelly always ensured that he did. In fact on more than one occasion, Kelly was known to have consumed alcohol shortly before entering the ring.
Jimmy Abbott was one of the
toughest heavyweights of the 1980’s
and according to several pundits, Jeff
Ellis among them, was one of the
best punchers of his era. Unfortunately
the jumbo-sized Abbott lacked
the purposeful direction to live up to
expectations and despite knocking out Kallie Knoetze and twice outpointing Robbie Williams, the West Rand giant literally ‘ate himself’ out of serious contention at a crucial stage of his career.
Lionel Hunter was one of the finest
raw talents produced in the southern
suburbs in years, yet after a number
of good performances, in both the
middleweight and light heavyweight
divisions he seemed to lose the plot
and never came close to fulfilling his
ambitions. A fine boxer/puncher,
Hunter succeeded, however, in fashioning
some eye-catching wins over
the robust punching Freddie Rafferty,
Michael Motsoane, Martin Barnard, Prince Tukane and Sakkie Enslin, before retiring with a record of 12-5-1.
Because of space restraints it is impractical
to name all the fighters who
fall into the category of ‘talent
wasters’, but how can we ever forget
Hansie van Rooyen, a vicious punching
bantamweight who gave Arnold
Taylor such a torrid time, Wally
Madley, a brilliant welterweight prospect who the late Maurice Toweel and former world light heavyweight champion Willie Pastrano felt was such a class act, Dawie du Preez, a lethal hitting light heavyweight who leveled mighty Mike Schutte in an astounding upset.
Self sacrifice was low on all their agendas, and as such, they failed to reap the bounty that was theirs for the taking.