The SA Champ who rocked Cooper by Ron Jackson

Everyone knows about Henry Cooper, the Englishman who nearly knocked
out Muhammad Ali.

But not many remember the name of the South African heavyweight who
gave Cooper a big fright in a bout for the Empire heavyweight title. Cooper was
also the British champion at the time. His opponent, Gawie de Klerk, was a rather
underrated challenger.

The Englishman experienced anxious moments before he nailed De Klerk with
his famous “’enry’s ‘ammer” in the fifth round of their fight in Porthcawl, Wales,
on August 26, 1959.

About 18 years later, in his hometown of Phalaborwa, De Klerk told a journalist,
“Henry was the best fighter I ever met.” Recalling the sensational start, he said,
“I caught him with a beautiful right in the opening seconds of the fight and opened
a deep cut over his left eye in the second round.

“In the third round his right eyebrow was opened as well. He would never have
seen the 15th round with those cuts. “I was doing fine, leading on points. Then
came the fifth round.

“In South Africa one has to break clean at the call ‘break’ but in England you need
not step back. They warned me about this before the fight but I forgot in the heat of the moment. “The referee ordered us to break and Henry caught me just then, on the break. I was down for two long counts and the ref stopped it. I wasn’t knocked out; I was never been knocked out in my whole career.”

Al Phillips, De Klerk’s London agent, was fuming. “The referee should have sent Cooper to a neutral corner,” he said. “Cooper was on top of Gawie at the count
of nine. Gawie was all right and if Cooper had been ordered to the farthest neutral
corner it might have given Gawie time to recover.”

SPARRING WITH PASTRANO

While he was in London, De Klerk sparred with the famous Willie Pastrano, one of the fastest heavyweights he had ever seen. Pastrano won the WBA and WBC light-heavyweight titles when he outpointed Harold Johnson in June 1963. And on November 30 that year he beat South African Mike Holt on points over ten rounds in a non-title fight in Johannesburg.

Holt and De Klerk knew each other well, having sparred hundreds of rounds
together while they were trained in Pretoria by Piet Lourens. They fought each
other twice in non-title bouts because Holt was not interested in challenging for De
Klerk’s SA heavyweight title.

Holt won their first fight, in Pretoria in December 1960, on points over ten rounds. They met again in September 1961 and Holt won by technical knockout when the fight in Durban was stopped in the seventh round because of a bad cut near one of De Klerk’s eyes.

VICTORY IN 20 SECONDS

De Klerk was born on December 20, 1935 and went to school at Bethlehem in the Free State. As an amateur he won numerous titles. He once beat Hennie Theron for the Free State amateur title and, on August 30, 1958, knocked out Hennie’s brother Eddie in defence of his SA professional heavyweight title.

The fight in Salisbury (now Harare) was over after 20 seconds, including the count.
It was probably the shortest SA title fight on record.

De Klerk made his professional debut on April 14, 1956 with a second-round
stoppage of an Italian, Guiseppe de Fiore.

They met on the undercard of a tournament in which Bennie Nieuwenhuizen fought
George Barnes for the Empire welterweight title.

De Klerk won his next four fights in impressive style but then lost, as a result
of a cut eye, on a second-round technical knockout to Johnny Arthur, the SA
heavyweight champion. It was a non-title bout.

After a second-round stoppage win over former SA heavyweight champion Louw
Strydom, De Klerk was largely inactive in 1957. He knocked out Buddy Walker
in the third round and won the vacant SA heavyweight title with fourth-round
stoppage of Eddie Theron in September.

WINNING IN ENGLAND

After beating Jan Scheepers in six rounds in Johannesburg in February 1958,
he went to England and outpointed Peter Bates over eight rounds.

He also fought in Italy, where he lost to the huge Franco Cavicchi, a 61-fight
veteran at the time. Three weeks later he was also outpointed by another Italian,
Bruno Scarabellin, who was unbeaten at the time.

Returning to South Africa, De Klerk retained the SA heavyweight title with that
20-second knockout of Theron. One of his best victories was in November 1958 when he knocked out the experienced German Hans Friedrich in the eighth round in the Johannesburg City Hall.

Early in 1959, De Klerk beat two experienced Italians, Frederico Friso (points 10) and Bonino Allevi (KO 7) before knocking out Scheepers in the first round to retain his national heavyweight title. The match between De Klerk and Friso was the main supporting bout to the clash between Mike Holt and Jerry Luedee on February 28, 1959.

A local newspaper reported, “De Klerk not only revealed continued technical
improvement but also teak-like toughness that brought him through a hard, bruising battle against a man 12lb heavier and certainly stronger in the many toe-toe exchanges.”

In May he faced another experienced Italian, Domenico Bacchesci, and won on
points over ten rounds.

Then, after losing to Cooper, he stopped Dawid Hamman in the twelfth round to
retain his SA title.

In 1960 he beat former SA heavyweight champion Piet Strydom to retain the title
and then defeated Corrie van Heerden and Scheepers before the points loss to
Holt. There were few good heavyweights around and De Klerk had to fight Scheepers for a fourth time. He stopped him in the eleventh round in a title bout on May 20, 1961.

During the same year he defended his title against Alfie McKnight (KO 7) and
Stan Lotriet (tko 4) before losing to Holt in Durban.

On October 7 he stopped Ewald Stanke from Germany in two rounds and then,
early in 1962, he announced his retirement from the ring.

De Klerk finished with a creditable record of 24 wins and six losses, including
15 knockouts.

When I interviewed De Klerk, a true gentleman, many years after he had
retired, I was amazed about his ability to recall the dates and other details of all his fights.

He died at Phalaborwa on May 9, 1998.