Sugarboy's Sweet & 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.

Offi cially, 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 sugarcane farms, hence the nickname. He lost his father when he was only five years old. His mother died when he was twelve.

As 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 fi ghter who won the SA welterweight title in 1973 and the middleweight title in 1977.

Thulani 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 January 1989.

The occasion was too big for Malinga and he was beaten on points. However, he bounced back to scored 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 title.

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 fi ghters 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 fi ght Chris Eubank for the WBO super middleweight belt.

It was not third time lucky for Sugarboy. He lost on a split decision.

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 socalled 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 world-class Ole Klementsen in Denmark on January 14, 2000 for the vacant World Boxing Federation and International Boxing Association lightheavyweight 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 Lakefi eld, 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, wide-footed, dangly-handed 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.