Bernie Taylor Boxings Gentleman - by Pete Moscardi

A welcome recent visitor to these shores was former South African bantamweight and featherweight champion, Bernie Taylor, bringing with him a nostalgic blast from the past. Bernie and his Norwegian wife, Grete, were on a visit over the Christmas period, staying with Bernie’s son, Brett – who was himself a former South African junior-welterweight champion.

It was a pleasure to meet up with Bernie and to chat about his past career and to catch up with what he is doing now. “I live with Grete near Berkhampstead in Hertfordshire – but I can assure you it is terrific to be back in South Africa which I still regard as home and which I miss terribly,” he told me. Today Bernie spends his time in his workshop and is a keen DIY fanatic, and is also a staunch member of the London Veteran Boxers’ Association (VBA) which, he says, is well supported. “It is great to mix with characters like Terry Downes and Terry Spinks and, believe me, they are characters of note. The London VBA has a really friendly atmosphere and is a super forum for ex boxers to get together.”

Bernie, who is 74 but does not look a day over 60, notched up a 36-4-1 record in a career which extended from 1958 to 1965. Only two South Africans were able to score wins over this wily orthodox fighter and they were brothers Stoffel and Andries Steyn. Born in the remote town of Gumtree in the Free State, Bernie made his professional debut on 30 May 1958 with a four round points win over Boet Stander in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. In just his sixth contest he won the South African bantamweight title with a points victory over the murderous punching Dennis Adams in a fight held at the Durban Icedrome in May 1959.

Bernie was shoved into the lion’s den early in his career when, in his ninth professional fight, he was matched with the formidable Irishman, Freddie Gilroy for the then named British Empire (Commonwealth) bantamweight title. Taylor
was 9-0 at that stage and Gilroy was 19- 0. The Irishman also had home advantage
as the fight took place in the famous Kings Hall in Belfast – a daunting place for any foreign boxer. “I was already having serious weight problems at that stage and I was around 130 pounds when I travelled over to Ireland. It was early December and freezing cold. I went over alone and I had to try and lose 12 pounds in a short space of time.

I was weight drained when I got into the ring with Gilroy – who was an outstanding
fighter,” Bernie explained. Bernie lost the fight on a fifth round KO but, undeterred, he moved up to featherweight and went over to London to continue his career.

“I enjoyed my time in London as I teamed up with Henry Speedie and Dennis
Adams – two of the naughtiest guys you would ever meet – who were fighting
over there at the time,” he recalls. Bernie’s first fight in England was against
the up-and-coming Irishman, Hugh O’Neil at the Queensway Hall in Paddington
in February 1960. After eight all-action rounds the fight was declared a draw.

Boxing News, the highly regarded British fight weekly, had this to say, inter alia, about the fight: ‘ Beanpole Bernie Taylor, South African bantamweight champion, now campaigning in the featherweight ranks, had to rustle up all his fighting energy and ring knowhow to force a draw with up-and-coming London- based Irishman, Hugh O’Neil over eight thrill-packed rounds at the Queensway Hall. Nobbins showered into the ring at the final bell – an unusual sight at the end of a top-liner.’ Bernie went on to have two more fights in London, outpointing Johnny Howard and Ron Jones in crowd-pleasing punch-ups.

Bernie had long since abandoned the bantamweight division and on his return to South Africa he notched up several wins in the featherweight division before
being matched against Rudy Oosthuizen for the vacant South African title. Bernie
came away as the new South African champion, stopping Oosthuizen in nine
rounds in their fight in Durban in April 1961. Three fights and three wins later
Bernie came a cropper when he lost for the first time as a featherweight and for
the first time to a South African opponent. Stoffel Steyn, a devastating
puncher won a points decision over him in their fight in Johannesburg in September 1961. Recalling that contest, Bernie says: “Stoffel could hit like a mule
and my rib cage was so bruised from his body punches that it was difficult to
even walk.” But Bernie must have had a masochistic streak in him for just 10
days later he was back in the ring against Stoffel Steyn. Hardly in any fit state to fight, Bernie succumbed in one round.

Bernie went on to make five successful defences of his title, stopping tearaway
Raymond Becker on a sixth round TKO in February 1962 and Eddie Ludick in 11
in August of that year. He again beat Becker in a return in Durban in May
1963, this time winning on points, and in November he stopped Tollie Pretorius
in nine in a title defence at the Ellis Park Tennis Stadium. In the same month, just
27 days later, he defended against Raymond Becker for a third time, this time
winning on an eighth round TKO.

An opponent Bernie recalls well is Annibal Angelo who, by reputation, was one of the roughest and dirtiest fighters to ever grace a South African ring. Bernie outpointed Angelo twice, but was surprised on each occasion that his opponent
had fought a meticulously clean fight. Puzzled by his opponent’s change of tactics, Bernie remembers asking Angelo for an explanation. “He told me: Bernie, you are such a gentleman in the ring that I just can’t use my usual tactics against you,’” he says with a wry smile. Old opponent, Johnny Howard ventured out to South Africa for two return fights with Bernie in 1964, but the tough Londoner came second in both, being soundly outpointed on each occasion.

Another Steyn, this time Stoffel’s younger brother, Andries was Bernie’s next challenger for his featherweight title. The date was September 1965 and the venue was the City Hall, Durban. The youthful Andries, a huge puncher like his elder brother, forced Bernie to retire in the seventh round. Bernie’s jaw had been broken and it would have been dangerous for him to continue. This was to be the last time he entered a ring and he made a graceful retirement from the sport.

Today Bernie Taylor has it all together. His eyes are clear, his mind and memory
are as sharp as his punches, and there are very few visible signs which would indicate his past profession. He is an excellent conversationalist and a great
raconteur. It was great to chat to you, Bernie. Let’s hope we can do it again before
too long.