Laurie Stevens all the rage in the 1930’s- by Ron Jackson

Laurie Stevens was all the rage in South Africa in the 1930’s, but never really made it on the world scene.

Stevens, who began boxing at the Twist Street School in Johannesburg, won his first SA amateur title as a featherweight in 1930 when he was 17. In the same year he represented South Africa at the Empire Games in Hamilton, Ontario, where he won a featherweight silver medal. He won the SA lightweight title in 1931 and took the gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics the next year.

Stevens’s parents had come from Cornwall in England and he was born in Johannesburg on February 25, 1913. At the Twist Street school he received his first boxing lessons from a Mr Van Zyl. He then joined Joe Gorton’s boxing club. Gorton also trained Clarence Walker and Willie Smith.

Later, at Jim Fennessey’s club, Stevens met Dave Carstens, who also won gold at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. At the Empire Games in 1930, inexperience cost the young Stevens a gold medal. Some observers, however, felt he had done enough to outpoint England’s FR Meachem in the featherweight final.

Stevens had always worn a blue raincoat into the ring and not the conventional gown. However, for the final he decided to borrow a smart gown from one of his team-mates. After his defeat the superstitious Stevens was convinced that not remaining loyal to his old raincoat had cost him the decision. For the rest of his career he wore the faded and scruffy blue raincoat every time he got into the ring.

At the 1932 Olympics, 13 boxers were entered in the lightweight division. In the first series of bouts, Stevens outpointed Jose Padilla Jr from the Philippines. In his second fight, he beat the hard-hitting Franz Kartz of Germany.

In the semi-final, despite the prediction that Italy’s Mario Bianchini would be too strong for him, Stevens won on points. In the final, his two-fisted attack was too much for the Swede Thure J Ahlqvist. The Springbok won on points to take the gold medal.

Stevens made his professional debut on December 3, 1932 with a second-round stoppage win over Harold Smith. Two weeks later he knocked out Willie van Rooyen in the second round.

Stevens’s old amateur trainer, Jim Fennessy, coached him for his first few professional fights before Johnny Watson took over. This partnership was to last until Laurie retired from the ring. He had eight fights in 1933, beating Piet Swanepoel, Len McLoughlin, Les van Rooyen, Bryn Jones of Wales, George “Panther” Purchase in winning the SA lightweight title, Norman Sheppard, Eddie Brink from the US and Saverio Turiello of Italy.

Early in 1934, he beat Brink and Turiello in return matches before outpointing the American Wesley Ramey in two fights. Ramey, who held a decision over Tony Canzoneri, was rated in the lightweight division by The Ring magazine. In the second fight with Ramey, on September 22, 1934, the American landed a low blow in the fifth round and was disqualified. The referee was Pat McCarthy, who owned the Frascati Beer Hall in Johannesburg, an establishment that had been around since the early mining days. Stevens and Watson asked the referee to allow the fight to continue and Stevens went on to win on points over ten rounds.

After the two wins over Ramey, Stevens was ranked No 9 by The Ring magazine. He remained in the rankings for the next two years, reaching No 4 at one time.

In his next fight, against the rugged Aldo Spoldi, Stevens had to come back from two crushing knockdowns in the second round. He was saved by the bell and fought back to win a narrow decision over 10 rounds. He then beat Joe Franklin, Willie du Toit and Ernest Wohrer in 1935 before facing Jack “Kid” Berg, a former world junior welterweight champion, for the vacant Empire lightweight title. The fight took place at the old Wanderers Club near the Johannesburg station on January 11, 1936.

It was a fierce and vicious fight. Stevens won on points after twelve hard rounds. Stevens had two more fights in 1936, beating Phil Zwick and Louis Botes, before facing Petey Sarron, the world featherweight champion. The non-title fight over 12 rounds took place on January 16, 1937, also at the Wanderers, before a crowd of 17 000. Stevens was down twice in the first round but made a spirited comeback before being knocked out in the final round.

This is how Frank Roston of The Star described the ending: “Stevens, his strength ebbed away to a low mark after eleven freak rounds of recovery from a merciless bludgeoning in the first round of the fight, turned almost in a half circle from the impact of a punch hard enough to have dropped a middleweight, and he dropped senseless on his face. Referee Willie Corner stood over him tolling the seconds as a mere formality.”

The South African considered retiring after this setback, but he went on to beat Len de la Porte, JN (Babe) Smith, Bob Bradley, Teddy Braun and Jack Hobson in 1937. He was inactive in 1938 but in 1939 won against Dick Barton, Snowy Smith and Teddy Braun. In a return bout, he beat Braun to win the SA welterweight title.

In 1940 he beat Dave Katzen, Alf James and Teddy Grace before joining the Transvaal Scottish. This resulted in him being inactive from May 1940 to October 1945. He served in North Africa during the Second World War.

On October 20, 1945, Stevens defended his SA welterweight title against Alf James. This bout also took place at the Wanderers and was one of the last big fights at the club before the grounds became part of the site for the extension to Park Station. The rather lacklustre fight ended in draw.

In 1946 Laurie beat Bob Bradley, Alf James and Jimmy Ainscough from America before he was knocked out in the third round by an Englishman, Eric Boon, on July 27. This was only his second defeat, but the hard fights had taken their toll. Stevens did not even know he had been knocked out until he was told in the car on the way home.

He retired on November 23, 1946 with a record of 36 wins, 2 losses, a draw and 19 wins inside the distance, just before he was due to fight Bob Ramsey of England. During training for the fight, he suffered from headaches. Two nights before the fight he suffered from amnesia.

After training, he took a bus to his Norwood home. When he asked the bus driver, who knew him well, to drop him at a stop some way from his home, it was obvious something was wrong. Stevens said he must have had a blackout, as he did not know how he got home.

One of the legends of SA boxing, he died in Durban on August 17, 1989 at the age of 76.