Schools produced Top-Class Boxers by Ron Jackson

Some South African schools used to have boxing clubs that produced many excellent, well-trained fighters who competed at well-attended tournaments.

The Con Cowan Junior High School in Johannesburg was one of them, even though the club had hardly any training facilities. Their equipment consisted of a few pairs of gloves and the boys sparred on the grass at the back of the school.

They were trained by Mr S Levin who used to send his team to the Johannesburg schools championships.

In 1946, according to records that still exist, the school was represented by were R Wilson, L van Zyl, B Backeberg, J Kinnear, P Botha, H Bushney, who was the captain, L Durham, C Flynn, W Rall and F Roodt.

And they won, for the third time, the Heilbron Cup. The Booysens Central Club won the John Heilbron Shield and boxers from the St George’s Home took the Major Wilson Shield.

The Heilbron gold medal, presumably for the best boxer at the tournamnent, went to K Carter of Booysens Central.

Bushney was a member of what was in those days a well-known boxing family. A member of an even more prominent family, the Toweels, won a national title in 1946 – Vic Toweel, who later became the first South African to win a world title.

The SA amateur champions in 1946 were:
Flyweight: V Toweel (Transvaal)
Bantamweight: SS Prins (Cape Province)
Featherweight: H Vercueil (Rhodesia)
Lightweight: D du Preez (Transvaal)
Middleweight: K le Grange (East Rand)
Light heavyweight: N Sharp (Transvaal)
Heavyweight: C N Foster (Rhodesia)

Amateur boxing was a popular and thriving sport those days. In 1947 the Modder Deep Amateur Boxing Club on the East Rand had more than 50 junior members.

That was also the year when the SA Railways Recreation Boxing Club in Durban reopened after six years. The trainers were Louis Botes and a Mr G Vedovich.

Botes had won Natal provincial titles from 1927 to 1930 and was a trainer at the Seaman’s Amateur Boxing Club before the second world war.

The areas around Johannesburg, especially the East Rand, produced many excellent fighters who won dozens of titles at provincial and national tournaments.

In 1940, Cyril Carroll, who became a big name in SA boxing, approached Dan Davidson, the managing director of the East Rand Engineering Works in Germiston, to ask for assistance in setting up an amateur club.

Carroll was granted the use of a garage and an amount of 220 pounds, a lot of money then, was spent on purchasing equipment and a ring.

Assisted by Tod Crankshaw and “Pop” Smook, Carroll went on to produce many amateur champions, including Vic Toweel, as well as Johnny Wood and Bill Dollery, who became SA professional champions.


Since the days of James Figg, who fought in England in 1719, numerous changes were made to boxing methods. The first school of boxing was started by Jack Broughton, who also drew up the first set of rules for what was considered the noble art of self-defence.

After Figg’s pioneering work, came the Daniel Mendoza School of Boxing, and what was regarded as modern methods that “Gentleman” John Jackson and Jem Ward introduced.

Around 1860 the Jem Mace School was formed, then the John L Sullivan style of “straight-up” fighting. Then James J Corbett came along, showing the advantages of good footwork and scientific boxing. The next innovation was the weaving style of Jack Dempsey.


Reading through old newspaper reports and magazine articles, one comes across fascinating and long forgotten facts.

For instance: Johnny Squires, who won the SA heavyweight title on August 12 1922 when he stopped Nick van den Berg in the eleventh round at the Durban City Hall, was the first South African to top a bill at Madison Square Garden in New York. He fought WL “Young” Stribling at the famous venue on September 6 1928.

Squires stopped a solid punch in the first minute of the fight and his left eye was almost closed soon afterwards. He was also bleeding from the mouth and went down near the end of the round after being hit with a big left.

He made a mistake by jumping up without taking a count and soon went down again, this time taking a count of five.

Early in the second round Stribling landed a few solid punches to the head and the referee stopped the fight after only 44 seconds of the round.


When Ernie Eustice, a future SA featherweight champion, fought Scottish champion “Deaf” Burke in Johannesburg on April 7 1926 an unusual problem had to be solved.

Burke was a deaf mute, and everything had to be written down for him to communicate.

Tiny Dean, the referee, said if there was a knockdown he would “pass” his hand in front of Burke’s eyes.

All was well until Burke was knocked down in the third round. With his head between his knees he was, of course, unable to see Dean’s hand.

Thinking fast, Dean tapped him on the neck as he counted. But after reaching nine, he forgot that the Scot could not hear and he shouted “Out!”


Johnny Ralph who won the SA heavyweight title in February 1947, was the best boxer who emerged from the Orange Free State.

But there have been other Free State fighters of note. One was Tom Holdstock, who represented South Africa in the light-heavyweight division at the 1920 Olympic Games in Belgium. He also fought as a professional, competing in the heavyweight division from 1923 to 1933.

George “Boer” Rodel, also a heavyweight, was born on a farm near Kroonstad on September 14 1887. He fought from 1911 to 1916 and also campaigned in England and the United States, with a fair amount of success.

SA heavyweight champion Johnny Squires was born in Bloemfontein on Christmas Day 1901. He had a few fights in Australia and won on points over ten round points against Johnny Risko in the US. He also drew with Ted Kid Lewis in Johannesburg in January 1928.

Len McLoughlin won the SA amateur bantamweight title in 1929 and was eliminated in the 1930 Empire Games trials by the celebrated Laurie Stevens from Johannesburg. As a professional, McLoughlin won the SA featherweight title by defeating Willie Smith in July 1932.

Jopie Greyling, also born in Bloemfontein, was an outstanding amateur. He won the SA junior welterweight division in 1953 and 1954 and the welterweight gold medal at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Wales.


A memorable fight took place at the Old Wanderers Ground, almost in the centre of Johannesburg, on November 3 1934 when SA lightweight champion Laurie Stevens met an Italian, Aldo Spoldi.

Stevens, in his usual dashing style, rushed in with a body attack in the opening round but was knocked down for the first time in his career. He rose at the count of eight but the Italian immediately sent him back to the canvas again.

Stevens forced himself up at the count of six, but Spoldi rushed in and knocked him down again. The South African was saved by the bell and dragged back to his corner by his seconds.

Somehow he won some of the following rounds as the Italian began to tire. Many spectators felt Stevens was fortunate to come away with the decision.


In another epic encounter, Jim Holloway and Barney Malone drew over 73 rounds on a farm on the Old Kimberley Road on July 3, 1893.

Prize-fighting was illegal at the time, but policemen guarded the fighters as they made their way to the venue. The fight began at 07:45 and was declared a draw at 13:00.