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A Blast from the Past - by Pete Moscardi

For those who are still around to remember it, the 10-year period from the mid 1950’s to the mid 1960’s was one of the most colourful in South African boxing – and it was also a decade which bred some of the best fighters this country has ever
produced. Those champions of yesteryear would, were they around today, be fighting for world titles. And there is little doubt that there would be a generous smattering of world champions were the fighters of this era in the mix today.

It was this generation that spawned some of the toughest warriors to have fought in South African rings. Not all of them became champions, but even the ones who didn’t earned respect. One such fighter was a tough, hard-hitting youngster called Les Frank – a lightweight who proudly wore the Star of David on his ring trunks. Les never became a champion. In fact, such was the nature of the stiff competitiveness in the game at the time that he never even had the opportunity to fight for a title. I had the good fortune to see Les fight a 10-round war with Bernie Taylor in the Durban City Hall in April 1960. Taylor, father of Brett, was one of the top fighters of that era and had just returned from a successful campaign in Britain. Les took the fight into the trenches that night, and after 10 rounds of a savage toe-to-toe encounter Taylor was crowned a narrow points winner. It was no disgrace to the young Frank whose ring experience was far short of Taylor’s.

Such was the impression that Les made on me at the time that I never forgot the
fight or the thrilling performance he had given – and I often wondered what had
happened to this hard-hitting Jewish lightweight. It was a chance conversation with African Boxing’s publisher, Jeff Ellis that led me to Donatella’s Jewellery store in Sandton City where I encountered the owner – a mild-mannered, quietly spoken man in his 60s with an unmarked face. This was none other than Les Frank and I was about to venture on a wonderfully nostalgic trip down memory lane. Being the nostalgia junkie that I am, this was a “fix” better than anything I could have hoped for. Les was more than happy to chat about the “old days” and I was held in total fascination for a couple of hours as we reminisced about fighters of the ilk of Mike Holt, Bennie Niewenhuizen, Tony Lombard, Willie Toweel, Dennis Adams, Ernie Baronet, Henry Speedie and many more.

I asked Les if he ever attended the fights today. He thought hard about the answer
– and then said: “No, I don’t. I look at the talent that’s around today and I can’t help comparing it with the fighters of my day and, quite honestly, today’s breed don’t begin to shape up with the crop of fighters around in the mid-50s to the mid-60s. Who today could possibly have lived with the likes of Mike Holt? Who today could match the superlative skills of Willie Toweel or Bennie Niewenhuizen? And is
there a flyweight around today who could have lived with the murderous punching of Dennis Adams? But this is not what sticks in the throat. It is the thought of the mega purses today’s fighters earn compared with the meagre pittance we fought for. I recall fighting Mickey Pretorius at the old Drill Hall in Twist Street. We shared a purse of 30 pounds. But make no mistake. I would do it all over again if I had the chance – it was a great period in my life and I loved every minute.”

The 69-year-old Frank was born and brought up in the centre of Johannesburg
– “people actually lived in the centre of town in those days and it was considered
to be a good address if you lived in an apartment in Bree Street”, he recalls. Les
was only six years old when he started to develop a fascination for boxing. “I used
to hang around the old Central Gym in the city centre which was owned by my uncle, Harry Ralston. Fighters such as the great Eric Boon and Alf James trained there. My Mum was the motivating force behind my interest in the fight game, as it was she who persuaded me to take up boxing in order to learn how to protect myself,” he recalls.

Les attended Athlone Boys High and boxed at school. “One of the promising
young trainers of today is Colin Nathan. I grew up with Colin’s late father, Stanley.
We were at school together and became best of pals. It was a friendship which continued into our adult lives. Stanley went to Cape Town and became a trainer. He also owned an hotel in Sea Point and I made a point of staying there whenever I was in Cape Town. Recently Colin paid me a visit at my shop and I knew who he was the moment he walked in. He is a double of his father, with the same looks and mannerisms,” he said.

Les boxed as an amateur from 1946 to 1958, joining the old Twist Street Boxing
Club where he was trained by Dave Cherry. He competed in both the Transvaal and
South African championships. Turning professional in 1958, Les joined up with Teddy Russell and Don Smith, with the latter having a gym at the Holland Club in town. Les’s first professional fight was a four round contest at the Drill Hall which he won.

“I later joined forces with an ex professional wrestler called Cecil Sachs who became my manager. Cecil secured a job in Durban and took me with him. I lived with him and his wife at the bottom end of The Berea. Cecil also looked after a coloured fighter called Leslie Tangee who was to become a South African featherweight champion (Non-European version). In those days there was no such thing as being “picky” about your next opponent. The promoter in Durban was the late Michael Klisser – and Michael would tell you who you were fighting and for what purse,” Les recalls.

After fighting in a string of supporting contests, Les was give main event status
when he was matched with the South African featherweight champion, Bernie
Taylor at the Durban City Hall in April 1960. Bernie eked out a close decision in a
slugfest, but Les had come to fight and his performance impressed both the fans and promoter, Michael Klisser. Les was rewarded by being given another main event fight in July – this time at the Durban Icedrome with the opponent being the former South African bantamweight and featherweight champion, Ernie Baronet. In another crowd pleasing contest Les got the victory after 10 all-action rounds.

Recalling the dedication that was required in order to compete against the
best, Les says: “I used to get out of bed at 4.00am and run from The Berea into town. I then ran home via the race course and a jockey called Percy Caiux used to let me run alongside one of the horses he would train and he would crack me with his horse whip if I slowed up. Thereafter there were two sessions in Jack Ford’s old gym – one at lunch time and sparring in the evening. The names of the fighters I sparred with went on forever, and I recall having some gym wars with the likes of Willie Toweel, Tony Lombard, Smiler van Rensburg, Bennie Niewenhuizen and even Mike Holt. And, believe me, some of those sparring sessions were every bit as tough as the fights themselves,” he says with a wry smile.

After retiring in 1961 Les went to Israel and joined the armed forces where he
served for two years. “I was a Paratrooper which was a tough outfit. I was often very glad I had had the benefit of being a fighter and had gone through tough training sessions in my fighting days,” he says.

Les returned to South Africa in 1968 and eventually went back into the jewellery
profession – which is where he first started his working career after leaving school.
Today Les Frank lives quietly in Houghton. He is the proud father of three daughters who reside in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Sydney respectively.

“Yes, I loved my boxing days and I have no regrets. I just sometimes wish I could
have been born some 40 years later and that I was in today’s world of boxing,” he
says wistfully.