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Rating the SA Heavyweights - by Terry Pettifer

James R.Couper will go down in history as South Africa’s first recognizable boxing
champion. Indeed even though the spirited Scotsman, who arrived in Cape Town in 1881, seldom scaled more than 64 kg, he engraved his name in the archives of SA boxing due to his bruising victory over Woolf Bendoff at a site known as Eagles Nest on July 26, 1889. Bendoff, who hailed from London, considerably outweighed Couper, but despite advantages in age, height, weight and reach, the former English bareknuckle champion was stopped in the 26th round of a contest that was fought with skin-tight gloves.

To compare the inimitable Couper with some of the genuine heavyweights who
succeeded him would be ludicrous to say the least, even though the chronology of
the dreadnought division inevitably lists his bout with the 86 kg Bendoff as the
first national heavyweight contest to take place in this country.

Much the same could be said of Jack Lalor, an Irish immigrant who won three national titles (heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight) and set the earliest benchmark for South African pugilists during the first two decades of the 20th century. Mind you Lalor did defeat a number of boxers much heavier than himself, including fully-fledged heavyweights like Nick van den Bergh and Fred Storbeck.
In total, the 66 kg Lalor laid claim to the SA heavyweight crown on three occasions
and only retired from the ring for good in June 1919, three months before his 44th birthday.

Without fear of reproach, I would say that Fred Storbeck, Boer Rodel, Johnny Squires, Don Mc- Corkindale and Ben Foord, deserve to be ranked amongst the finest crop of big men that were produced in this land prior to World War 11, and they invariably command far greater acclaim than lesser lights such as Dave Carstens and Tommy Bensch.

Greybeards will inform you that while Storbeck had the talent to win the British
Amateur heavyweight championship in 1910, and was even mentioned in the
undignified scramble to find a “White Hope” capable of defeating the division’s
first black world champion Jack Johnson, the South African was cruelly mismanaged when he was matched with Britain’s Bombardier Billy Wells in only
his third professional fight. The inexperienced Storbeck was systematically
pounded into submission in eleven rounds and it’s debatable whether he ever psychologically recovered from that beating. Consequently the former blacksmith lost twice to Frank Moran, a power-hitting American who later fought for the world heavyweight title. Storbeck did, however, win the national heavyweight title by outpointing Johnny Rutherford over 20 rounds in 1917, at a time when his career had already stuttered into low gear.

George “Boer” Rodel was a former amateur rival of Storbeck’s and made an
even more telling impact on the heavyweight division as a professional. Born
Lodewikus van Vuuren, he travelled to the United States in the early 1900’s in
search of fights, but whereas the South African was brilliantly publicized by his
manager, the Liverpool-born Jimmy Johnston, he was poorly managed and
suffered terrible punishment at the hands of world renowned heavyweights like Sam McVey, Joe Jeanette, Frank Moran, Bombardier Billy Wells and world heavyweight-champion-to-be Jess Willard. As a result Rodel neither made the grade nor returned to South Africa, and died in Brooklyn, New York in 1955. Handsome Johnny Squires was a product of Bloemfontein in the Free State and after capturing the eye of the 5th Earl of Lonsdale during a sparring session, he was freely tipped as a potential world beater. The euphoria was, nonetheless, short-lived and after Squires had been beaten by Tom Heeney of New Zealand and the wily Alex Ireland of Scotland, it was obvious that he had definite limitations. Fairly light for a heavyweight, Squires later campaigned in the United States, where he obtained a world ranking and fought and lost to redoubtable performers like Johnny Risko and Young Stribling. Yet although Squires failed to live up to the
glowing predictions that were made shortly after he turned professional, he did rule the South African heavyweight roost for eight years (1922-1930) before losing his national title Don McCorkindale.

A world rated contender during the 1930’s, Don McCorkindale, was one of the best heavyweights that South Africa has ever produced. Nowhere near as colourful or explosive as former Empire heavyweight champion Ben Foord, he was, however, one of the most skilful and durable heavyweights of his era. A man of amiable disposition outside of the ring, McCorkindale fought some of the heavyweight division’s most formidable contenders, such as Larry Gains; a brilliant Canadian boxer who once knocked out the great Max Schmeling, Young Stribling, Walter Neusel, George Cook, Kingfish Levinsky, Paolino Uzcudun and former world heavyweight titleholder Primo Carnera. Having won the Sa heavyweight title in only his eighth professional contest by knocking out Johnny Squires, he decided to campaign abroad and in 1933 was ranked 5th by The Ring magazine on their list of
world title contenders. The South African’s finest performances overseas were firstly a 10-round draw and later a knockout of the dangerous Larry Gains, a stoppage win over George Cook and points victories over Gypsy Joe Daniels
(a rugged Welshman who had halted Max Schmeling early in the German’s career)
and Patsy Perroni.

Ben Foord became the first and only South African heavyweight to win an
Empire Title when he stopped Jack Petersen in the third round of their championship contest in Leicester, England on August 17, 1936. Magnificently proportioned, Foord could hit with thunderous force and but for an erratic temperament, he may well have gone on to fight for the world title. A contemporary of Don Mc-Corkindale, opinions vary as to which of the two was actually the better allaround fighter. Foord had the more impressive record, however, and after winning he national heavyweight title in 1934, by knocking out Willie Storm in Cape Town, he went on to campaign overseas, where he boxed against a lauded crop of international fighters. Indeed, amongst Foord’s most recognizable victims were the Canadian Larry Gains, Tommy Loughran; one of the
greatest world light heavyweight champions of all-time, Eddie Phillips, Jack
London, George Cook and Ray Lazar. He also swapped punches with a pair of former world heavyweight champions, Max Baer (L KO 9) and Max Schmeling (L12).
The enigmatic South African’s Empire title reign came to an end when he was
beaten on points by Tommy Farr of Wales on March 15, 1937. Incidentally in
August of that year, Farr went the distance with the immortal Joe Louis in the
American’s first defence of the world heavyweight championship.

The era just prior to and immediately after World War 11, saw a number of talented fighters grace the local heavyweight scene, the best of whom were
Tommy Bensch, Dave Carstens and Nick Wolmarans. Bensch, who was actually a
blown-up light heavyweight defeated Carstens to win the vacant heavyweight
title in 1938 but by the time hostilities ceased, he was only a shell of the fighter
he had been and lost his national championship to the shorter and more aggressive
Nick Wolmarans in March 1946. By comparison, Dave Carstens was expected to ignite the fistic scene when he turned professional at the age of nineteen. A former Olympic gold medal winner in the light heavyweight division, he ended up losing more bouts in the paid ranks than he won, but aside from a pair of nail-biting defeats to Tommy Bensch, proved more than able to hold his own against other local heavyweight competition, such as Nick Wolmarans; whom he knocked out, and Johnny Squires, whom he outpointed en route to the latter becoming a world rated contender. A sturdy, if sadly misused protagonist, Carstens also defeated Tommy Farr who was destined to fight the magnificent Joe Louis for the world heavyweight title.

Nick Wolmarans was the shortest national heavyweight champion in history, but no braver man ever laced on a boxing glove. A dual SA light heavyweight and heavyweight titleholder, the gutsy Wolmarans traded blows with anyone who would fight him, amongst them world light heavyweight champion Freddie Mills, former British heavyweight champions Jack London and Johnny Williams, Alf Gallagher, Stephen Olek and South Africa’s “golden boy” of the forties; Johnny Ralph, who lifted Wolmarans SA heavyweight title in 1947.

The rise and fall of Johnny Ralph is still one of the most romanticized sagas in
the history of the South African prize ring, but one should remember that between
the years 1946-1948, the Bloemfontein boxer was arguably the most popular and widely discussed sports personality in the country. After a meteoric rise to prominence, in which Ralph knocked out Nick Wolmarans to capture the national heavyweight title and defeated a number of overseas fighters such as George Cerosky, Buddy Komar, Buddy Scott, Ken Shaw, Alf Gallagher and Stephen Olek, the young South African was overmatched against the reigning world heavyweight champion Freddie Mills in 1948 and was knocked out in the eighth round. After a short rest, Ralph’s backers then elected to import the British heavyweight titleholder Bruce Woodcock to test their man’s credentials but after an enthusiastic start, the curly-haired Free Stater was counted out in the third round of the fight.

How good was Ralph? Moreover did he compare with the finest heavyweights to have been produced in this country? Notwithstanding his defeats at the hands of Mills and Woodcock, the consensus of expert opinion, has always afforded Ralph a treasured place amongst South Africa’s stand-out heavyweight practitioners from Squires onwards.

Following Ralph’s retirement from the roped square in 1949, there were comparatively few heavyweights who triggered the public’s imagination.

Possibly the most popular of the beefcake brigade between the time of Ralph
and the emergence of Gerrie Coetzee in the seventies, were Louw Strydom,
Johnny Arthur, Jimmy Richards and Mike Schutte.

Louw Strydom in fact succeeded his older brother Piet; a lanky puncher with understated heart, as national heavyweight titleholder in 1952 but despite
possessing a ramrod left hand and excellent handspeed, he was knocked out by
Austria’s Joe Weiden and also lost to the powerful Johnny Arthur in all three of
their fights.

Very few local fighters compared with Johnny Arthur in terms of physical
strength and it’s the author’s considered opinion that the former Olympian was indubitably one of the ten best heavyweights ever produced in South Africa. A
competent boxer, Arthur had smashing power in his right hand and during the
mid-fifties hovered on the fringes of stardom. The South African in fact, twice
challenged for the Empire title, losing to Don Cockell and Johnny Williams respectively. A rigger from Pardekop, he also fought the likes of George Chuvalo,
James J.Parker and Joe Weiden and had the distinction of never losing to a fellow
South African.

Boksburg-born Jimmy Richards was briefly regarded as the new “golden boy” of SA boxing during the early seventies, but poor management curtailed what might have been a promising international ring career. At the age of twentyone, and in only his sixth bout, Richards was hurriedly matched against Roger Tighe, who was then rated the fourth best heavyweight in Britain, and although the tough-as-teak South African displayed uncommon bravery in holding the experienced foreigner to a draw, it was a gruelling test for the novice professional. Moreover, Richards’ five-bout series with fellow heavyweight Mike Schutte were amongst the most bitterly
fought local rivalries in the annals of South African boxing, and perhaps equally as demanding were his fights with Jack O’Hallaran, Arno Prick, a clever boxing German who battered him around twice, Bill Drover, Jack Bodell and Henry Clark.

Mighty Mike Schutte was nicknamed “The Tank” and this barrel-chested lefthooker
from the Vaal Triangle became one of the most rousing performers of the mid-seventies. After prevailing in three out of five contests with Jimmy Richards, and winning the national championship in the process, Schutte was even proposed as an unlikely opponent for the incomparable Muhammad Ali, only for negotiations to falter at a crucial stage of the proceedings. Posterity will recall that the hefty punching “Tank” almost ruined Gerrie Coetzee’s career, after the WBA world heavyweight champion-to-be broke both hands on Schutte’s head and elbows in the second of two arduous contests. That aside, Schutte lost to Coetzee in both fights but did reel off enviable wins over a variety of imports such as Chuck Wepner, Bepi Ros, Rudi Lubbers, Terry Hinke, Joe Roman and Tommy Kost.

Which brings me to Gerrie Coetzee. A natural puncher with excellent talent, Coetzee remains, in the opinion of this scribe, the finest heavyweight South
Africa has ever produced and notwithstanding his epic WBA title-winning performance against Michael Dokes in Richfield, Ohio on September 23, 1983,
there seems little doubt that the former dental-mechanic could have made a far
greater impression on the destiny of heavyweight boxing had his career not been seriously hampered by injuries to what became known as his “bionic” right hand.

Having won the WBA world heavyweight championship in his third attempt, after
previously losing to both John Tate (L 15) and Mike Weaver (L KO by13), Coetzee
went into the first defence of his title against Louisville’s Greg Page on December
1, 1984 with a fractured right hand, and was further handicapped by some of the worst officiating in heavyweight annals. Indeed, Coetzee suffered a crucial knockdown after one round had actually ended and was counted out a full minute
after the eighth round should have ended.

Arguably one of the most talented white heavyweights since the time of Rocky
Marciano, one of the inscrutable Coetzee’s finest victories was his first-round
“blow out” of former world heavyweight champion Leon Spinks, en route to his
fighting John Tate for the vacant WBA title.

Garrulous Kallie Knoetze was Coetzee’s chief arch-rival in the amateur ranks and
when they met as professionals, Knoetze climbed off the canvas before losing a
very close points decision. A splintering right hand puncher, the former cop from
Pretoria was definitely one of the most colourful fighters that this land has ever
known, and after knocking out a number of fancied imports like Duanne Bobick,
Izaak Hussein and Richard Dunn, and demolishing Mike Schutte with one of his
smashing “bolo’s” (a sweeping uppercut) the flamboyant Knoetze earned a world
heavyweight title eliminator with John Tate in Mmabatho in 1979, but seemed
to fall apart psychologically and was stopped in the fourth round of a fairly
one-sided fight. That crushing defeat effectively signalled the end of “The Bek”
as a legitimate world championship contender and he was soon taking beatings
from boxers who wouldn’t have lived with him at his best.

Pierre Coetzer and Johnny du Plooy collectively revitalized the local heavyweight
scene during the late eighties and early nineties, that culminated in a much publicized “grudge” fight between the two, and one which Coetzer won in the second round after being on the canvas earlier on. Whereas Du Plooy had loads of
natural talent, but not the discipline to fulfil his promise, Coetzer was the epitome
of dedication and the former policeman literally warred his way to a memorable world heavyweight title eliminator with champion-to-be Riddick Bowe
in 1992, before losing on a seventh round stoppage.

An underrated, albeit workmanlike practitioner, Coetzer deserves to be mentioned
amongst the upper tier of South African heavyweights, of whom few possessed as much indomitable courage. Corrie Sanders? Recently retired at the age of 42, following a first-round defeat to current national heavyweight boss Osborne
Machimana, the former WBU and WBO world heavyweight champion was not only one of the most feared punchers in the division during the past decade, but also one of the most unpredictable. Fight buffs concur that when the mood moved him, Sanders was as deadly an executioner as we’ve seen in recent years and his 2003 lightning-fast annihilation of WBO heavyweight king Wladimir Klitschko was universally perceived as a warranty of global dominion. The fact that Sanders’ subsequently relinquished his title and then suffered a severe drubbing at the hands of Vitali Klitschko (elder brother to Wladimir) could be attributed both to inefficient management and Sanders’ inherent dislike of training. Nevertheless, at the peak of his powers, the southpaw from Pretoria was indisputably one of the finest heavyweights in the history of South African boxing.

How he would have coped with battlehardened warriors such as McCorkindale
and Foord is uncertain, but I cannot envisage most of our heavyweights of the past lasting the distance with an in-form, motivated Sanders.

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