A Man Amongst Men: Bennie Nortman by Pete Moscardi

Fifty-five-year-old Bennie Nortman is someone whose past life has been closely acquainted with hardship, abject poverty, an abusive alcoholic father and degrading privations. However, he has not allowed one of these debilitating experiences to affect him and a cheery disposition and a cracking sense of humour belie the sadness of a lost and wasted youth.

Bennie Nortman has overcome the many pitfalls of his life and today is a successful businessman who operates two lift companies from their premises in Booysens. The long, hard and rocky road is now behind him – a thing of the past which he can recall with vivid clarity but which he does not allow to diminish his spirit or to create any bitterness.

His home life today is a stark contrast to what he experienced in his childhood, and Bennie and his wife of 32 years, Vera, live happily at their home in Winchester Hills in the south of Johannesburg with their son Clive (26), a management accountant and daughter Ilze (23), who has an LLB degree.

Recalling his first memories of boxing, Bennie says: “I come from the South in Johannesburg and have always lived here apart from a couple of periods in my life where I lived in Potchefstroom and Pretoria. I can recall that when I was six my family was living in Potchefstroom and one of my elder brothers introduced me to boxing. This was in 1962, and seven years later I was selected to box for Southern Transvaal as a junior. “

Bennie was 11 years old when he moved with his family from Potchefstroom to Newlands west of Johannesburg. “The mean streets in the west of Johannesburg were, and still are, a tough breeding ground and one simply had to learn to defend oneself in order to survive,” he says. Bennie had two older brothers who today are both deceased.

He attended Hoerskool Die Burger and boxing practically took over his entire life as a kid. “I estimate that I had in the region of 350 amateur fights as both a junior and a senior. I lost plenty of fights as a junior, but my boxing skills increased as I became more experienced. As a junior I won the South African school championships and Transvaal title and was the runner up in the South African championships. As a senior I won the Southern Transvaal and Transvaal championships and went on to win the South African championships. I boxed extensively while doing my call-up in the army and acquired the Western Province and South West African Defence Force titles,” he recalls. A littleknown fact of Bennie Nortman’s career is that he is one of only a few amateur boxers to be the recipient of the South Africa Sports Merit Award for his contribution to the sport of boxing.

Nortman recalls an incident in his life when he was 17-years-old and had just won the South African Games title. “My amateur career was progressing well and I was fighting and beating the top boxers who were around at the time. I recall one night just after I had won the title there was a knock on our front door and Danie van Zyl, who was the top promoter at the time, was standing there. He offered to send me abroad if I signed with him. However, I turned him down as I wanted to gain more amateur experience."

In 1978 Bennie signed a contract to turn professional with Naas Botha, who headed up the Hugenote Boxing Club where he was a trainer. “My motivation to turn professional was to earn money.

Bennie’s first professional fight took place in February 1979 at the Ellis Park tennis courts in Johannesburg where he won a four-round decision over Solomon Bango. Bennie changed trainers for his second professional fight, joining Willie Toweel’s elite stable. “During my amateur career and while I was boxing in the Defence Force I became very close friends with the late Charlie Weir. We were inseparable pals and when Charlie based himself in Pretoria under the care of the late Billie Lotter, I re-located my base to the capital city and joined forces with Billie in order to train and box alongside Charlie,” Bennie says.

Bennie’s career got off to a flying start. Boxing in the junior welterweight division, he won his first 13 fights on the trot, with five of these wins coming inside the distance. The wins included victories over some of the top junior welterweight fighters of the day. David “Baby Lux” Kambule was outpointed over 10 rounds at the Ellis Park tennis stadium in March 1981 in a fight for the Transvaal welterweight title. The crafty Bramley Whiteboy was outpointed over six rounds in Cape Town in December 1980, as were Hardy Mileham (August) and the legendary Norman “Pangaman” Sekgapane (May). In July 1979 Bennie had ventured to Bulawayo in the then Rhodesia to score a third round KO over the formidable Jimmy Ellis.

His first loss came at the hands of the string-bean Gregory Clark when he dropped an eight-round decision at the West Ridge Park tennis stadium in Durban. Bennie, who was a chunky, nuggety little fighter, was short even for a welterweight and the enormous height and reach advantages of the gangling Clark proved too much for him.

I asked Bennie why, having racked up an excellent record with some top names in it, he had not been given a crack at the South African title. “Billy Lotter was a great trainer and he had one of the top stables in the country with a crop of excellent fighters. This proved to be both an advantage and disadvantage. He had stars in his stable such as Charlie and Kallie Knoetze who were attracting the limelight and the big money. This tended to place me somewhat in their shadows and it was a question of being a bit out of sight, out of mind. However, I was most unlucky as I was offered a shot at Harold Volbrecht’s welterweight crown. I can recall that when we both arrived for the weigh-in Harold still had a tender looking scar over his eye from a cut he sustained in a grueling sparing session with the American, Tyrone Rackley. He was ruled out by the doctor and my one and only opportunity to fight for a South African title went west.”

The failure to secure a South African title fight – which was a travesty in itself – took much of Bennie’s interest and enthusiasm out of the game. His career following the loss to Gregory Clark consisted of only six more fights of which he lost two – points decisions to the highlyrated Ernest Molefe and a return with David “Baby Lux” Kambule – before ending his career with a six-round points win over Terrence Molefe at the Vaal show grounds in Vereeniging in October 1982.

Bennie Nortman’s career sadly ended prematurely - with an outstanding record of 17-3. “My last fight, against Molefe, is one which stands out in my mind as he was the toughest of all my opponents. I remember hitting him flush on the chin with my left hook and he went down as if shot. He hit the canvas and lay prone flat on his back, but amazingly he managed to beat the count and go the distance.

I also fought two very tough and durable customers in my amateur days. They didn’t come much tougher than Thornton Oaks and Bushy Bester, both of whom I beat,” he says.

Bennie looks back on his career with one regret – and that is that he never acquired a crack at the South African title. “However, I would do it all again,” he says somewhat nostalgically. As tough as nails, Bennie never experienced a knock-out loss.

My interview with Bennie was facilitated by African Ring’s publisher, Jeff Ellis, who sat in during our chat. A natural comedian, Bennie had us doubled over in fits of laughter much of the time. “I was never a genius at school and I left after standard five. But I still managed to get a matric,” Bennie says while keeping a straight face. Jeff and I stole a glance at each other which asked the silent question as to whether the punches had taken their toll. “How do you manage to come to that conclusion?” Jeff asked. “That’s simple. I wrote my standard five exams twice – and if you add five and five it comes to 10 – 10 is the matric standard, therefore I must’ve got my matric,” he says with a straight face.

We learnt much about Bennie Nortman in the time we had to chat to him that sadly cannot be reproduced in this story. We discovered that he is a man of deep Christian beliefs and values whose philanthropic side goes well beyond being merely generous. He has a compassionate and humane regard for those less fortunate than him and he told us of certain deeds he carries out in order to make life easier for those who are experiencing hardships. Bennie specifically asked me not to go into detail, and I will respect his wishes. However, it has to be said that here is a person with a huge heart, huge humility and a commendable regard for his fellow beings.