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Dingaan Thobela the Enigma by Ron Jacson

Fairy tales do come true, the song goes, but not often in real life, but for Dingaan ‘The Rose of Soweto’ Thobela the dream did come true on three occasions when he won three world titles.

Coming from a middle-class family in Soweto’s Chiawelo suburb where he was born on September 1, 1966, Dingaan learnt from an early age how to defend himself. “My father wanted me to be able to defend myself without a panga or a knife, so he taught me how to box.”

It was from this early stage that he dreamt of becoming a world champion like his heroes Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, and it was not long afterward that he joined Soweto trainer Norman Hlabane who guided him through an outstanding amateur career with only one defeat in more than 70 fights.

The son of a panel-beater, Dingaan was forced to move in with his aunt when things became a bit overcrowded in their little matchboxlike home.

Thobela was always close and accessible to his army of fans, which often proved to be detrimental to his preparation for major bouts in his career. He says however, “I like being with people and they like being near me.

Dingaan is proud of his roots and the well-spoken handsome fighter matriculated and studied at the Soweto Teachers Training College, but decided to put his studies aside while he pursued his boxing career. He is a natural athlete and also played football and is a useful squash player. Like a lot of fighters Thobela is fascinated by fast cars as he drives around in one of the latest flashy cars of the day.

Dingaan’s paid debut was at Eldorado Park in June 1986 when he outpointed Quinton Ryan over four rounds, and after a couple more wins he came up against local boy Peter Mpikashe in Durban. He appeared to have won well enough, but the hometown judges made it a draw.

Then in 1988 he won four in row and the boxing writers were beginning to take note of this slick moving and skilful young fighter as he was voted South African ‘Prospect of the Y ear’.

Brimful of confidence he outboxed most of his opponents with a straight left jab and closing with bursts of combination punches, as he went on to win the South African junior lightweight title from hometown favourite Mpisekhaya Mbaduli in Port Elizabeth and in 1990 received the prestigious K ing K orn Boxer of the Y ear award.

Thobela joined Barberton promoter Thinus Strydom and scored a string of victories over imported opposition including three former Brian Mitchell opponents, Daniel Londas, whom he narrowly edged out over ten rounds, Daniel Cabrera, whom he completely outclassed in three rounds, and Felipe Orozco whom he stopped in sensational fashion in the tenth and last round after trailing behind. Due to international commitments and increasing weight Thobela relinquished the South African title and moved up to the lightweight division.

In his first fight outside South Africa he came up against reigning WBO lightweight champion, Mexican Mauricio Aceves in a non-title bout in Biloxi, Mississippi and was most impressive when he scored an eighth round stoppage.

Five months later in September 1990 in a return match with the Mexican title holder, Thobela realized his dream when in Brownsville, Texas he showed tremendous courage to survive extreme heat and humidity to take the title from a more motivated champion, on points. Thobela defended his WBO belt on two occasions, the first in San Jose, California against the durable Mario Martinez and then in September 1991 against the number one rated Antonio Rivera.

He relinquished the WBO belt in June 1992 to challenge for the more prestigious WBA lightweight belt held by Tony Lopez.

Going into the Lopez’s hometown in Sacramento, USA in February 1993 at the Arco Arena, Thobela fought the best fight of his career and on the night was the better man, but the judges thought otherwise and awarded the decision to the champion. Jim Jenkins of the Sacramento Bee had the South African ahead by four points, as did Jack Fiske of the San Francisco Chronicle.

After the unsatisfactory ending Thobela’s promoter Rodney Berman demanded a return which was set at Sun City on June 26, 1993. Thobela won the WBA lightweight title on his second attempt by beating Lopez on points over 12 rounds before 7300 partisan fans in the Sun City Superbowl with the judges voting unanimously for Thobela. However, the fight was a lot closer and many thought the South African was fortunate to take the decision. With this victory Thobela joined Brian Mitchell as only the second South African to become a two-time title holder.

Making the first defence of his belt on October 30, 1993 at the National Exhibition Centre in Johannesburg Thobela was outpointed by Russian southpaw, Orzubek Nazarov in what can only be described as a subdued and flatfooted performance by the defending champion.

Thobela blamed friction in his camp and promoter Gerrie Coetzee for his below standard performance. A dispute over the promotional rights to Thobela resulted in Coetzee having Thobela evicted from his hotel on the morning of the fight. There were rumours that Thobela had weakened himself making the weight.

The return match with Nazarov in March 1994 at the Carousel near Hammanskraal was a disaster when Thobela well beaten over 12 rounds and it looked if his career had come to an end when he lost a dull eight rounder to Carl Taylor in Birmingham in his next fight.

Moving up to junior welterweight in 1995 Thobela got his career back on track with five victories all inside the distance and in the following year his good form continued when he stopped both Booker Kidd and Wayne Boudreaux inside the distance. However, in November 1996 weighing in at a flabby 67,70kg Thobela was knocked out for the first time in his career when unheralded Englishman Geoff McCreesh put him down and out in the second round. In his next fight Thobela lost a point’s decision to Willie Wise and at the age of thirty most critics wrote him off, but this talented fighter would prove them wrong.

Fighting the battle the bulge Thobela only had three fights in 1998 and 1999 and possible he reached an all time low when weighed in at 75.70kg for the IBO welterweight title clash against Walter Daneff. Even though Thobela won the fight he was unable to claim the belt.

Moving up to super middleweight Thobela won a close decision over Soon Botes in February 2000 and in his next fight became the first South African to contest a WBC title in South Africa when he challenged Glen Catley for the WBC super middleweight belt at Carnival City, Brakpan on September 1, 2000.

Coming into the fight only a few weeks short of his thirty-forth birthday Thobela looked a bit podgy around the waist and with both men boxing from behind a tight defence the fight lacked excitement through eleven rounds.

Going into round twelve, Catley only needed to win the round to clinch the decision and retain his belt. Thobela started the round strongly and touched the canvas after a haymaker from the champion, but the referee ruled it as a slip. Catley continued to press forward and was well on his way to winning the round before Thobela caught him with a swinging right hand that had him out on his feet, followed by a wild left that merely helped the champion to the canvas.

Somehow Catley got up, but he had nothing left and seconds later a smashing right had him down again. He managed to stagger up on wobbly legs but the referee stepped to call the fight off with only seven seconds remaining in the round. The dramatic ending sent the home crowd into frenzy on a historic occasion with Thobela becoming a “world” champion for the third time.

Unfortunately this was to be the last golden moment in Thobela’s career, as he lost the title less than four months later when he was beaten by Canada’s Davey Hilton.

From there on it was downhill losing his next four fights in a row and in his last fight in December 2003 weighing in as a light heavyweight he lost on points over six rounds to the Dane, Martin Nielsen an eight fight novice.

Arguably Thobela who had a career record of 40-12- 2 (26) is the finest natural talent seen in South Africa over the past 30 years, but unfortunately he lacked dedication and always had a battle with the scales.