Olympics boxing used to be the pride of South African sports before the country was barred from the Games in 1962. Lots of boxers meant lots of medals.
Fifty years on, only two boxers are heading to London, carrying the country’s hopes with them.
Ayabonga Sonjica and Siphiwe Lusizi were the only successful boxers out of a team of nine who took part in the Olympic qualifiers in Casablanca, Morocco, in May. The two qualified almost by the skin of their teeth in their divisions at the International Boxing Association (AIBA) event that is held every four years just before the Games. They will be part of the 250 boxers from across the world who will be competing in various divisions.
Even their inclusion in Team South Africa, announced on 6 June, rested on the decision of the board of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc). They had to wait for several weeks to know their fate because their qualifications had been deemed provisional as per AIBA standards.
“It is quite an achievement for South Africa to have qualified two boxers, considering that we were competing against 156 other countries to get into the Games,” said Ernest Sampson, general secretary of the South African National Boxing Organisation (Sanabo).
He added that Casablanca saw 154 boxers from 30 African countries compete against each other to be part of the Olympic quota of 48 for the continent.
“The South African team compared and featured well against more experienced boxers.”
Current performance worrying
The current performance by South Africa’s Olympic boxers, however, is hardly reflective of the stellar performance of past competitors.
Of all the sporting codes in which the country has been represented at past Games, boxing remains the second most lucrative in terms of medals – right behind athletics.
Between the 1930s and 1960s, when the country was allowed to take part in the Games, its boxers brought home as many as 19 medals. This is when the likes of brothers Victor and Willie Toweel, George Hunter and Lawrence Stevens, to name a few, excelled in the sport.
“The South African government of the day put a lot of effort into its international sports participation, despite its flaws,” said Sampson.
With effort from Sascoc and the Department of Sports and Recreation, he said, vast improvements in performance will be achieved as well as better overall standing in world Olympic-style boxing.
It is important to note South Africa’s 30-year hiatus when it was expelled from the Olympics in 1962. The country returned to compete in the Games in 1992, after the policy of apartheid was abolished in 1990 and the UN resolution that had barred it was lifted.
Only two boxers were sent to Barcelona in the first year of reinstatement. The next Games, in Atlanta, saw an improvement in the representation, with five boxers qualifying, and three of them reaching the second round before being knocked out of their competitions. The Sydney event had three qualifiers, as did the 2004 event in Athens.
Jackson Chauke was the only boxer at the last Olympics, in Beijing in 2008, and he was knocked out by Anvar Yunusov of Tajikistan in the first round. He had, however, returned from the previous year’s Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, as well as the All Africa Games of 2006, with silver medals.
Andile Mofu, who is listed as the manager and coach for Sonjica and Lusizi, was quoted at the time as having said: “The Olympics are different and he (Chauke) will come up against good boxers but he will stand his ground and make history.”
The heydays of South African boxing
South Africa’s very first two gold medals in Olympics boxing were won by 18-year-old David Carstens and 19-year-old Stevens in 1932 in Los Angeles. They competed in the light heavyweight and lightweight divisions respectively. A third boxer, 23-year-old Ernest Pierce, received a bronze medal in the same year for his effort in the middleweight division.
The next Olympics in Berlin only saw one medal bagged for South Africa, but the tide turned 12 years later, in 1948, when again multiple medals went to four boxers.
The last two boxing medals to South Africa’s credit were a silver by Daniel Bekker (28) and bronze by 17-year-old William Meyers, and were won in the 1960 Games in Rome.
Despite another peak in good boxing statistics during the 1990s, no South African competitor managed to advance beyond the second round of any division in that decade. The highest number of world champions in history were also produced during this period - six in 1995, five the following year and another six in 1997. In 1998 the number stood at eight, and in 1999 at five world title holders.
One would have thought that with the earlier successes of South African boxers, the 1992 reinstatement of South Africa back into the Olympics would have seen the country take a dominant position in the sport again at the event. It was not to be, however, because twenty years on, the country’s hopes lie on only Sonjica and Lusizi.
“We have started corrective measures in this Olympic cycle with the present team, looking ahead to the next Olympic Games in 2016,” Sampson explained.
Who is in charge?
Sanabo monitors the nine provincial boxing organisations around the country and although each province is responsible for its administrative processes, the national body manages the structures to ensure compatibility with, among other things, AIBA management and governance standards.
“Sanabo is responsible for the training of national referees, judges and coaches, who would have come from all the provinces.”
From a training perspective, the organisation is responsible for the national teams born out of provincial selections, in the different age categories. The teams are put through the high-performance programme Sanabo runs together with Sascoc, with funding from the government.
“The challenge at the moment is that the synergies are not in place, and some of the provincial administrations tend to run their own systems, despite battling infrastructure and compliance challenges.”
All hope is not lost
Sampson conceded that a lack of experience showed in the South African team of boxers in Casablanca, and Ludumo Lamati and Sinethemba Bam, in the coaches’ opinions, should have done better.
A third boxer, Lebogang Pilane, had a narrow loss to the eventual silver medallist of the event. The decision was definitely not in his favour, and if it was, the country could have had three boxers qualifying for the Olympics.
The whole team that took part in the qualifiers will be retained and groomed for the next Olympics. A further 18 young boxers will enter into a training camp during the June/July school holidays, and the final team decided out of that will be selected to represent South Africa at the Africa Zone 6 tournament in December.
“The top boxing country in Africa, as evident from the achievements at the qualifying event, is Morocco,’ said Sampson. “Algeria is a close second, followed by Egypt, Cameroon, Ghana and Tunisia.”
Namibia and Botswana are extremely tough contenders who have engaged international coaches to assist in the preparation of their national teams.
“We have to follow their example and like Morocco, keep and maintain our boxers over a long period of time, over two or three Olympic cycles, continuously engaging them in international competitions.”
World class boxers
The first boxer from South Africa to hold a world title was Victor Toweel. He was still an amateur when he took part in the bantamweight division of the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, but was knocked out of the competition by Argentinian competitor Arnoldo Pares.
Soon after the Games he turned professional, but never took part in the Olympics again.
Brian Mitchell (WBA - 1986, IBF – 1991, junior lightweight)
Mitchell began his career in late 1981. He clinched the WBA super featherweight title in 1986 by knocking out Panamanian Alfredo Layne and went on to defend the title a record 11 times, without losing a title fight. In 2009 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, the only South African on the list.
Dingaan Thobela (WBO - 1990, WBA – 1993, lightweight, WBC middleweight - 2000)
Thobela won the WBO lightweight title in 1990 after beating Mexican Mauricio Aceves , and after defending the belt three times, he relinquished the title. He then went on to challenge American Tony Lopez in 1993, but it was only after a rematch later that year that he took the title. Seven years later, in 2000, Thobela took on WBC super-middleweight title holder Glenn Catley, from England.
Jacob "Baby Jake" Matlala (WBO flyweight - 1993, WBO light flyweight - 1995, IBA junior flyweight- 1997 and WBU junior flyweight -2001)
Baby Jake Matlala became the South African junior flyweight champion after only four contests, having begun his boxing career in 1980. He defeated the Scot Pat Clinton in his hometown Glasgow for the WBO flyweight title. In 1997 it was Michael Carbajal’s turn to suffer defeat at Matlala’s hands, giving the South African the IBA flyweight title. He became the only South African boxer to have won four world titles in a career of 27 stoppages, 54 wins, 12 losses and two draws.
Gerrie Coetzee (WBA heavyweight - 1983)
Although his reign as WBA world heavyweight champion was comparatively brief (September 23, 1983-December 1, 1984) his electrifying world title victory over Michael Dokes is a cherished milestone in the annals of South African boxing.
Corrie Sanders (WBO heavyweight – 2003)
Sanders began his boxing career in 1989, and went on to enjoy 23 more bouts in which he remained undefeated, until a May 1994 fight that ended the streak. To date, his record impresses with 46 fights of which only four were lost.
His 2003 WBO heavyweight title came when he defeated Ukranian Wladimir Klitschko.
Cassius Baloyi (IBF super featherweight - 2005 and 2008)
Baloyi turned professional in 1994, but it would be another 11 years before he would win the IBF Super Featherweight title in 2005 with a TKO win over Mexican Manuel Medina. He was named “Boxer of the Year” at the 2008 Boxing South Africa Annual Awards.
Other notable South African boxers who enjoyed the international limelight include Pierre Coetzer, Mike Schutte, Kallie Knoetze and Jimmy Abbott.