More than just fisticuffs

”You must remember no boxer comes from Houghton,” says the chubby figure hunched beside me. We’re at glitzy Emperors Palace in Kempton Park for the Damocles Boxing Tournament. On the bill are five professional bouts, including a contest for the vacant International Boxing Organisation (IBO) lightweight world title.

It’s my first ringside experience and my anonymous mentor is keen to impart free lessons about the fight game. He has a lisping Afrikaans accent and wears blue jeans, a grey floral shirt and a gold necklace.

”My friend, boxing is never just about the titles or awards. These are ghetto kids fighting to change their lives,” he says.

Looking at the night’s contenders I decide he may have a point. Former four-time world champion Zolani Morali hails from Mdantsani, a township near East London in the Eastern Cape. Tshepang Mohale is from Sebokeng in the Vaal Triangle. He faces a Boksburg native, Tommy ”the Tommy gun” Oosthuizen, for the WBA Pan African super middleweight title. And so the pattern of less-affluent roots repeats itself across the line-up.

The air is thick with thumping music and chants from the back seats. Groups of fans have been bused in to support their favourite fighters or gym mates.

There’s a cluster of blue and white T-shirts that bear Oosthuizen’s face. But the loudest screams come from Malawian devotees of Isaac Chilembe. He’ll be facing Congolese Doudou Ngumbu in what pundits have called a ”torrid fight” for the WBC international light heavyweight title.

Meanwhile, in the VIP seats are former world champions like ”the Rose of Soweto”, Dingaan Thobela. He’s accompanied by his wife and children. They’re dolled up and shimmering, as though they’re attending a ballet night at the theatre. There’s also ”the little big man” Baby Jake Matlala, who wears an ever-present grin and a suit that only accentuates how short he is.

Apart from the ringside girls in skimpy pants and high heels, the night’s electricity is generated by two encounters in particular.

The Chilembe-Ngumbu bout is the only one to drag on till the scheduled 12th round. It’s a lesson in the art of controlled rage.
Ngumbu, the defending champ, packs a killer right punch and Chilembe knows he must stay fast and clear of it. But blood and spit still hit the floor. You almost don’t want to look, but can’t afford to miss a thing.

It’s part of the ecstasy. And it comes to pass that Chilembe wins on points. Proof that speed and wits are rewarded.

In the next bout Morali marches to the ring wearing the most peculiar costume of the night. Black satin trunks, a robe with maroon trimmings and a hood that looks like a blinged-up version of kwaito music star Mzekezeke’s mask. ”The Untouchable” Morali also sports a goatee and a single dangling lock of hair on the side of his head — all that remains of his shorn dreads. The rest is a dyed blond mat.

But Morali might not be ”untouchable” for long. My self-appointed brawl analyst explains that the former champ has everything to prove: ”He’s coming to the square jungle with a monkey on his back,” he tells me. Morali recently lost his IBO junior lightweight belt to Korean Ji Hoon Kim right here at Emperors Palace. Word on the street is that he is a spent force.

Against him is steady, intense-looking Mlungisi ”The Shark” Dlamini. He’s ushered to the ring to the sounds of Bob Marley’s Iron Lion Zion and carries with him what my ringside mentor calls ”the sour promise” of ending Morali’s chance of international stardom.

Watching Morali and Dlamini exchanging steam is at once violent and beautiful. By the third round Morali hugs more than he punches. Eager beaver next to me points out that ”it’s hard to score — no one is landing”. But, out of nowhere, Dlamini lands a ferocious right straight to Morali’s chin. The thud sends the whole arena gasping. Morali goes to his knees, and then he is face first on the canvas. Finished!

Rolling with the punches

The presence of fathers in the corner during a boxer’s fight is responsible for most fatalities in the sport. This emerged when the World Boxing Council (WBC) recently announced that a new committee in California will examine ring deaths and serious injuries in the sport.

WBC governor Rex Walker told that there is a danger of fathers living out their own dreams through their sons.

”They transform from the corner to the kid, and they want to stay in the fight — but they’re not the ones getting hit.”

According to the report, the organisation already has a rule that banishes fathers from being in their sons’ corner but it was not being enforced.

While the WBC debates the need for a new body to prevent death in the ring, South African boxing faces its own safety controversy.

Last Saturday Zolani Morali fought an IBO lightweight world title match in contravention of a mandatory 90-day rest period, which was imposed after his knockout by Korean Ji Hoon Kim on September 12 2009.

Local commentator Bongani Magasela described the flouting of the fight game rules as a ”betrayal” of Morali. But Morali’s trainer, Collin Nathan, defended the decision to fight claiming there were no health risks. The so-called ”punishment index”, which measures the severity of injury incurred during a fight, was allegedly not submitted to the relevant authorities after the September bout.

Meanwhile, David Haye has been trying to wind up Nikolai Valuev with sneering, but the Russian has gone about his preparation for their world heavyweight title fight on Saturday night in Nuremberg with a haughty indifference wholly in keeping with his size, writes Kevin Mitchell.

The Londoner’s barbs have bounced off the 2.1m WBA champion like biplanes off King Kong — and now his German backers are hitting back.

First, they put their visitors into a hotel Haye described as ”very, very basic to say the least and in the middle of nowhere”. So they booked out — and into one of the best hotels in town, Le Meridien Grand.

Then, in this prettiest of Bavarian cities, the local promoters seriously disturbed the peace when they demanded Haye be in the ring on Saturday at 7.30pm South African time, half an hour earlier than agreed.

Despite all the shenanigans, sentiment and patriotism have made Haye a 4-7 favourite with British bookmakers.

Haye’s antics — a limp imitation of Muhammad Ali’s gorilla-doll taunts of Joe Frazier in the Thrilla In Manila in 1975 — made no impression on Valuev.

Nor did the suggestion that Haye was trying to further give the impression he is the new Ali by posing for a mock-up photo in Wednesday’s UK Sun, sparring under water just as Ali did for the cover of Life magazine in 1961. (Ali couldn’t swim.)

”I have no feelings regarding his behaviour,” Valuev said. ”I don’t know what he’s doing. But, if he wants to make me angry, he isn’t. I will fight my fight. Haye will get everything back in the ring. That will be my answer to him.”

As the insults from Haye continue, the big man from St Petersburg looks as emotionally and physically immovable as ever. — Percy Mabandu and Guardian News & Media 2009


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Percy Mabandu
Percy Mabandu is an art historian and freelance writer based in The city of Tshwane.

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