Last Friday night, a women’s boxing tournament should have taken place at the Thohoyandou town hall in Limpopo. Promoted by Mpho Khorommbi, a former lightweight boxer and local Don King-type personality, the event never happened. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of rands were lost, and a boxer who had flown in from Hungary was left without an opponent.
Judges, who had come from East London, had nine phantom bouts over which to officiate. Between 600 and 700 patrons were expected in the town hall, with men paying R100 a ticket and women getting in for free. Eagerly awaited, the jamboree never happened.
The whys and the wherefores of the cancellation — Khorommbi alleges collusion between the SABC, which was due to broadcast the event, and a second promoter, whom they appointed against his wishes — are less significant than what it tells us about the sport.
With cancelled bouts, nonpayment of boxers and the failure of promoters to lodge purses with Boxing South Africa (BSA) regular events, boxing is on its hands and knees, barely managing to crawl into the proverbial third round.
Legal action against the SABC by recently emigrated promoters, mismanagement by the statutory authority, BSA, and a lack of direction and sponsorship money signal generalised decline.
One industry observer who didn’t want to be named said: “In 10 years, I don’t think that BSA have received one unqualified audit.”
Former television commentator turned promoter Dicksy Ngqula has left a string of unpaid debts running into hundreds of thousands of rands with the collapse of his so-called Premier Boxing League, and the doyen of local promoters, Rodney Berman, is so disenchanted with the industry that some of his tournaments happen in Monaco, with four a year taking place locally at Emperor’s Palace.
Once was the time in the 1980s when provinces would compete to see who could put on small professional shows every month of the year. In venues in towns as nondescript as Stanger, Verulam, Queenstown, Wolmaranstad and Welkom, boxing took place where assorted Bushys, Zebulons, Alladins and Obeds invariably punched the living shit out
of each other, with the snap of competition being heard in all divisions. King Korn sponsored it all, bouts were shown on the public broadcaster and the sport was in rude health.
Last week, the South African Olympic team arrived back from Rio with 10 medals in their green and gold luggage. Not so long ago and that luggage would have contained medals won in boxing, historically a rich seam of gold for South Africa at the Olympics.
Not any more. In 2016 South Africa couldn’t muster a single Rio boxer, let alone one who could realistically compete for a medal. Here is a sport in almost laughable disarray.
BSA is an anomaly in the local sporting scene because, unlike, say, cricket or rugby, it deals with neither national teams nor grassroots development. It is primarily a sanctioning and licensing body, licensing boxers themselves, trainers, managers and promoters.
It is an anomaly in a second sense, in that the oversight of boxing is promulgated by an Act of Parliament.
Boxing is the only sport in this country that falls under the minister of sport. The minister appoints the BSA chief executive — the newly ensconced Tsholofelo Lejaka — as well as the board.
he chief executive’s position at BSA has been a veritable revolving door in recent years, with the position being occupied by Krish Naidoo, Dumile Mateza, Mava Malla, Thabo Moseki, Bongani Khumalo, Moffat Qithi and Loyiso Mtya, who left the sport in disgrace because he was suspended, and then couldn’t help himself and attended a tournament. When asked why, he replied that he had “forgotten”.
This is the very board that seems powerless to prevent the kind of serial shenanigans that unfolded in Limpopo last week.
In an interview, Khorommbi said he was consulting his lawyers and taking his complaint to the minister. “I am not a corrupt man,” he said. “I lost maybe R100 000 because of this mess.”
Lejaka, the new BSA chief executive, accepts that cancelled tournaments like the one in Thohoyandou do not reflect well on his organisation.
He said: “We will not leave this lying [down]. We will be looking into it,” adding that he was aware the sport was nowhere near reaching its full potential.
At much the same time as the Thohoyandou tournament was unravelling, the World Rowing Championships were taking place in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. South Africa was well represented in the lower half of the championships, with 10 boats competing in either the under-23 or the junior (under-19) divisions.
“Of significance,” wrote Paolo Cavalieri, the president of Rowing South Africa (RowSA) in an email exchange last week, “is that we have an under-19 women’s eight in the water in Rotterdam. This is a first for South Africa and a shot in the arm for women’s rowing in our country. We do not expect them to medal but they will provide us with a foundation for Tokyo and beyond.”
Without being too crude about it, rowing is everything boxing is not. It has remained positively Olympian in its detachment from the messier currents of political life in this country and simply got on with the back-breaking work of producing future medallists in four and eight years’ time.
Key to this is Roger Barrow, RowSA’s head coach. Barrow is a driven, mildly eccentric and decidedly beneath-the-radar kind of guy. He has described some of his male rowers as “freaks”, given that they don’t always conform to the ideal ergonomic outline of what constitutes the international ideal for an Olympic medallist.
His training regimes have involved pushing his Olympic squad into the cold water of Lesotho’s Katse Dam three times a day. Barrow is a dedicated, hard-working man. He expects the same from his rowers.
Even given RowSA’s comparative health, their Olympic performance was disappointing. Only Laurence Brittain and Shaun Keeling won a medal in Rio (a silver), and two top-ranked crews won their semifinal heat but didn’t get a medal.
This said, the sport exudes direction and self-confidence. Rand Merchant Bank’s sponsorship of the sport (with an associated television, film and YouTube campaign) has raised its profile considerably.
Far from prying eyes, it functions a world away from the situation just after the 2012 London Olympics when the federation was so cash-strapped it was selling its own boats.
Compare its good governance and ability to sidestep political interference with boxing’s increasingly punch-drunk lurch through the years.
Here’s a sport that is technically alive. Listen closely, however, and there’s no heartbeat.