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Boxing | Features

Enoch Nhlapo © Gallo Images

SA boxing down but not out



Boxing was once one of the most exciting and supported sports in South Africa, but the sport’s popularity has declined steadily in recent years.

Boxers like Johnny Ralph, Vic Toweel, Mike Holt, Enoch “Schoolboy” Nhlapo, Nkosana “Happyboy” Mgxaji, Levi Madi and later on Charlie Weir, Gerrie Coetzee and Kallie Knoetze attracted fans in the thousands to their fights, but these days some tournaments attract only a few hundred spectators at most.

Rather sadly in 2016 professional boxing had one of the poorest years in the history of South African boxing, especially on the world scene. However, due the high cost of importing top-class fighters to South Africa and the exchange rate, promoters can only afford to promote fights with the lesser world bodies.

As at April 2017 no South African holds a title from one of the four major organisations.

At present the country only have five International Boxing Organisation champions, and one World Boxing Federation champion, all quality fighters but they are possibly at the end of their careers.

The IBO champions are Simphiwe Khonco (minimumweight), 31, Hekkie Budler (light-flyweight), 29, Moruti Mthalane (flyweight), 35, Gideon Buthelezi, 31, (junior bantamweight) and Malcolm Klassen (junior lightweight), 36,  and the WBF champion Mzuvukile Magwaca (bantamweight) an eight-year pro.

This, however, is not only a South African trend. Worldwide, interest in boxing has slowly declined since the 1990s and today there is a lack of big names in the sport, except for England where boxing is booming.

Famous fighters such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson used to dominate the sport and make front-page news. These days boxing receives very little coverage and reports are tucked away in a small column in the papers.

Another big factor in the lack of interest in the sport is the proliferation of world bodies and number of weight divisions. At one time there were only eight divisions but now there are 17 with 64 or more champions from the WBA, WBC, WBO and IBF.

Some bodies have a super champion, regular champion, champion in recess and an interim champion.

Previously, you could stop almost anybody in the street and ask: “Who is the heavyweight champion of the world?” Most times people knew the answer, whereas today there could be four or more fighters claiming to be “heavyweight champion of the world”.

Due to extensive television coverage there is also the increase of popularity in other sports such as football, golf and tennis, which draw big viewing audiences.

Today world champions may only have one or two fights in a year, whereas in earlier years a fighter like Henry Armstrong had 12 world title fights in one year and one-time world welterweight champion Ted “Kid” Lewis had 29 fights in one year.

Sugar Ray Robinson, one of the great world welterweight and middleweight champions, had 19 fights in one year.

Another factor is that big fights in some countries are only shown on pay-per-view, which can be costly for the ordinary fan. Also, the popularity of mixed martial arts has attracted many fans and taken them away from boxing.

In South Africa the decline in both amateur and professional boxing has been more rapid than the rest of the world due to the attraction of other sports and factors outside the ring.

South African amateur boxing has a proud record in the Olympic Games, having won six gold, four silver and nine bronze medals. However, since readmission to the games in 1992, South Africa has failed to win a medal.

Numerous leading professionals launched their careers through amateur boxing, but with the Olympic-style boxing, the standard of professional boxing has declined.

When a youngster joins the professional ranks he has to learn a completely new style of boxing because of the different rules and regulations.

Amateur boxing receives minimal press coverage. There has been virtually no press coverage on the South African championships in recent years.

Many amateur clubs have become dysfunctional. In earlier years there were about 30 amateur boxing clubs in the Transvaal (now Gauteng), and in the other provinces there were many clubs.

At present there are possibly less than six clubs in Gauteng, and a few others functioning around South Africa.

A press report in July 2011 stating that Boxing South Africa was broke and owed an estimated R8 million to SARS, was bad publicity. Having had about six chief executives since 1998 has also tarnished the image of boxing.

There were also reports from the auditor-general’s office on the “dire financial state” and general maladministration of Boxing SA.

All these reports and allegations, whether true or not, have chased the fans away from boxing. Except for the Eastern Cape and Gauteng, there has been little activity in the provinces in recent years with boxing in Durban and Cape Town just about dormant.

However, I am of the opinion that boxing in South Africa can be turned around on a limited basis despite the competition from other major sports.

This will need a concerted marketing effort by both the amateur and professional controlling bodies to put a plan in place to get the fans back to boxing.

The current state of affairs in South Africa can be rectified if a long-term programme is implemented with government backing to get the amateur code back on the world scene.

I believe that this is possible, as has been shown by Great Britain, who have working programmes in place with financial backing from the lottery and government, which has resulted in them winning medals at the Olympics. As a result they now have numerous world champions in the professional ranks.



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