In 1979, I attended a well-known Afrikaans High school in East London. I was fifteen, fit and chosen to represent the Border division (which is the region East London fell under) in the South African Boxing Championships that were held in Cape Town. My club was proud of me. I was a junior and fighting in the under sixteen extra heavyweight category. Being taller than my peers and slim but strong, I always ended up fighting older opponents. Most were seniors and much heavier than me. Amateur boxing regulations didn’t allow this, but my age and category held no challenge for me. My dad went along with my decision.
I’m convinced my father was proud of me then, even though he never voiced it. Neither did he ever show it. It was merely that glint in his eyes gave him away. Two months prior to the South African Boxing Championships in Cape Town, a boxing tournament was held in East London. I needed time in the boxing ring, and was matched against a much older and more experienced boxer. He was tough and loaded body punches like a locomotive.
My coach refused to allow this arrangement, but my dad had the final say and the boxing bout went ahead. That evening I was pummeled into defeat and lost the fight. It was one of the very few defeats I suffered during my boxing career. My dad’s response was to punish me. I had to walk home. It was a twenty-kilometre walk.
‘Use the time to think about why you lost that fight. Plan your strategy for when you have to fight another one like that,’ were his merciless words to me as he left me standing outside the club.
For the next few weeks, I was forced to train early every morning. My dad would wake me in before sunrise and we would drive away from the town before he dropped me next to the highway. I can still hear his parting words as he left me next to the highway every morning during this time. ‘Move it boy, you have three hours before school starts. Don’t be late.’
Many a morning I puked from the foul emission fumes coming from the myriad busses and taxis passing me as I ran alongside the highway. But, I never quitted. Dogged, I ran and ran.
July 1979, and the Border Boxing Squad were ready for Cape Town. We travelled by train. The day before we left, my dad met me at a spot in town. He said we’ll have to go somewhere. He took me to a shoe store and bought me my first pair of casual shoes; it was a pair of brown Grasshoppers. I only wore school shoes and the rest of time I was barefoot.
The greatest treat, though, was the pair of Olympic boxing boots he bought. I will never forget the colour. It was blue with red stripes. The previous pair was hand-me-downs from a senior boxer at our club, who retired after being knocked out in two fights.
I was overjoyed and excited about my shoes, my boxing boots, and the upcoming Cape Town trip. During our drive home, my father told me he could not see me off the next day at the station, and that I should know by now what to do in Cape Town. I understood exactly what he meant.
Arriving in Cape Town, we discovered that there were five other extra heavyweights in my weight division. They were all from different provinces. I fought two on the Friday at the start of the tournament and won both fights.
The fight following my last victory that Friday evening was between the other two heavy weights in my weight division. My coach and I keenly watched the fight. The winner would be my opponent in the final round of the tournament. I studied his strategy and memorised his technique.
I was worried about my upcoming last fight in the tournament, but my coach encouraged me and said I there was no need to worry. I didn’t believe him. I felt pressurised as I ended up being the only boxer in our Border Squad that had reached the finals.
Saturday night dawned. My bout was the last fight of the championships, which stretched my nerves to the end of its tether. I don’t remember much of the fight, except that I had won. As my hand was raised as the winner, I looked across the ring and spotted my coach, a tough old school, no nonsense ex-boxer. Tears were running down his cheeks. I was announced as the new South African Junior Extra Heavyweight Champion.
Back in East London, for a while, I enjoyed my celebrity status. I featured in some of the regional newspapers, sporting photos of myself and my coach on the sports pages.
Today, of course, I appreciate the award, but as a youngster aged fifteen, the full implication of it all escaped my mind totally. Turnbull Park, East London, was known as the railway sports institution. It was the hub of our railway community. Besides boxing, badminton, soccer, darts, pool and snooker were also actively pursued. A pub and library was part of Turnbull Park and both were equally popular. One thing that boggled my mind was the fact that my school never acknowledged my achievement at all. Then again, I suppose, for them, I was still from the wrong side of the tracks.
Railway rubbish were the demeaning words used to describe the kids living in the railway community. I was called that frequently during my youth by the parents of kids that did not live in our community. The last time I was called that, it was the mother of my second ex-wife, and I was already an adult. She called me a railway rubbish when she heard that I was getting married to her daughter. When her daughter gave her the news that we intended getting married, a big argument ensued between them, whilst I was standing in the kitchen of her house. I overheard my mother-in-law to be say that myself, my family, my mom, sisters and brother were all railway rubbishes. We definitely did not move in the same circles and she hardly knew my family. All she knew about me was what she found out second hand when she asked around. The extent of her knowledge was that I came not from a wealthy family and that I was not a millionaire. It resulted in her not being invited to the wedding until the day before it took place, and only because I gave in to my mom and sisters’ begging. It would not be fair to the bride to not have her mother present, they said. The woman attended.
As a youngster, I quickly learnt that in life, once you are known, you will be challenged from all sides. At this stage of my life and being an SA Champion boxer, a few old ex-heavyweight boxers from the Border region started training again. All of them wanted to have a go at me in the boxing ring. I was still a scholar as far as boxing was concerned and these were experienced men that wanted my blood. My trainer was not impressed, but he allowed me to fight one of the old has been heavyweights. The fight took place at a tournament held at my boxing club one Saturday evening. The guy I was fighting against, was by far my senior. He was 32 years old and had retired from boxing 5 years prior. He was a known heavy weight in his time and certainly not a novice. I suppose he wanted to prove something to himself by making a comeback and show that he can beat a youngster despite his age and having been retired for quite some time vis-à-vis boxing. He was big built and the stagnant years after his retirement had not done his body any favours either. He told everybody who wanted to listen that he had been training for two months every day for the boxing match between us. My trainer knew him and told me he was a fighter, not a boxer, and that I should be careful as in his days he was known for his dirty tactics, like head butting, hitting below the belt and kidney punches.
To me, it was simply another fight. Throughout my boxing career, I never worried about the name I was fighting against. Once I stepped into the ring, it was just a question of me working at outsmarting and out punching my opponent. As usual, during every fight at the end of every round, I listened to the valued advice of my trainer. During this particular fight, his advice was that I must not allow my opponent to tie me up in a clinch. I did what I was told to do, and I boxed him instead of fighting him. As I had the height and reach advantage, I kept him away from me by throwing constant long jabs. At the end of the first round, he was bleeding from both his nose and mouth. During the second round, I noticed he was fading. He stood flat footed in the ring and it seemed his stamina had reached its limits.
I started throwing harder and harder body punches and that was the end of him. He kept on spitting his gum guard out to breathe better. He, of course, knew that the referee had to stop the fight so that he could retrieve his gum guard and then have his corner men put it back into his mouth. Each time he did it, he gained a few seconds of rest. All of it was just another trick by an old dog at this game.
When the bell sounded for the start of the third round, he did not come out of his corner. His trainer showed the referee that they were retiring by throwing the towel into the ring. I felt a tinge of sorrow for him then as he had tried, but it was clear his boxing days were something of the past, never to be reached again.
I was also still playing rugby for my school and in a game on the Wednesday I sprained my right wrist badly. There was a boxing tournament that Saturday in a town called Queenstown about 200km from East London and they again matched me against a senior boxer from that town. I did not want to withdraw from the fight or say anything to my trainer about the injury because if the word reached my dad he would of told me to quit rugby as he warned me before that if I get injured in rugby that it would be the end of that sport for me. I went and boxed that Saturday night. My wrist was so badly sprained that I could not make a fist. I won the fight with my left hand and blamed the sprained wrist on the fight. The article in the sports section of the newspaper was not so kind with the head line reading “Narrow points win for Els”. I had a title and with that came the criticism if you did not perform.