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RSR Remembers Boxing Champion Dingaan Thobela (1966 – 2024)

By Donald “Braveheart” Stewart

As South Africa face an election year, when the African National Congress (ANC) a party who has been in power since the demise of Apartheid faces a difficult future as a government, it looks very much in need of a hero. Having had the global superstar who was Nelson Mandela, the ANC and South Africa feels like a nation short on the types of role models who can inspire the young and let them know that their hopes and dreams for the future can be realized.

Dingaan Thobela, 40-14-2, 26 KOs, who fought at four weight divisions and won WBO and WBA lightweight and WBC super-middleweight titles in his long career, unfortunately is no longer able to fulfil that role, having passed away on the 19th of April 2024. Born in the thick of Apartheid, in 1966, in the township of Soweto, which became a fervent hotbed of resistance to the regime of the time, he will have known the vagaries of both poverty and racism.

Initially he wanted to study to become a teacher, however his pugilistic firepower obviously blew that away and he stuck to the craft for which he was to become increasingly famous. It was perhaps fortunate that he was an active professional during a time that being a professional boxer in South Africa was on the horizon of the entire sport.

His amateur career was a stellar one as it is believed that he fought over 80 times, recording only 3 losses. The “Rose of Soweto” clearly became a hero in his own town. Managing to box towards the tail end of Apartheid when black boxers were allowed to compete.

In 1986, he turned over and made his debut against Quinton Ryan on the 28th of June in Johannesburg, recording a 4 round points win. On the 7th of March 1988, in Orkney, he stopped Gerald Isaac for the Transvaal super featherweight title, and then went one better than the regional belt by winning the South African super featherweight championship when he stopped Mpisekhaya Mbaduli in the 8th round of a scheduled 12, in Port Elizabeth on the 1st of October 1988.

Four years in as a professional, he was to face Mauricia Aceves for the WBO lightweight title in Brownsville on the 22nd of September, winning by way of split decision. He successfully defended it on 2 occasions – on the 2nd of March 1991, in San Jose widely, on points, against Mario Martinez, on the 14th of September 1991, in Johannesburg, against Antonio Rivera, in a closer points victor.

Eventually he relinquished the belt to face the WBA lightweight champion, Tony Lopez. In what became a points loss which was vigorously contested, on the 12th of February 1993, in Sacramento.

He rematched and made no mistake in Sun City, on the 26th of June of the same year, when he took the title on points.

His first defense, in Hammanskaal on the 19th of March 1993, against Orzubek Nazarov, saw Thobela struggle with the weight. He lost on points, then rematched Nazarov and again lost on the 30th of October 1993 in Johannesburg.

Building back into contention saw Thobela a little out in the cold and when he drew against Carlos Manuel Baldomir on the 28th of October 1998 in Johannesburg, for the WBC international belt, people were not expecting what was to come. First, he stopped Walter Adrian Daneff on the 7th round of their contest on the 6th of March 1999, once more in Johannesburg, slated to fight for the IBO title. Unfortunately, he lost that fight on the scales and though he won he was unable to lift a title. He also lost a majority decision against Cornelius Carr on the 31st of October 1999 for the WBF middleweight title.

Then Thobela moved up in weight and found himself in another world title fight, in 2000, he took on the super middleweight WBC belt holder, Glenn Catley on the 1st of September in Brakpaan.

Winning with a 12th round knockout, Thobela was king of a division once again. He was behind on two of the three scorecards, whilst drawing on the third. He had gone into that final round needing a knockout – and actually got one!

Once again, however, he was to lose his crown at the first defense. This time he lost on a split decision when he faced Dave Hilton on the 15th of December 2000 in Montreal by split decision.
Decline was writ large as he came back into the ring, fought and lost no fewer than five times as his career was looking less and less sustainable at this lofty level. But the caliber of opponent now included fights with Eric Lucas in 2001 when he was stopped in the 8th round in Montreal, Mikkel Kessler in 2002, when he went the distance but lost on points in Frederiksberg and Lucian Bute in 2004, when he was stopped in the 4th round in Montreal so there was little by way of embarrassment in terms of who he continued to face.

What was more embarrassing was whoever sanctioned his comeback at the age of 40 when he challenged Soon Botes for the South African light heavyweight title on the 27th of October 2006. It had been six years since they had last fought – for the South African middleweight title, in Johannesburg in 2006 – and Thobela made it one each when he was unable to come out for the 10th round and retired on his stool.

And so, he finally did retire from the ring.

At the end of this year, it shall be 30 years since the end of Apartheid rule in South Africa, though Thobela shall not see it. On the 29th of April he was found dead after what has been described as a period of illness. It is a measure of the fighter that the announcement was formally made by the ministry of sports. He was 57. Their sport minister, Zizi Kodwa, was widely quoted, as saying: “As we celebrate 30 years of South African democracy, we mourn the loss of an athlete who did so much to elevate South African sport through his success in boxing. We also celebrate a champion boxer who inspired the nation, future boxers and champions from Soweto, Mdantsane, Thohoyandou and other parts of the country.” And for once it is hard to argue with a politician.

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