Sport

KING OF THE RING

East London’s ‘Special One’ boxing giant Sive Nontshinga recalls tough road to glory

East London’s ‘Special One’ boxing giant Sive Nontshinga recalls tough road to glory
Sivenathi 'Special One' Nontshinga fights against Hector Flores in their IBF light flyweight world championship bout in Hermosillo, Mexico, on 3 September 2022. (Photo: Luis Gutierrez / Norte Photo / Getty Images)

Sive Nontshinga regained his world title from Mexico’s Adrian Curiel in February. The victory is just another stepping stone for him.

Life is a collection of puzzle pieces that come together to paint a vivid picture. For better or worse, we are all moulded by a series of events that steer our lives in a certain direction and ultimately dictate the type of footprint we all leave behind in the world. Some are within our control, but most are not.

For two-time International Boxing Federation (IBF) light flyweight champion Sivenathi “Special One” Nontshinga, who spent a significant number of his formative years living in townships in East London, this is also true.

If he had not been forced to leave his quiet and secluded rural village in the Eastern Cape after his grandmother fell ill, Nontshinga would not be where he is right now. Had he not moved to Duncan Village, where he was regularly bullied before eventually choosing to fight back, he might not have scaled the heights of boxing that he has.

He would not have met his dear childhood friend Oyintando Marhewu, who rescued him from his tormentors one day and then convinced him to join the local boxing gym. He was just seven years old at the time.

Where it all began

“I fell in love with boxing when I was seven years old, when I was in Grade 1. They used to have tournaments in the township, so I used to go there,” Nontshinga told Daily Maverick.

“I was new to town and I’d come from a rural area. My parents had left me there with my grandmother, but she started to fall [ill], so my parents took me and I had to start all over again. New school, make new friends, new everything,” Nontshinga said.

“I was too soft for the environment. It was an informal settlement. Everything that was happening there was hectic – crime, violence, drugs. Everything.”

The youngster found solace in the local gym, where boxing was a popular pastime. After some convincing from his new friend, Nontshinga finally paid a visit to the gym, forever altering his life’s journey.

“[Oyintando] is the first person that saw [that I had potential as a boxer], even way before I started it or even thought about it. He was a boxer as well, so he took me to the local gym. Then I fell in love with it,” reminisced the 26-year-old.

Towards the end of his primary school career, Nontshinga’s family once again moved house, this time to Newlands, which is near Mdan­tsane. At first he was livid about having to start all over again and losing contact with his best friend.

Since cellphones were not as common back then as they are now, he and Marhewu kept in touch intermittently on Facebook. Then, as Nontshinga moved closer to turning professional, after what he estimates to be almost 400 amateur bouts, they reconnected.

With life having pulled them in different directions, it was their love of boxing that kept them close. Marhewu could not have been prouder when Non­tshinga took part in – and won – his first professional fight in mid-2017, defeating Sandile Wessels by a technical knockout (TKO).

Marhewu was able to see his friend gradually climb the ladder and garner more recognition in the country. He witnessed Nontshinga capturing the vacant African light flyweight title by a TKO in the ninth round against Tisetso Modisadife in October 2018.

Nontshinga continued his impressive run early in his career, remaining unbeaten until the world had no choice but to take notice.

In April 2021 he was pitted against Filipino Christian Araneta. Nontshinga held his nerve to claim victory by unanimous decision, taking his professional record to 10 wins, no defeats.

Tragedy strikes

But a few months after that historic win, the boxer’s friend and former protector, Marhewu, died in a shack fire, aged just 22.

It was a crushing loss for the Special One, especially because his friend would not see him finally conquer the world. To this day Nontshinga remains grateful for his fateful encounter with Marhewu.

“He still means a lot to me. Meeting him changed my life completely, because now I’m a boxer. And he saw the skills and the ability that I didn’t know I had at the time,” Non­tshinga said.

“He kept me in check. He made sure that I improved, each and every day. He pushed me as if he knew that somewhere, somehow, he’s going to leave me,” he added.

“That… changed my life forever. Now it’s feeding my family, so he’s a very important person to me. He was like a brother…

“It was a beautiful journey. But sometimes I wish he was beside me, now that I’m achieving such greatness.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cape Peninsula township boxer wants to train ‘the next Tyson’ in quest for contenders

This greatness includes defeating Adrian Curiel in the 10th round during their rematch on 16 February. The victory resulted in the South African regaining the IBF light flyweight title that the Mexican had prised from him in November 2023 by a second-round knockout.

Before that loss to Curiel, the first and only one of his professional career to date, Nontshinga had held the belt since 2022, after beating Curiel’s compatriot, Hector Flores, to initially claim the world title.

Other pieces of the puzzle

Fellow East London boxers Gabula “Slashing Tiger” Vabaza, as well as the likes of Simpiwe “V12” Vetyeka and Zolani Tete, were a major inspiration to Nontshinga’s lofty ambitions when he was still an amateur.

But there was another person who played a pivotal role in making him the man he is today: His father, Thembani Gopheni.

Gopheni was known to unleash some lethal haymakers himself in his heyday. However, because he was consigned to the rural Eastern Cape, opportunities to mount the boxing ladder and turn professional were minimal. That didn’t stop him from backing his son’s hopes of dominating the ring, though.

Even when, between 2014 and 2017, Non­tshinga left boxing to dabble in “all the silly stuff” that happens in township environments, his father and mother Phindiwe Nontshinga were supportive.

“My dad played a huge role in my life… He taught me a lot of things. I’m glad he allowed me to make my mistakes. He and my mom left me to make my own decisions.

“That’s what made me mature quickly,” said Nontshinga, who is based in the Johannesburg suburb of Randburg these days.

Nomakanjani!

Someone else who has played an integral part in Nontshinga’s development – in and outside the ring – is his manager, Colin Nathan. The manager-trainer has a lot of experience, having worked with numerous boxers over the years, including the acclaimed Hekkie Budler. He owns the popular Hot Box Gym in Johannesburg and is the head of a management company, No Doubt.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lords of the Ring: The past, present and future of SA boxing

Nicknamed Nomakanjani, which is isiZulu for “by any means”, Nathan first interacted with Nontshinga when the boxer, then aged 15, sent him a message on Facebook, asking him if he only worked with professionals.

“I said to him I only train pros, but that he must stay in touch because you never know where the road goes,” Nathan said.

“And 10 years later we’re two-time champions of the world.”

The journey has just begun. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Acwam 58 says:

    Coming from the Eastern Cape and being a lover of boxing, this story makes my heart happy. I remember (as a ‘whitey’), being snuck into the Sisa Dukashe Stadium in Mdantsane, to watch Happy Boy Mgxaji climb the ladder as the Special One is doing now.
    You GO, young man. I and many others are watching your climb. Make us proud.

  • Johan Greyling says:

    Why wasn’t this headline news for a week? I follow boxing but missed this one badly.

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