South African boxing fraternity pays tribute to ‘humble’ former champion Dingaan Thobela 

South African boxing fraternity pays tribute to ‘humble’ former champion Dingaan Thobela 
SOUTH AFRICA - 1993: Muhammad Ali with South African Boxer Dingaan Thobela. (Photo: Gallo Images / City Press)

Regarded as one of the most naturally talented boxers of his time, South African boxing legend Dingaan Thobela lost his final fight to illness on Monday.

Three-time world boxing champion Dingaan Thobela was found dead in his Mayfair, Johannesburg, flat on Monday evening.

The legendary boxer, who fought across four weight divisions during his illustrious career, lost his final fight to an undisclosed illness at the age of 57.

Hailing from Chiawelo in Soweto, Thobela was aptly dubbed the “Rose of Soweto”. His first big bloom came in 1990 after winning the WBO lightweight title in a fight against Mauricio Aceves.

Three years later, Thobela achieved a split-decision victory over Tony Lopez to obtain the WBA lightweight title, but he really blossomed in the twilight of his career in 2000 when he knocked out Glenn Catley, then super middleweight champion, to obtain the WBC title — only the second South African to obtain a WBC belt, after Thulani “Sugarboy” Malinga.

Dingaan Thobela in a 1990 image. (Photo: Gallo Images/City Press)

Dingaan Thobela in a 1993 image. (Photo: Gallo Images / City Press)

Dingaan Thobela after winning the NBA title. (Photo: Gallo Images / City Press)

Having been behind on points after 11 rounds of action, Thobela put Catley on the canvas with 45 seconds left in the final round.

“He must rate in the top four of all time, without a doubt,” boxing historian Ron Jackson told Daily Maverick.

“When he beat (Glenn) Catley, nobody gave him a chance,” said Jackson, who was at the fight at Carnival City in 2000. 

“He was behind on points and he caught Catley in the 12th round.”

Experienced boxing promoter Rodney Berman, who served as Thobela’s promoter for all three championship fights, regards the “Rose of Soweto” as one of the best the country has ever seen in the ring.

“A young Dingaan Thobela is without a doubt the most talented and exciting fighter in all my years I’ve ever come across in South Africa,” Berman said to Daily Maverick.

“In 1993 he fought as a lightweight and beat Tony Lopez for the IBF title. Seven years later, he fought as a super middleweight, at a time when he was really well past it and not expected to win.

“In one of the most dramatic fights in our boxing history, he became only the second [South African] to claim the WBC title. It was the most unbelievable fight.”

Joshua Maponga and Dingaan Thobela during the Floyd Mayweather Banquet Dinner at the Sandton Convention Centre on July 15, 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Oupa Bopape)

Dingaan Bongane Thobela on May 5, 2011 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / City Press / Lucky Nxumalo)

Different weight

Thobela’s jumping from lightweight to super middleweight between 1993 and 2000 was simply down to his enjoyment of food, according to Jackson.

“He wasn’t too particular about his weight,” Jackson said. He used to put on weight and then try to take it off and it eventually caught up with him.

“He lost his last few fights due to him battling with weight, but up until then he was one of the best, without a doubt.”

Thobela’s record in the ring saw him fight on 56 occasions, winning 40, with 26 of those wins coming by knock-out. He lost 14 fights and drew two.

“He loved to eat,” Jackson quipped. “He just loved eating and then he thought he could pull it off [but] you can’t keep doing that.”

Nonetheless, merely thinking about Thobela’s supreme talents in the ring still excites Jackson.

“He had all the skills, everything was there,” he said. “He was very skillful. [His] jab was terrific.

“I get cold shivers thinking about him… he was a skillful fighter from day one.”

Berman, however, believes the talent Thobela had in his gloves and footwork could have taken him even further.

“Dingaan lacked one thing. With all his absolute natural ability, you find a lot of top sports people suffer from the same thing – they haven’t got the same determination,” Berman said.

“Dingaan, after a lull of seven years (in 2000), was fighting far above his natural fighting weight but he still had that incredible will to win.

“The last few seconds, he was well behind on all the scorecards but he came out with this flourish… it was incredible,” he said about his victory over Catley.

“That’s indicative of the character of the man. He was a real fighter.”

The man behind the fists

A recurring theme from all who speak about Thobela is the wonderful person he was outside the boxing ring.

“Other than being a three-time world champion and one of the legends of world boxing in this country, he was a very nice guy as well,” former South African boxing champion Brian Mitchell told Daily Maverick.

“[He was] very humble, gentle and kind to people. I enjoyed him as a person. I always thought he was such a good guy.

“It’s just incredible how guys like Dingaan are so good inside the ring and outside the ring they become gentlemen. He was a real gentleman.”

For all his achievements in the ring, his lasting memory to those closest to him in the boxing fraternity remains his kindness to those around him.

“I always found Dingaan very unassuming, very quietly spoken, very accommodating and just a very nice person,” Berman reiterated.

“He’s going to be badly missed. He’ll go down as one of the all-time greats in South African boxing.”

Thobela retired from boxing in 2006. He was separated from his common-law wife Sandra. They had two children together, Ntombi and Dingaan Thobela Junior.

“Dingaan ‘The Rose of Soweto’ Thobela was a champion fighter who captured the hearts and souls of the nation,” sports minister Zizi Kodwa said in a statement.

“The Rose of Soweto progressed from a prolific amateur boxer to become a three-time world champion as a professional.

“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.” DM



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