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Durban – There is a very select band of boxers who have earned the attention of the Klitschko brothers, never mind their respect.
And yet, somewhere in Pretoria resides a gentle giant who beat up the younger Wladimir so badly, he had to call big brother for help. And even after the multiple title holder, Vitali, had avenged the loss, he had a glowing appraisal for his South African foe.
“Vitali was definitely the better boxer, but they are both so big – over 2m – that it’s very difficult to beat them, even now after all these years,” Corrie “Sniper” Sanders chuckles.
Back in 2003, in Hanover, Germany, Sanders did the impossible, as he dropped the “smaller” Klitschko four times inside two rounds to reach the pinnacle of his craft: world champion status.
It was the peak of a journey in the professional ring that was to last for very nearly 20 years. And yet, despite that memorable night, Sanders – and a few other experts – wonders if he was held back for too long.
“I thought that I could have gone for a shot at a world title much earlier. I always felt that my promoter, Rodney Berman, kept me wrapped in cotton-wool for too long, and by the time I got my shot, I was already 38,” he says regretfully.
These days, Sanders maintains several business interests, but also stays in the public eye through various speaking engagements.
“I do motivational talks and things like that at schools and in companies, and I must say that it always makes me very proud to go out and meet all the great people in this wonderful country of ours,” he explained.
Sanders bucked the trend of going and living in America when he became a pro and he admits that it may have hindered his progress, because he was always trekking to and fro when it came to preparing for big fights.
“But I loved this country too much. It might sound strange, but I felt I had more black fans than white. I think the two big sports in the black community are boxing and soccer, and whenever I was out and about, they would stop me and want to chat. That was always very humbling,” he said.
Another reason that kept Sanders in South Africa was his family, which he says has always been massively important for him.
“Being based here was a bit easier in that sense, because being a boxer is not easy on your family. My wife watched only a few of my fights live, and preferred to tape them, and then watch them once she knew what the result was.”
His daughter and son, now both adult, were already realising that “daddy” was a bit different from other dads, and Sanders would occasionally have to explain to his kids what it felt like to be famous.
”I was blessed to have the family I have, and even though my kids were really young during my career, they have a lot of memories to fall back on.
Sanders, powerfully built and athletic from an early age, has always been a passionate golfer and currently plays off a three handicap.
“I’m a member at Pecanwood, as well as the Els Club. Golf was something I did to relax, and I got down to a one and scratch at a point, but these days it’s not as consistent,” he lamented.
He was also an athlete in his school days, a cricketer and a more-than-handy rugby player.
“Ja, I have always enjoyed my rugby and I like to think I was a decent flyhalf and centre,” he laughed.
“I was invited for the Northern Transvaal trials at one stage, but my boxing was starting to take off. Rugby was still amateur, and I knew that I could make a career as a boxer,” he added.
Sanders chuckles at the pending clash between All Black rugby star Sonny Bill Williams and the “White Buffalo”, Francois Botha.
“He shouldn’t even be boxing. If the fight happens, I can’t see Sonny Bill standing any chance. Frans has too much experience and know-how, and I won’t allow anyone to try and tell me any different,” he insisted.
The “Sniper’s” love for the gloves started at a young age and he drew inspiration from a number of icons from the 70s and 80s.
“Of course, I enjoyed watching Muhammad Ali, but my real icon was Sugar Ray Leonard. He was just brilliant, blessed with a range of skills, and also had some great battles with Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran. Those were the days, boet.”
As the legend of the laser-like left hand grew, Sanders began to draw more attention. By the time he beat Johnny du Plooy for the vacant SA heavyweight title in 1991, he knew he was ready for the big time.
“I had been SA amateur champion for four years, and I knew that I was ready. My big weapon was always the straight left hook, and being a southpaw always made me tricky for right-handers.”
As was the way in his heavyweight era, Sanders showed he could beat anyone, but was set back by his 2000 loss to Hasim Rahman.
“I still believe that I should have won that fight. I mean, I knocked him down, right through the ropes, and they only gave him his count once he was back in the ring,” he said.
“And if you think that he was given the title shot with Lennox Lewis not long after that, you wonder how different things could have turned out,” he added.
As it was, Sanders’ date with destiny came against Klitschko in 2003, after Danny Williams had pulled out.
“I was so pumped for the fight, because a world title shot was what I had always wanted,” he reflected.
“I surprised him that night, but I was a bit shocked to see him go down after just two rounds!”
The Klitschkos are both so physically intimidating, but you have to get inside them to have a chance. And, just like that, Pretoria had another world-beater.
“My mate, Naas Botha, always says to me that whatever happens in life, no one can ever take that away from me,” the 47-year-old beamed.
With his legacy intact and the golf game in good enough nick to provide a stern challenge at celebrity tournaments, Sanders is now focusing on helping to find the next champion.
“A few people have come together and there is a proper gym being built in Midstrien. When it opens, I will be in there, trying to help find our next world champion,” he said excitedly.
With the “Sniper” still in fine fettle, there will be very few prepared to bet against him doing just that. – Sunday Tribune