The Rose of Soweto - the uncrowned champ

DINGAAN “The Rose of Soweto” Thobela passed on this week remaining of of South Africa’s greatest boxers. | Archives

DINGAAN “The Rose of Soweto” Thobela passed on this week remaining of of South Africa’s greatest boxers. | Archives

Published May 2, 2024


THE IRONY of Dingaan Thobela’s death just two days after the country celebrated 30 years of democracy would not be lost on the discerning fan of the former great boxer fondly referred to as “The Rose of Soweto”.

Thobela, a three-time world champion in two weight divisions under three different sanctioning bodies, was found dead at home on April 29 after a reported illness.

Some 34 years ago on April 27, Thobela became an “uncrowned” world champion when he beat then WBO lightweight king Mauricio Aceves in what should have been a title fight, only for the Mexican’s camp to make it a none-title bout on the eve of the contest.

Whenever he discussed his career, the man from Chiawelo in Soweto described that fight as the turning point of his career.

“For me, that was the day I first became world champion,” Thobela said during an interview I did with him in 2020. “That fight with Mauricio Aceves was meant to be a title fight. All the papers were signed and we went to America knowing we were going to fight for the world championship.”

But what happened was the kind of gamesmanship that would have broken many a young boxer and probably put paid to their aspirations to be boxing greats.

“A few days before the fight, they told my promoter Thinus Strydom that the title was no longer at stake and that we would be fighting a 10-rounder. I was devastated. I had prepared to fight for the world championship, and then I got told it is just a friendly fight. How can people be so unfair?”

But with the great Norman Hlabane in his corner, Thobela was able to see through the gamesmanship of the Mexican boxer’s camp and instead of being discouraged, he got on with the fight and won.

“Our country was changing at that time, and I’d received a call from (Nelson) Mandela (just out of prison) wishing me well before I went to America. He told me to represent the country proudly, to bring the title home. The title may have been off the table, but I came back home feeling I was a world champion, the uncrowned world champion.”

Little did Thobela and his camp know that a few years later, April 27 would become an even bigger day in South Africa – the country’s first democratic elections taking place and the day going on to become Freedom Day.

Thobela of course went on to beat Aceves later that year on September 22, just two days before his 24th birthday, to officially become champion.

Three years later he became the WBA lightweight champion when he beat the great Tony “The Tiger” Lopez at Sun City in a rematch after their first bout was also controversial. A clear hometown decision in Sacramento, California, saw the judges inexplicably ruling the 12-rounder in favour of the American.

It was much later, though, having dazzled in the ring with his immense natural boxing talent – incredible athleticism, superb jab and uppercuts of the highest quality – that Thobela cemented his stature as a South African boxing legend.

A confessed food lover, Thobela was known to struggle with weight and ended up ballooning so much that he had to move up to the super middleweight class.

He got the opportunity to challenge Britain’s Glenn Catley for the WBC title and to suggest the boxing fraternity believed he was suicidal would be putting it mildly.

“There came a time when I was not truly active, and I struggled with weight. I ballooned all the way to 76kg. Besides the lack of activity, I also ate a lot of pap, comfort eating because of not being very active. And then I got a shot at the world title against Glenn Catley, who had beaten Markus Beyer.

“No one gave me a chance. People said I could not even crack an egg; that I was over the hill. But I won that fight to become a world champion again. It was fantastic, one of the great highlights of my career,” Thobela gushed in 2020 as he remembered his final round knockout of Catley, who was ahead on points at the time.

He could not defend that title though and he went on to lose his next seven fights thereafter before quitting the sport with a record of 40 wins, 14 losses and 2 draws.

It is generally agreed though that he was one of the best boxers the country has ever produced and his death this week was felt not only in the sport but the whole of South Africa.

Rest in Peace, Rose of Soweto.

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