DURBAN: HE WAS a champion among champions and a kingpin in the local boxing industry at a time when the sport was like a punch-drunk boxer, on the ropes, and ready to be counted out.
Out of a rural corner on the KZN South Coast stepped Desmond Pillay, a bus owner’s son, who drove boxing to new heights with the absorbing bills he promoted.
Pillay’s excellence as a matchmaker was ringed by his love for boxing, dynamism and ability to build fighters for bigger bills during his heydays from the 1960s to the eighties.
He had a hand in three fighters – Thulani “Sugar Boy” Malinga, Brian Mitchell and American Dwight Buxton – eventually lifting world title belts.
And hefty was the army of South African and Natal champs whose careers he shaped and shined.
As for trading blows in the ring, Pillay did that too. He had numerous amateur fights in the lightweight division and never lost a bout.
The injuries he sustained during a road accident crashed his fighting ambition but steered him towards promoting.
One of the boxing lessons Pillay learnt while working out at the MK Tommy managed gym was that a “straight left opened all doors”.
However, Pillay didn’t have to throw any punches in 1977 to clinch the country’s first non-racial boxing bill, held at the Westridge Tennis Stadium, during an era when the apartheid regime had a vice-like grip on sport.
Even boxing great Muhammad Ali lent Pillay his ears on a long-distance telephone call and interacted with the promoter during his visit to South Africa in 1993.
When Pillay was not dealing with ring-related matters, he was a celebrated Singer sewing machine salesman and key component in the US company’s operations in KZN.
After the success and the popularity Pillay gained from the 1977 Westridge tournament, car dealership company Datcentre drew him into their fold as a salesman in their Dr Pixley KaSeme (West) Street branch.
Datcentre’s management had no qualms with boxers, who were due to appear in Pillay’s tournaments, sparring in a ring the matchmaker propped in their front display.
It was inventive, eye-catching and usually reduced the flow of traffic to a trickle, much to his bosses’ delight.
As a 4-year-old, Pillay was floored by boxing’s mix of blood, brutal force, gamesmanship and subtleties while watching a tournament in 1942.
The setting for the punch-fest was the lounge of a “whites-only” hotel.
His father, Jimmy Hyman, was the first bus operator on the South Coast and therefore a prominent figure in Umkomaas, who was afforded certain liberties.
Pillay got hooked on boxing that day and soon he was getting to grips with the exploits of legends like Jack Johnson and Joe Louis.
Locally, he was in awe of fighters like Kid Sathamoney, Seaman Chetty, Bandy Pillay, John Joshua and Larry Gengan, Harry Naidoo and Barry Vandiar.
A large wood-and-iron home in Umkomaas was another comfort Hyman provided for his family, and Pillay had fond memories of the fruit and vegetable plantations around his home.
After completing his primary education at Naidoo Memorial, Pillay did his high school studies via correspondence and completed standard eight before moving to Sydenham to run the family business.
At 13, Pillay managed a busy shop on Burnwood Road, coping well with the huge responsibility thrust on him.
By then, his love affair with boxing was in full bloom. He was training at a local gym and the walls of his shop were plastered with boxing pictures and posters.
Waking at 4am to receive a delivery of milk and the long hours of retail were weighing heavily on him.
While the shop did well during the four years he had been there, he decided to throw in the towel in 1954, even though his father disapproved.
Pillay got to spend more time at Seaman Chetty’s gym in Etna Lane to hone his skills before moving to MK Tommy’s stable.
When he began fighting as an amateur and achieved success, he was grateful for all the help and advice he got from the resident pros.
Pillay took particular interest in how Seaman Chetty, who was a promoter at the time, went about his business of scouting for talent and promoting fighters.
Pillay would never miss a boxing match in the city. His most memorable was a Chetty promotion at Durban City Hall where Slumber David took on Bandy Pillay. David won the gruelling battle on points.
Pillay joined Singer and, while on duty in 1964, a car crash in Cato Manor Road left him with a broken collarbone and hand.
Having applied for a promoter’s licence the next year, he staged his first tournament at Bolton Hall.
He used the legendary Sathamoney to help market the event, which included a Natal title fight on the bill.
Pillay would search high and low for talented boxers he could promote. Tap Tap Makhathini was one such find he made in Stanger.
While he didn’t promote Makhathini’s debut as a pro, Pillay was responsible for staging many of his other fights.
He also revived Nagoor Govender’s career when he had given up on the sport.
Govender’s tangle with Leslie Tangee was a supporting bout to Jake Ntuli making a return.
Ntuli was the British empire champ and 10 000 fans thronged to Currie’s Fountain to catch him in action in 1966.
Brian Mitchell, one of the country’s best boxers, once featured on a bill put together by Pillay.
Before Brian Baronet turned pro, Pillay sponsored the fighter’s trip to the US but never got to promote any of his fights when he hit the big time.
Pillay said promoters like him never got the opportunity to stage the plum money-spinning fights, but that did not deter him.
“I persevered and in 1977 got to stage the first multiracial tournament and was instructed to put in extra toilets at the venue.”
He said his biggest challenge as a promoter, apart from the lack of sponsorship, was a dearth of suitable venues.
He hung up his gloves as a promoter in 1985 after a tournament set at Kingsmead Stadium. The main bout, which featured Robbie Williams against Mike Koranicki from the US, had to be postponed eight times because of rain.
“I could have made a huge profit from that tournament but I was happy to break even.”