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Boxing royalty from D’Village

In an article written at the end of the last millennium intended to "honour the ordinary people who gave us meaning and entertainment", XOLELA MANGCU gives a full history of Mxgaji’s rise to boxing stardom

NKOSANA Happy Boy Mgxaji was not only the greatest boxing sensation this country has produced but also a social institution in the Eastern Cape.

His story is not just one about boxing. Instead, it is a story about a social and cultural ritual that revolved around one particular individual.

For years on end, Saturday afternoons became social events as thousands of people thronged to Sisa Dukashe Stadium in Mdantsane to see their boxing prince, their own boxing royalty.

To them, Mgxaji was an entertainer, a role model, a source of pride, and a break from a dreary week working for abeLungu (white men).

Like Muhammad Ali and other great prize fighters, Mgxaji had an aura that transcended the art of boxing itself.

He was unwittingly providing a peculiar social leadership foisted upon him by those who saw him as a cultural symbol who had to perform the same act every time they came to see him.

Can anyone really imagine the 1970s without Happy Boy? The nickname "Bra Nko" is still used as a term of endearment by those who adored him.

And so as we close this millennium in celebration of its great leaders and events, let us not forget to honour the ordinary people who provided us with meaning, purpose and entertainment daily.

Mgxaji’s presence in our lives, his dedication and his inimitable flair inspired an entire generation of local boxers, some of whom went on to become national and world champions.

Nkosana Mgxaji was born in Tsolo Location (which later developed into Duncan Village) in 1949. His mother sold vegetables in the streets while he attended Duncan Village Primary School.

After Standard Six, he went to Welsh High School but only for nine months and ducked school. School was not for him, he says. He was too much of a "clever" one, hanging out with the "outies".

Neither was boxing something he had planned. He chanced upon boxing because he had to defend himself in the rough streets of Duncan Village.

But his mother never approved of boxing and wanted him to enlist with the school rugby team. As a young student, the versatile Mgxaji had become so good at both amateur boxing and rugby that he was selected to play for the Border team for both sporting codes.

The crunch came when he was selected to represent Border rugby as a scrumhalf in a match against Eastern Province in East London and in a boxing tournament also against Eastern Province in Grahamstown on the same day.

His mother and teachers insisted that he should go to the rugby competition. He obliged and went to the stadium with the rest of the team — only to escape back to Peacock Hall in Duncan Village where there was a truck taking the boxers to the boxing tournament in Grahamstown that afternoon.

After he returned from Grahamstown, his teachers wanted an explanation. He said he had suddenly had a stomach problem and had to go back home. But that didn’t work. The teachers produced a Daily Dispatch report on his boxing match in Grahamstown.

That was the turning point for Happy Boy — a boxing name he actually took from his elder brother Nzimeni Douglas Mgxaji.

Mgxaji turned professional in 1968 under the stewardship of another East London socialite, Mzoli Madyaka.

He remained unbeaten until 1971 when he lost in a championship fight for the junior lightweight title against the great Anthony "Blue Jaguar" Morodi in 1971.

People used to say: "Uyinja Morodi!" (You are a dog!) But Mgxaji came back to defeat him in 1972 and again in 1973 in a series of boxing matches resembling the epic Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier heavyweight battles.

After that, Mgxaji fought and defeated a number of local and national boxers — including Terence Ace Makaluza, Alfred Buqwana, Levy Madi, Ben Lekalake, Rolly Xipu, and Norman "Pangaman" Sekgapane.

He was at the top of his game.

Even though most people probably thought the Sekgapane fights were the toughest, Mgxaji maintains that he feared Ben "TNT" Lekalake the most. He recalls how the Tshume twins Ngqika and Phalo always dressed in the same kit — short pants and sandals.

Mgxaji says their managers would then send the one twin with the lower weight to the scales and then send the heavier one to fight him.

"But I would tell them that I did not care for those tricks because I could beat both of them. And I did exactly that every time I met with them."

Most fascinating and revealing of Mgxaji’s cult status among local fight fans were his mental gimmicks in the ring. He never planned ahead for a fight. He was what might perhaps be called an improviser.

He never planned ahead for a fight. He was … an improviser — not odd, considering his love of that great improvisational art called jazz

That is not odd, considering his love of that great improvisational art called jazz.

He would plan a fight as he went along, always refusing to get a fight plan from his corner men.

In fact, Mgxaji never had a trainer. He was a self-taught man who trained and strategised best when he was alone.

His day included early-morning workouts at the beach, chopping trees, walks, and running. Boxing in fact consumed his entire life. He was always as fit as a fiddle. But he also knew that physical fitness was only one piece of the puzzle. After all, most boxers came to the ring fit.

It was the mental game that made the difference. His aim was always to make opponents change their styles to suit his. He developed a style of not fighting toe to toe but fighting boxers from a side angle — which earned him the nickname "Magxelesha" [someone who doesn’t look you straight].

He would run rings around his opponents and drive them to frustration and anger: "I knew that once they got angry, they were finished!"

Mgxaji reached the zenith of his career when he fought Sam Serrano for the world championship in Cape Town — losing in a fight stoppage that is still a source of pain for him.

His greatest attribute also turned out to be his greatest weakness in the Serrano fight. Because he was so confident and never really needed a trainer, he relied on his younger and inexperienced brother in his preparation for what was the most important fight in his career.

Convinced as he was of his own prowess, Mgxaji also got the short end of the stick in financial matters — like so many other sporting greats here and abroad who have died penniless.

In those days, promoters and managers divided the prize money up before the boxer would get anything. Professional boxing was a part of the local economy and a source of hope for many young township kids in places like Mdantsane — just like basketball in the United States.

But many of them had left school early and found themselves entrusting their financial affairs to people who did not exactly have their financial interests at heart.

So perhaps Mgxaji’s mother was right after all: her son should have stayed at school. But then maybe we would not have had a Happy Boy and we would all be poorer for it.

Thank you, Bra Nko, for enriching our lives and our history. Maybe we owe you something. Whatever.

— Mangcu, X, "Happy Boy boxing royalty from D’Village", Dispatch Online, December 31, 1999, http://www.dispatch.co.za/1999/12/31/features.HAPPY.HTM


» Archive Photo Gallery 
Images of some of the golden moments in Mgxaji’s life and career
» Artwork Photo Gallery 
See more pictures of our memorial to boxing hero Happyboy Mgxaji at Sisa Dukashe Stadium
» Audio Documentary 
A young, up-and-coming boxer, Malibongwe Thokwe, talks about how he still draws on Mgxaji’s legacy for inspiration every time he steps into the ring
» Map 
Find your way to the memorial in Mdantsane near East London
» Video Archive  
Happyboy Mgxaji fought his first fight in May 1969 and went on to win 88 in total. Watch this rare footage of the bout between him and Puerto Rican boxing legend Samuel Serrano