Happyboy Mgxaji says of his early training: "I would be at Eastern Beach to train at 3am most days. The others would get there at five, and I’d be on my way home by then"
PICTURE: © SUNDAY TIMES
Having got into boxing because he had to defend himself on the mean streets of Mdantsane, Happyboy Mgxaji went on to fight his way to glory, holding the Junior Lightweight title for 12 years and inspiring future generations of boxing stars from the area
>p<IN Mdantsane and Duncan Village, the townships that sprawl around East London, you’ll sometimes see young boys boxing with milk cartons fashioned into gloves around their hands. To an untrained eye it will appear as if they are dancing around each other.
The trained eye will know they are fighting in the East London "shuffle", for which even the national and world champions from this area are renowned. There have been a record number of them: by March 2006, these townships had produced 14 world champions and 46 South African champions since the 1970s.
And all of them have looked to Happyboy Mgxaji, recognised as Mdantsane’s first great boxing hero.
Born in Duncan Village in 1949, Mgxaji left school after completing Standard Six and "chanced upon boxing because he had to defend himself in the rough streets" of the township, according to a Daily Dispatch column on December 31, 1999 to honour the greats of the twentieth century.
"If somebody klapped [clobbered] me, I would run to my big brother, whose name was Happyboy, and he would help me. One day, I decided it was time for me to learn to defend myself," Mgxaji recalls. So he began boxing — at the age of eight — in Peacock Hall in Duncan Village.
He excelled at both boxing and rugby, and was selected to represent the Border team in both sports.
If somebody klapped me, I would run to my big brother... One day, I decided it was time for me to learn to defend myself
"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," the Dispatch reported.
"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 … where there was a truck taking the boxers to the boxing tournament in Grahamstown that afternoon."
Mgxaji remembers that day well. He explains why he made that choice: "Rugby was about getting tied up in scrums. That wasn’t for me, though. I wanted to fight, that’s all."
First, he gave himself the name "Blueboy". "The other boxers said: no, I was Happyboy. So I took on that name… It comes from my late brother."
Mgxaji turned professional in 1968 and was unbeaten until 1971 when he lost a junior lightweight championship title against Anthony Morodi. Mgxaji went on to beat Morodi — and take the title — in 1972 and 1973. In fact, he retained his title for 12 years.
He never secured a world title, however. In April 1979, Mgxaji lost his bid for the World Junior Lightweight title against Puerto Rican Samuel Serrano at the Cape Showgrounds.
All the time, he trained ferociously. "I would be at Eastern Beach to train at 3am most days. The others would get there at five, and I’d be on my way home by then," he says.
It was his style that set him apart. Vuyani Bungu, IBF World Junior Featherweight Champion from 1994 to 1999, freely admits his inspiration was Mgxaji. "He would drive his Mercedes and we’d all run behind him. He was the reason so many of us became boxers," Bungu told the UK’s Guardian newspaper.
Mgxaji says he studied the techniques of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard. "I saw that boxing is all here [indicating his thighs] and not here [indicating his hands]," he says.
Loyiso Mtya, the "Black Messiah" who became SA Junior Middleweight Champion in 1977, says Mgxaji was the "greatest of all… He became an icon and a legend." Today, Mtya is the public relations officer of Boxing South Africa.
He personified boxing. He had this unique shuffling style — a combination of Ali and township tsotsi — that inspired other boxers
East London Museum historian Zuko Blauw, who has researched the area’s boxing tradition, says Mgxaji is the reason boxing has become so popular in Mdantsane and Duncan Village boxers. "He personified boxing. He had this unique shuffling style — a combination of Ali and township tsotsi — that has inspired other boxers.
"The crowd at the stadium would go wild when the announcer mentioned his name."
Blauw is talking about Sisa Dukashe Stadium in Mdantsane. It was here that almost all of East London’s fighters fought their first major bouts. It was where Mtya won his title in 1977, where Welcome "The Hawk" Ncita, the Eastern Cape’s first world champion, took on the UK’s Steve Robinson in a world title fight in 1998 that ended in a draw.
The very first fight at Sisa Dukashe was a non-title fight on September 2, 1972 between Mgxaji and Durban fighter Moses Mthembu. Mgxaji won that fight.
Mgxaji was more of an entertainer than a bullfighter: he was a showman, a very skilled showman, with a killer over-arm punch. He would consistently attract crowds of 25 000 people.
Mtya takes up the story. "The stadium was built because there was a lack of venues big enough to house the large numbers of spectators. The Duncan Village Community Centre and the Zwelitsha Communal Hall could only house 800 people at the most… Just a few kilometres away, the town had all the necessary facilities, but because of the apartheid system, black people could not go there."
So great was the need for a large-enough venue that when Mgxaji took on Mthembu at that first fight in 1972, the stadium was only half-built. "People just could not wait," Mtya says. With more and more big fights on the cards, it would take another 15 to 20 years before the stadium was completed.
"All days — whether it was cold, hot, windy or rainy — were treated the same. Crowds just filled the stadium. Boxers from all over the country wanted to fight there.
"It was also in this stadium that Welile Nkosinkulu, who would later take the baton from Mgxaji in terms of crowd pulling, pummelled Peter Mathebula before Mathebula went on to become world champion."
Even Baby Jake Matlala, a Gauteng fighter, won his first title at Sisa Dukashe.
When Lennox Lewis visited South Africa to defend his world heavyweight title, he demanded to visit Sisa Dukashe Stadium
"When Lennox Lewis visited South Africa to defend his world heavyweight title, he demanded to visit Sisa Dukashe Stadium," Mtya says.
At the height of apartheid, the stadium gained another reputation. The Ciskei homeland government soldiers and vigilantes used the stadium for detaining and torturing political opponents.
"The people were so bitter that they turned their backs away and did not use the stadium again, until local promoter Joe Manyathi organised a traditional-healing ceremony for the stadium," Mtya says.
No one is entirely sure why boxing is so huge in Mdantsane and Duncan Village, but Mtya believes the fighting instinct "is in the veins of the people… Their forefathers fought with sticks in the valleys. When stick fighting was outlawed, people started fighting with fists.
"The fighting skills developed from generation to generation … boxing became second nature."
For many young boys, however, the reality is that becoming a boxing champion offers a way out of poverty and despair. The Eastern Cape remains the poorest region of South Africa.
According to Mtya: "The economics of boxing make it a sport easily pursued by people with limited means. Unlike golf or tennis, say, very little capital outlay is needed."
The East London Museum points out that by the 1940s, young black men in the townships had become interested in boxing. In 1951, a social worker, Eric Nomvete, formalised the boxing group in Duncan Village, but it was only in 1965 that Eric Gabelana, known as the city’s first boxing promoter, and Les Muller, a young white sportsman, formed the first boxing authority, the Border Boxing Board.
Mgxaji, the museum says, "gained a great following and was Mdantsane’s first great boxing hero… He had a particularly attractive style and was much admired."
According to the Daily Dispatch millennium column, Mgxaji remains "the greatest boxing sensation this country has produced".
"For years on end, Saturday afternoons became social events as thousands of people thronged to Sisa Dukashe Stadium … 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."
Sadly, Mgxaji feels he has been forgotten by boxing. "I live in my mother’s house, I don’t have a car, I don’t have electricity," he says. He struggles to survive.
He still has dreams, however. One dream is to meet Nelson Mandela. "I would like to meet our ex-president. He was a boxer, too," he says.
Another dream is to set up a boxing development agency to train youngsters with his brother, Mlungwani, and friend, Kho Thwaku.
Mgxaji says: "Boxing can keep kids off the streets; it can become a living for them — these days. In my day, boxers were paid peanuts..."
Researched by Janette Bennett, with acknowledgements and thanks to:
• Happyboy Mgxaji
• Loyiso Mtya, PRO of Boxing SA and former SA boxing champion from Mdantsane
• Mlungwani Mgxaji (Happyboy’s brother) and Kho Thwaku (family friend)
• Zuko Blauw, historian, East London Museum
• Playing the game: A history of sport in greater East London and Mdantsane, East London Museum, December 2000
• The Guardian (UK) — March 5 2000 http://www.guardian.co.uk/boxing/article/0,2763,192062,00.html