Legend of SA ring dies

By Ron Jackson

Willie Toweel one of the legends of the South African ring and the last of the fighting Toweel’s passed away at his home on Christmas night. He was 83.

Willie who was born in Benoni on April 6 1934, was a magnificent fighter and trained by his father “Papa Mike” he developed into a brilliant amateur and won SA junior and senior titles and a bronze medal at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. It was reported that he lost only five fights as an amateur.

Photo from African Ring Collection

In his professional debut, in Johannesburg in May 1953, he beat Jackie O’Connor on points over four rounds. He won his first six fights before stopping Matthew Raaf in the seventh round to win the vacant SA bantamweight title and then beat Tony Lombard, an old rival of the Toweel’s, to become the national featherweight champion.

Willie won his next ten fights, beating the likes of Andre Valignat and Pappy Gault. By then he was ready to challenge Robert Cohen, a French Algerian, for the world bantamweight title.

They fought in Johannesburg on September 3 1955. Willie was 22 years old and confident, but already battling to make the bantamweight limit.

Cohen dropped Willie twice in the second round but the South African fought back and the 15-round battle turned into one of the most exciting fights in SA boxing history that ended in a draw.

Moving up in weight he took on Johnny van Rensburg for the SA and Empire lightweight titles on December 10 1955.

Toweel faded after a good start and retired at the end of the ninth round; his first defeat in 23 fights. It was reported that injuries to his right hand and an ankle had been the cause of his disappointing performance.

The bout was the first of five between the two. Toweel won three and they drew over 15 rounds when he defended the SA and British Empire lightweight titles he had won from Van Rensburg on May 19 1956.


Most experts later agreed that Willie Toweel never reached his full potential. The reason was undoubtedly the death of Hubert Essakow after their fight in the Johannesburg City Hall on March 19 1956. The tragedy haunted him for the rest of his life.

After losing to Van Rensburg, Toweel had to defend his SA featherweight title against the top contender, Essakow. However, both failed to make the weight and they met in a non-title fight over twelve rounds.

Toweel knocked out Essakow in the eleventh round and the 21-year-old never regained consciousness. He underwent brain surgery at the Princess Nursing Home in Johannesburg but died 52 hours after the knockout.

Campaigning in the United Kingdom he retained his Empire lightweight against Dave Charnley and impressed in victories over Billy Kelly, Bobby Ros, Mario Calcaterra, Jimmy Carter and Jose Hernandez.

He then came home and outpointed a tough Mexican, Alvaro Nevarez, in a brilliant performance before heading back to Britain when he defeated Orlando Zulueta and Fernand Nollett early in 1958.

He lost the Empire lightweight title in return match with Charnley when he was stopped in the tenth round.

But experienced observers had noticed that Toweel tended to hold back after hurting his opponents. His record proved it. Before beating Essakow, he had won 15 of his 23 fights inside the distance. In his last 30 fights he stopped only seven of his opponents.


Moving into the welterweight division he stopped Paddy Graham in four rounds before one of the highlights of his career. He went to New York to become the first South African to top a bill at Madison Square Garden.

His opponent on that night, November 20 1959, was Lenny Matthews, an excellent American boxer. Toweel was knocked down twice in the eighth round but produced a brilliant performance to win on points.

By then, his brothers Alan and Maurice also thought he might have lost his edge. It was confirmed when, for the first time in his career, he lost on points – against Wally Swift in Nottingham.

He seemed to be going through the motions in 1960 when he beat Julio Silva and Freddie Teidt. Even so, he won the vacant SA welterweight title – his fourth national crown – by beating Benny Nieuwenhuizen.
He lost the title in his next fight when he was disqualified for a low blow against Jannie Botes at the same venue where he had fought Essakow.


He then received an offer to fight Emile Griffith at Madison Square Garden on October 22 1960. He started well but was stopped in the eighth round. Griffith later won the world welterweight and middleweight titles.

It was Toweel’s last fight. He retired at the age of 27, with a record of 46-6-2, including 23 wins inside the distance.

He later became a successful manager and trained Charlie Weir as well as world champions Brian Mitchell and Thulani “Sugarboy” Malinga.
Willie Toweel was undoubtedly one of the best fighters South Africa ever produced.

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