By Ron Jackson
At long last the story of the fighting Toweel family has been documented and written down by Alida Toweel and Samantha Toweel-Moore in their book A Fistful of Legends. The Toweel family has a strong claim to being the most famous boxing family in the world, with Vic Toweel winning a Universal world title, the only South African boxer in its long boxing history to hold a Universal title.
Jimmy the oldest of the fighting Toweel’s won the South African lightweight title, with Vic winning two South African titles, an Empire title and an undisputed world title, and Willie fighting to a draw in a world title, winning an Empire title and four South African titles.
At the time when Vic was fighting there were only eight weight divisions with eight world champions, not like today where there are multiple world champions from the different sanctioning bodies.
The planning of the book started about twenty years ago when Alida the wife of Willie sat down with her daughters Natalie, Samantha, Gabrielle, Alan Jr (the son of Alan Toweel) and discussed the families boxing history.
Delving through scrapbooks and visits to the South African Archives in Pretoria, the Cullen Library Archives at the University of the Witwatersrand, the Daily Mail newspaper archives and calling on collectors of boxing memorabilia and paging through literally hundreds of newspaper articles, Alida and Samantha slowly gathered in formation through painstaking research to document the Toweel family boxing story from 1923.
It all began with the 18-yer-old Michael Joseph Toweel “the old man” who was born in Lebanon and came to South Africa with his mother as a young boy.
He was a successful amateur and could have represented South Africa at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.
However, his mother was against him going to the bright lights of Paris and after several fights as a professional he became one of the best trainers in South Africa taking his sons to multiple championship titles despite having problems with his eyesight.
Mike battled through hard times and poverty losing his first wife Dinah who passed away on 20 December 1940 a few days before her 35th birthday, leaving him with six sons and a daughter to bring up.
However, soon afterwards he married Mary who helped with his large family.
Despite some loose living in the early days Mike got his life in order to take his son Jimmy to winning the South African lightweight title and Vic to unprecedented heights in winning the South African bantamweight, featherweight, British Empire bantamweight and world bantamweight title on one of the most historic nights in South African boxing history, on 31 May 1950 when he outpointed Manuel Ortiz over 15 rounds to win the universal world bantamweight title.
The agonising ongoing battle of Vic reducing weight to stay in the bantamweight limit is well documented even though he worked out in the hot corrugated iron shed in the yard of No. 12 Balfour Avenue in Benoni which Mike and the boys had constructed.
Alan Toweel who was a promising welterweight until he retired due to suffering from asthma, subsequently took over the training of his brothers Willie and Frazer.
Willie would have an outstanding career 54 fight career winning four South African titles, an Empire title and fighting to draw in world title fight against Robert Cohen. Willie and Vic both won Springbok colours, Vic representing South Africa at the 1948 Olympics in London and Willie winning a bronze medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
The sad death of Hubert Essakow’s after his fight with Willie in March 1956 is well documented and the suffering that he had to go through never left him for the rest of his life.
Frazer a classy fighter who was often compared to the fighting style of Vic had a successful career, but possibly would have won a South African title if he could have got past Willie Ludick who had his number.
The most courageous Toweel of all must be Maurice, a cripple through polio who battled through numerous operations to become an outstanding manager and promoter.
All the brothers have passed on and the two girls in family are Maureen who became a Nun from an early age and Antoinette who lives in Australia.
Alida the wife of the late Willie and her daughter Samantha have only had a limited number of copies printed as their object was too mainly to write down the history of the fighting Toweel’s for the family.