Welcome Ncita: The Hawk of East London is still flying high
The year was 1990, and I was nearing the end of my high school career as I made my way to the TV room. This was an important night, because Welcome Ncita was challenging a Frenchman, Fabrice Benichou, for the IBF junior featherweight world title in Tel Aviv of all places, and I simply had to see this.
South Africa was just coming out of the sporting boycott and the boxing fraternity desperately wanted another world champion to join WBA junior lightweight titleholder Brian Mitchell, who was still champion, having won his belt back in 1986, just before South Africa was finally kicked off the world stage. Siza Makhathini, Thulani Malinga, Simon Skosana and Fransie Badenhorst (against the same Benichou) had all failed in world title challenges the previous year, and there was a feeling among some members of the press that South African fighters were being sent out there as cannon fodder. Ncita would be no different, was the opinion of some. I, however, was convinced that he would win. Benichou was rough, tough, unorthodox and rugged, but Ncita had developed into a super-slick boxer with foot and hand speed that, I thought, would expose Benichou’s limitations. Ncita’s nickname, “The Hawk,” was an appropriate one.
It wasn’t going to be as simple as just watching the fight on TV, though. The fight was on South Africa’s only pay channel at the time and my parents did not have a decoder (cable in U.S. speak), so all I could see was the odd flickering image on the screen for a few seconds before the picture would scramble again. I started tuning the radio, but the only station I could find was Umhlobo Wenene, a station that broadcast in isiXhosa, one of 11 official African languages and Ncita’s native tongue. I couldn’t understand a word the commentator was saying, but it just had to do. “I’m going to have to learn this language,” I remember thinking. I gauged the flow of the fight based on the level of excitement in the radio voice and the odd sequence when the picture on the screen stood still, and based on that, I gathered that our man was doing well. After 12 rounds, I waited to hear the voice of the ring announcer and when he said, “… and the new …,” it was time to celebrate.
I ended up studying isiXhosa at university and even taught it at entry level before leaving academia in 2000. Today, my command of the language, although nowhere near my English, is still good enough to tell the story above to the man himself when I bumped into him at a weigh-in in his hometown of East London. Some fighters become unrecognizable years after quitting the ring, but not Welcome Ncita. Yes, he has aged, just like the rest of us, but his face still has the same clear-cut lines that had female fans calling him “Little Sugar Ray Leonard” back in the day, and he is still quick with a smile. He graciously agreed to meet me in the hotel lobby the next day for our interview.
‘As kids, we used to make gloves by shaping milk cartons and filling it with newspapers.’
Growing up in the sprawling township of Mdantsane on the outskirts of East London, the young Ncita wanted to be a soccer player and had little interest in boxing. It was elder brother, Mzwandile, who was the boxer in the family. The region had long been and still is boxing mad, so the fight game had a way of finding you. “As kids, we used to make gloves by shaping milk cartons and filling it with newspapers. Then they introduced boxing at school, so I thought I would try that just to give me something to do at school,” he recounts. Still, soccer was where it was at for him, and he never really trained properly whenever his brother tried to drag him to the gym. Then he got tossed into competition and matched against an established amateur whom he describes as being like a local “superstar.” “I fought him to a draw, and then my brother’s mates from the boxing club pitched up at my house and demanded that I join them,” he laughs. He was 13 at the time.
His amateur career went from strength to strength, culminating in a gold medal at the South African Games in 1982 and a spot on the national team, something that he recounts with great pride. “It was a big deal, even though I didn’t realize it at the time; only later I understood what it meant. No one from my city had ever won a gold medal. That was what really started everything.”
He turned pro in 1984 with a four-round decision over Vuyani Mgxaso. Two years later, in his 12th fight, he challenged South African flyweight champion Johannes “Baby Joe” Miya and won a split decision. He would defend his national flyweight title three times, one of those another win against Miya. At that time, he also started fighting international opponents, campaigning in both the 115- and 118-pound divisions.
In 1988 he made the trip to the U.S. to train at the gym of Lou Duva and George Benton. His face lights up when he recounts that experience: “They had all those great fighters; Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Evander Holyfield, they were all there at the time. No one paid much attention to me, so I just kept training quietly by myself.” Or so he thought. “One day we got this phone call at the motel. It was Lou Duva. ‘Hin-seeta, come downstairs.’ I said, ‘That is not how you pronounce my name (the C is actually pronounced as a click of the tongue).’ He said, ‘Man, whatever, just get down here.’” His trainer/manager at the time, Mzimasi Mnguni, told him, “This is your chance. Go.”
“Then we went to the gym and they sat me down with George Benton, and it turns out that they have been watching me carefully all this time. Everything I did, down to the finest detail. I was amazed. In South Africa, you pick an established fighter you like and try to emulate him. It is basic stuff; the purpose for everything is not explained. There they analyze your style, look at you physically, the width of your shoulders, length of your arms, down to the way you walk and then they go, ‘You are doing this wrong’ or, ‘You should stand like that.’ It was a true school of what it means to be a boxer and what boxing is all about. I quickly realized why they were dominating the sport the way they did.”
Eventually the duo of Duva and Benton just had too many fighters on their hands, and the decision was made to move their U.S. base to the Kronk Gym in Detroit. Ncita laughs when he recalls his thinking at the time. “I was at first a Tommy Hearns fan; I liked his style of fighting. I didn’t like Sugar Ray Leonard for beating Tommy Hearns at the time, but later on, I also came to like Sugar Ray. I saw some things in Leonard’s style of fighting which I could use and I liked the way he talked, but when I went to Kronk, it was just Hearns, Kenty, Jimmy Paul — all those guys on my mind all day long.” Emanuel Steward assigned Luther Burgess to him as co-trainer along with Mnguni.
‘There were no nerves; I knew I would beat him. I just wanted to get in the ring and win the title.’
By 1989, Ncita was an experienced international campaigner who had fought in Panama, Italy and the U.S. He was the IBF mandatory challenger at junior bantamweight, and I asked him what led to him moving up to 122 pounds. “I was getting impatient to fight for the world title and I told my promoters, ‘Look, guys, I think it is time now.’ They presented me with several options. One was (IBF bantamweight titleholder) Orlando Canizales. He was a very good fighter, a little bit the same style as me, and I thought he would give me some problems. Then there was this guy in Thailand, one of the twins (WBA junior bantamweight titleholder Khaosai Galaxy), and my promoter wasn’t well connected there. Then they told me they could also get me a shot at Benichou for the IBF title if I would go up to junior featherweight. I had seen Benichou before and thought that this is a guy I will just outbox, and I told them to get me that fight.”
I asked him how he felt walking to the ring for his big break. “There were no nerves; I knew I would beat him. I just wanted to get in the ring and win the title.” Ncita boxed on the back foot, used his jab and made Benichou hit air for most of the fight. After 12 rounds, he prevailed by unanimous decision and went home to East London to a hero’s welcome.
After two run-of-the-mill defenses against Ramon Cruz and Gerardo Lopez, winning both inside the distance, he faced former WBC junior bantamweight titleholder Sugar Baby Rojas in Italy in his third defense. It was not a good day at the office. The wild-swinging, brawling Rojas just kept coming, throwing everything but the kitchen sink. Ncita was outworked and appeared out of sorts for most of the fight while still landing his trademark crisp punches, which turned out to be enough to win an unpopular split decision. I ask him about that fight. “He just kept coming at me,” he explains, shaking his head. “It was actually a good thing that it happened. It is fights like that which shows you who you really are. Are you a champion? Can you take the heat or are you just a shrinker? That fight gave me a wake-up call and showed me that I still have a lot of work to do.”
His next defense was in the U.S. against Hurley Snead. He was just too quick for the American and won a wide decision. “I was surprised when they picked him. I actually sparred with him at the Kronk Gym.”
Then it was back to South Africa for a rematch with Rojas to remove all doubt. Although the official result was once again a split decision in Ncita’s favor, the consensus opinion was that he clearly won this fight. He appeared much more composed and controlled the distance better. I asked him what the difference was the second time around. He slaps his chest with the palm of his hand, “It was heart. I just decided that I was going to show him that he was in my house now. I am the boss here, and you are not going to bully me.”
Title defense number six was another tough one, but it ended up being one of his best performances. He was up against former WBA champ Jesus Salud. The Hawaii-based Filipino was on an eight-fight winning streak and considered a very dangerous opponent. During the fight, Ncita’s left eye gradually started swelling until it was virtually shut, but that would be the only evidence of Salud’s early success, as Ncita gradually took over the fight, dominating the outside and then taking over on the inside as well, banging Salud’s body with whiplash left hooks. He ended up winning a unanimous decision in a fine display of his versatile skill set.
Enter Olympic gold medalist Kennedy McKinney. I had to ask Ncita about that fateful night in 1992. He gives a groan coupled with a grimace that seemed to say, “Why did you have to bring that up?”
McKinney was undefeated and touted as a future great. His reach and height advantages coupled with his jab gave the South African some problems in the first half of the fight, and McKinney also found success with his power shots. As the rounds went by, Ncita made some adjustments and turned from boxer to fighter, being more aggressive and applying pressure to McKinney, who started to look increasingly bothered. In the 10th, Ncita hurt him with his combination punching and the fight appeared to be finally tipping in the champion’s favor.
Entering the 11th round, Ncita was ahead on all the cards and he kept peppering McKinney to the head and body. He was never known as a massive puncher, but he did possess a lighting-fast, nasty left hook, and when he caught the American flush with one of those, McKinney turned his back, stumbled to the corner, dipped his knee and then straightened himself up before actually taking the knee. The referee gave him an eight count in a fight with no standing eight count rule and waved the fight on. Ncita rained punches on a hurt McKinney and seemed to be on the verge of a dramatic stoppage win when yet more drama unfolded. With his back to the ropes, McKinney gathered his senses and uncorked a peach of a right cross that nailed Ncita flush, knocking him out cold. It was a terrific fight with a stunning ending, but a heartbreaking way for Ncita to lose his belt.
He explains the events that led up to that moment. “There were a lot of things with my career outside the ring that I was unhappy with. I was fighting some tough guys. There was Rojas, Salud, and yet the money stayed the same. I felt I was being paid peanuts. Then I get to fight McKinney, an Olympic gold medalist, the number one contender. This was as tough as it gets, but I’m getting paid less than what I got for fighting Hurley Snead. How could that be right?” I ask him what the promoter’s response was. “There was always something. ‘Times are tough. You’ll make the money in the next fight. We don’t have any sponsors.’ It is hard to be focused when you have all this on your mind.”
“And yet, you almost knocked him out,” I remind him. He takes little solace in that. “Look, I was never mentally there. At the end of the 10th round, I told my corner, ‘Cut off the gloves, I’m done.’ Then Luther Burgess exploded, ‘No, you can’t do that!’” Ncita starts laughing and shaking his head. “Honestly, I thought that old man was going to have a heart attack right there in the ring, so I told him, ‘OK, OK, OK … I’ll fight, just calm down.’ I just went at him and kept throwing punches and well …” His voice trails off.
Ncita came close to regaining his title in a rematch two years later, knocking McKinney down in the fifth round. The old left-eye injury that started in the Salud fight came back to haunt him, and it was shut by the second half of the fight. In fact, the doctor wanted to stop the fight in the corner and asked Ncita how many fingers he was holding up. Mnguni whispered “zintathu” (meaning “three” in isiXhosa) to Ncita, who repeated it in English, and he saw out the fight, losing a majority decision. “That knockout in the first fight was still at the back of my mind. Even when I knocked him down, I was hesitant to go after him.”
He kept on fighting and won six consecutive fights against mostly journeymen. Then he got the opportunity to fight Hector Lizarraga for the vacant IBF featherweight crown in 1997. It just wasn’t there anymore, and he retired in his corner after 10 rounds. “At that time, I was focusing on other things. I wasn’t training. I was busy running my business (fast food franchise). The opportunity came out of the blue. The people I was with at the time asked me if I would fight Lizaragga, they can get me another title fight. I never thought that it would actually happen, but I said yes. I had this business and I needed the cash to patch up some holes. My body was just letting me down in the fight. I could see the openings, but my reflexes were gone.” He fought once more, a draw against Steve Robinson in 1998, and retired with a record of 40-3-1 (21 KOs).
Nowadays, Ncita keeps himself busy with training various up-and-comers. He is married with three kids and has two more from a previous relationship, and I ask him if he would encourage them to become fighters. He has obviously given the subject some thought. “No. Firstly, I will never train them. When I was in the States, Johnny DuPlooy (the late heavyweight contender) was often with me. His dad was involved in his training and they were always fighting. I just saw that this arrangement is something that can cause problems. Then one day my boy got involved in a fight at school. I sat him down and made him understand that there are many things in life. Not just boxing or soccer. There is even tennis, rugby, cricket, whatever. He doesn’t have to be like me.”
Any advice for aspiring boxers? “Sacrifice. Life is full of nice things, but those things are the devil when it comes to boxing. If you want to be a boxer, you must stay away from all of that. I am not even talking about things such as drugs and alcohol now. Just a piece of cake, eating the wrong food — those things are bad for you. It takes a lot of discipline and dedication.”
We are just about an hour away from the start of the night’s card and Ncita is getting antsy and eager to get to the dressing room of his charges. We take a few photos. The hotel staff glances at us and their gazes aren’t fixed on me. He flashes them a ready smile. Everyone knows “The Hawk” around these parts.
The East London and Border areas of the Eastern Cape have produced a conveyor belt of world champions since. Vuyani Bungu, Ncita’s stablemate who went on to upset McKinney, had the longest title reign, and WBO bantamweight boss Zolani Tete is the latest one. If unbeaten rising star Azinga Fuzile, a junior lightweight, can get past the dangerous Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov on Sunday, he could, perhaps, become the best of them all.
Whatever the future brings, Welcome Ncita will forever be the first world champion from this boxing hotbed, a true trailblazer who paved the way for a new generation of fighters. He is indeed something special.
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