20-20 vision – The greatest fighter from South Africa: Brian Mitchell
Most countries have produced at least one or two special boxers whose ring exploits have been etched permanently in our collective memory. That includes tiny nations like Puerto Rico and behemoths like the U.S. and Mexico, as well many in between.
In this feature, The Ring looks closely at 20 countries with strong boxing traditions and selects the best fighter from each.
The process wasn’t easy. First, we had to select the 20 countries, which proved to be painstaking. Some nations that have produced memorable fighters didn’t make the list. And, second, choosing a single boxer from the countries that did make the cut was easy in some cases – Panama, for example – but excruciating in others.
The countries will be rolled out in alphabetical order one day at a time at The Ring.
Notes: The “five more” listed at the bottom of each capsule were among other fighters in the discussion for each nation. … Some boxers lived in more than one country. We assigned each to the country where they spent their formative years. For example, a fighter who left one country as a small child was assigned to his second country.
Birthdate / place: August 30, 1961 / Johannesburg
Years active: 1981-91; 1994-95
Record: 45-1-3 (21 KOs)
Major titles: Ring junior lightweight (1986-87), WBA junior lightweight (1986-91), IBF junior lightweight (1991)
Greatest victories: Jackie Beard (twice), Alfredo Layne, Daniel Londas, Tony Lopez, Jim McDonnell
Background: Mitchell was only seven fights into his professional career when he was narrowly outpointed by regional champion Jakob Morake in a 10-round junior lightweight bout not far from his native Johannesburg, the biggest city in South Africa. Mitchell would never lose again. The self-described street fighter would evolve into an excellent, finely conditioned boxer and win three major junior lightweight titles, reigning five years in total even though none of the “Road Warrior’s” 12 defenses took place in his home country because of its apartheid policies. Mitchell would win his first titles by stopping Panamanian Alfredo Layne – who had upset Wilfredo Gomez to win the belt – in 1986 at the infamous Sun City resort in South Africa, after which he began his world tour of defenses. Puerto Rico, Panama, France, Italy, Spain, England, the U.S. – he seemingly fought everywhere. His final defense came in a title-unification bout against talented Tony Lopez of Sacramento, California, a hard-fought battle that ended in a draw. Six months later, after Mitchell gave up his own title because he wanted another shot at Lopez rather than face his mandatory challenger, he turned in a masterful boxing exhibition to outpoint Lopez in the rematch in Sacramento to add another 130-pound belt to his collection. That brought his record in world title fights to 12-0-2, a testament to his consistency. At that point, Mitchell decided that he had had enough and retired at only 30 years old. He returned three years later, won two fights in South Africa and then called it quits for good. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2009, the only South African so honored. That’s how special Brian Mitchell was.
Quote: “He was a smart one,” rival Tony Lopez said. “I never thought Mitchell was a great fighter, I never thought much of him, but he was always in shape. He wasn’t fantastic at anything but he was good at everything. I just couldn’t get him. Something about his style just threw me off.”
Five more from South Africa (in alphabetical order): Vuyani Bungu, Thulani Malinga, Jacob Matlala, Dingaan Thobela, Vic Toweel
Next up: Thailand
Ones you missed:
Argentina: Carlos Monzon
Australia: Jeff Fenech
Canada: Sam Langford
Cuba: Jose Napoles
France: Marcel Cerdan
Germany: Max Schmeling
Ghana: Azumah Nelson
Ireland: Barry McGuigan
Italy: Nino Benvenuti
Japan: Fighting Harada
Mexico: Julio Cesar Chavez
Panama: Roberto Duran
Philippines: Manny Pacquiao
Puerto Rico: Wilfredo Gomez
Russia: Kostya Tzsyu
You can order the current issue, which is on newsstands, or back issues from our subscribe page.