Boxing may be a graveyard, but these old warriors are still standing
“Boxing is a graveyard,” an old bloke told a baying audience as the spotlights swirled and the smiles smeared in the tinselled tawdriness of a Port Elizabeth casino’s ballroom on Friday night. He wasn’t wrong.
The bloke was Basil Brice, a grand old man of the fight game from the soles of his shoes worn thin and cracked with life to the tips of the bowtie that separated the lapels of the tuxedo he wore to lend some class to the occasion: the 2017 Boxing South Africa (BSA) awards.
Brice, a trainer since God was a boy, needed propping up at the podium by a younger man, and with a left hook of a sentence he stilled the clamour: “My wife’s having a hard time; blood on the brain.”Mzi Mnguni, a man’s man of garrulous gruff and salty swagger who found shards of gravel in the Eastern Cape’s dust and turned them into world champions — shards of gravel like Welcome Ncita and Vuyani Bungu — was brought to the stage in a wheelchair, which had held him prisoner since a car crash in 2013 led to a series of strokes.
Someone who hadn’t laid eyes on Mnguni since he was bounding into the ring between rounds, and who saw suddenly not that figure, still viscerally alive in the memory, but this crumpled, beaten 69-year-old facsimile, and heard him struggle through a few slurred sentences, had the ghost scared straight out of their whisky.
Say what you will about boxing: that it is a vile excuse for the violence we can’t seem to live without.
That it veers towards slavery in its vicious exploitation of human beings.
That it holds a mirror to our basest selves.
That it is a pathetic pastiche of its past.
That it has been surpassed by even more ugly versions of man’s and woman’s inhumanity to man and woman like that barely-bridled barbarism called mixed martial arts.
Say all of those things, but don’t say that boxing isn’t where the rubber of sport meets the road of real life.
If you do, someone will moer you. And you will deserve it.
Boxing is about pain, blood and death. Hell yes boxing is a graveyard.But it is also a temple to all that is good about love, life and everything else.
Every sighting of the current crop of boxers collecting their awards on Friday yelled it like Michael Buffer himself.
All seven of them were the picture of a life lived alive as they loped forward, smile steady, handshake ready, to accept their prizes.
None more so than Zolani Tete, a southpaw son of Mdantsane who was resplendent in a purple pinstriped suit and black shirt, and bugger a tie, and was named “Male Boxer of the Year” and given a “Special Achievement Award”.
Tete bids farewell to being 20something when he turns 30 on March 8 this year, mere weeks before he will be in London to defend his World Boxing Organisation bantamweight title against Omar Narvaez, a 42-year-old Argentinian.
Ah, age, you bastard. Almost all of the 14 award winners who no longer or never have stepped into a ring with the intention of beating someone up more or less creaked uncertainly to the front of the room.
They were people like Brice and Mnguni, whose best years are as unequivocally behind them as boxing itself is a walking corpse only just kept upright by insufferable overgrown brats like Floyd Mayweather, whose nickname should be “Forever Junior”.
But, among the sorry sights, there were glimpses of what looked like happiness. Or at least of more pleasure than pain.Another southpaw from another age, Elijah “Tap-Tap” Makhathini, strode proud and strong to the stage to accept a “Lifetime Achievement Award”, his beard white, his eyes yellow, and his bearing still so Zulu after all these 75 years and 62 professional bouts in which he fought 482 rounds.
Joy Greyvenstein looks like a very white, very blonde woman of a certain age. She lives in East London across the road from the Orient Theatre, South Africa’s boxing mecca.
And if there’s boxing to be lived and breathed, Greyvenstein is in attendance — without fail, always in the same seat and always in red.
She delivered her acceptance speech for a “Special Achievement Award” in isiXhosa as fluently rolling as a valley of Transkei hills.There were, of course, all manner of dangerously out-of-shape, cumbersomely titled fat cats on hand to present the trophies.
Some seemed to insist on staring into the wrong television camera as they waffled on to no one in particular. Others preened and performed as if the winners were a sideshow to their own apparently exalted presence.
None of the nobodies could hold a candle to the star quality exuded by Tete, Gideon Buthelezi and Noni Tenge as they walked on their imported air.
But Mnguni’s humanity rose above all as he told the throng around him to help him rise out his wheelchair to slur his way through his slew of sentences.
That they did. Because you do what Mnguni tells you to do when he tells you to do it. Like he did in 2011, when he told BSA he didn’t want their sodding “Lifetime Achievement Award”. What, he wanted to know, had taken them so long and why had they so honoured other, lesser figures before him?
It seems times, along with Makhatini’s whitening beard, have changed and Mnguni has changed with them.
Not boxing: it’s always been a graveyard and it always will be.
And its stories, of reality and ghosts, will always hit hard.