Peter Mathebula: pioneer of black boxing, legend
OBITUARY | He was the first black SA boxer to win a world title, but his greatest achievement was as a dad
I got to see Peter Mathebula, the first black South African boxer to win a world title, at a tournament only once. By then he was a spectator supporting his son Patrick, who was a useful professional fighter in the 1990s.
It was at a packed Brixton Palace and “Terror” Mathebula was the ring royalty, even from a distance; he would have been the first port of call for any fan wanting autographs that afternoon on the first day of spring in 1996.
Mathebula was the pioneer of black boxing. He won the WBA flyweight title in 1980, when there were only two sanctioning bodies on the planet, unlike today’s alphabetical jokes. He was also the first South African to win a world title in a foreign country.
It would be nearly 10 full years before another black SA fighter would lift a world crown. Welcome Ncita became the second in 1990, followed quickly by Dingaan Thobela.
But Mathebula, who died at the age of 67 at the weekend, was the first.
His son Patrick was fighting David Potsane for the vacant Transvaal welterweight title, but on that day the younger Mathebula wasn’t up to the task. He was stopped in the third round.
Mathebula’s son never won a provincial title in his career – apart from the world title, his father also won two SA belts, at flyweight and bantamweight, and a provincial mantle.
Peter and Patrick were chalk and cheese. And this is where Mathebula probably scored his greatest achievement – not in the ring, but as a father.
Patrick told TimesLIVE this week about his father’s patience and support.
“My father attended some of my fights,” he recalled. “A loss would affect him more than it did to me. He would spend a day without talking about my fight until the next day.
“He would start discussing what I should have done during the fight.”
Peter taught him boxing in their Mohlakeng, West Rand, home, from when he was young, but he never imposed himself on Patrick’s ring career.
Patrick went to the same trainer, Willie Lock, who had been in Peter’s corner when he edged South Korean Tae-Shik Kim by split decision over 15 rounds in Los Angeles in December 1980.
Peter’s reign as world champion lasted exactly 15 weeks.
In his first defence he was stopped in the seventh round by Argentina’s Santos Laciar at Orlando Stadium in Soweto.
His preparation was less than ideal and he wasn’t in tip-top shape when he climbed into the ring. It’s hardly a surprise considering that three of SA’s first four world champions – Vic Toweel (1950), Arnie Taylor (1973), Mathebula and Gerrie Coetzee (1983) – all lost their belts in their first defence (the exception was Toweel).
Unluckily for Mathebula, Laciar was also a fine fighter. He held the belt for five years, making 11 successful defences before relinquishing it to move up a division and winning the WBC junior-bantamweight title.
World champions who lose in their first defence seldom make decent money, unless they’re heavyweights.
Mathebula never came close to earning enough to set himself up for life.
In later he years he all but disappeared from boxing’s mainstream tournaments, but he was never really forgotten.
The municipal and provincial governments are contributing towards his funeral on Saturday.
The legend lives on.