Legends Corner: Jan Bergman honed on the streets
ADVERSITY often becomes a virtue for one caught between a rock and hard place.
This was the situation that confronted former world boxing champion and Toekomsrus lad Jan Bergman as a young boy growing up in the rough and tumble of a township.
He was harassed and beaten up by street bullies, who always took his money and other belongings, just for the heck of it.
But when he got home, his father would send him back to the streets with an order to hit back at his tormentors.
"If I did not go there on my own, my father forced me out and walked there with me. He would insist that I must show him who had beaten me up. He would then instruct me to strike at the bully," Bergman recalled.
"The strange but desirable thing was that every time my father was present, I would win. I'd get my own back. But when I was alone, they moered the daylights out of me."
The string of "defeats" made up Bergman's mind to enlist at the local gym to train as a boxer. And so was born one of South Africa's most colourful boxing champions.
Bergman took us down memory lane when we visited him at his Primrose flat in Johannesburg at the weekend.
MCELWA NCHABELENG (MN): I take it that you wouldn't be a boxer if you had not been beaten up by street bullies?
JAN BERGMAN (JB): To be honest, the thought of becoming a boxer crossed my mind while I was still young and it was strengthened by the beatings from the street bullies.
MN: Do you have any regrets about pursuing the fistic sport as a career?
JB: Not at all, my broer. Boxing taught me to be a responsible person because of its stringent training programme. I spent the better part of my life at the gym and that kept me away from trouble, which my friends always found themselves in. I don't smoke or drink because of my involvement in boxing. I also got engaged shortly after I turned professional so I did not have time for women.
MN: When did you turn professional?
JB: At the age of 19, after beating all my opponents as an amateur and there was nothing more to prove at that level. I was fortunate to work with an established boxer like Aladin Stevens. He was the SA lightweight champion but he helped me with sparring while I was still an amateur. Stevens also encouraged me to fight against senior boxers to prepare myself adequately for the professional stage. I'm also indebted to (Peter) Terror Mathebula for the advice he gave me. We stayed in the same neighbourhood.
MN: Tell us about your first fight as a professional.
JB: It was against Simon Oupa Thobejane at Don Mateman Hall in Eldorado Park and I stopped him in the third round. I was not nervous because of the experience I got from fighting against the seniors as an amateur. I also gained a lot from sparring with Stevens. I was completely ready for the big stage.
MN: So you went on to win your next 31 fights. Did you think that you would never be beaten?
JB: Though my record was a perfect start for any boxer, I knew that one day I would be beaten, but I didn't think I would be knocked out. How wrong I was.
I was made to feel how it is to kiss the canvas by Kotsya Tszyu in my 33rd fight. The fight took place in New South Wales in Australia on September 14 1996. The fight was fairly balanced until I caught him with a combination of punches and he got cut above the eye. I should not have cut him because that really angered him.
He became more aggressive after seeing blood. What I saw in the sixth round were stars as he sent me to the canvas.
MN: But you managed to recover after that defeat, until you were beaten by Junior Witter in Lancashire in the UK on April 18 1998. Can you take us through that fight?
JB: It was the most controversial fight I've ever fought in my career. When we signed a contract for that fight we were made to believe that it would be a 10-rounder. To our surprise we were told after the weigh-in that it would be an eight-rounder so my preparations were for eight rounds but we were all taken aback when the fight ended in six rounds. I started the fight on the defensive, as I was planning to go on the offensive from the fifth round. Indeed, I started punishing that guy from the fifth round and my aim was to finish him off in the seventh, only to be told that the fight was over in the sixth round and Witter was declared the winner.
MN: Which boxer caused you sleepless nights?
JB: Aaron Kabi. That guy could hit hard and he was not nicknamed AK-47 for nothing.
MN: Tell us about your meeting with Mike Tyson?
JB:Iron Mike. I met him by chance at a hotel in Los Angeles in the US. He was walking a live lion accompanied by his bodyguards. He asked how many lions do I have in Africa. I told him we don't live with animals and he found that hard to believe.
MN: Give us a brief description of yourself?
JB: Nice, humble and very private.
MN: What is your most memorable time in your boxing career?
JB: When I was crowned the WBU welterweight champion after stopping Guillermo Mosquera on June 6 2001 at Carnival City.
MN: Who of your children is following in your footsteps?
JB: Jamil. He is due to fight in June or July. He's still an amateur but has shown great potential. He is under Benny Pailman.
MN: When was the last time you cried?
JB: Back in 1996 when I lost my brother in a car accident.
MN: Your message to aspiring boxers?
JB: Work hard and don't throw in the towel. Soldier on.