Legend in his time

Bongani Magasela

Bongani Magasela

In isiZulu we would say Iphumule insizwa ka Mthembu when we refer to the death of Theo Mthembu.

Born in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, on February 27 1927 Mthembu died last weekend, a few days before his 80th birthday.

Mthembu's boxing career started at Inkamane College in Vryheid and continued at Adams College in Amanzimtoti.

Mthembu, nicknamed "Black Panther", turned professional in 1948 after enrolling at the Bantu Men's Social Centre Boxing Club in Eloff Street, Johannesburg.

In 1950 he was instrumental in establishing a boxing club at the Entokozweni Family Welfare Centre in Alexandra township.

His active boxing career was cut tragically short the next year when he was caught in the crossfire of a gunfight and badly wounded.

Mthembu pursued a career as a trainer and later as a boxing writer. In 1955 he moved to Dube Village, Soweto, where he set about establishing a boxing club, at first using a classroom at Orlando West Primary School.

Two years later the club moved to the corner of Mahalefele and Sandile Streets in Dube, where it has remained until today.

He produced national champions in the late Ezrom Ngcobo, a heavyweight, Herbert Hlubi and Maxwell Malinga, who both won welterweight belts, long before he produced the world-rated Anthony Morodi and Levy Madi.

Mthembu later guided Jacob "Baby Jake" Matlala, the shortest professional fighter in paid ranks, to become a legend as the first South African ever to win three world titles.

In 2004 Mthembu was awarded a National Order for his contribution to the development of boxing and to the struggle for nonracial sport in South Africa.

He was part of the delegation that met Piet Koornhof, the then sports minister, in 1973 to unify the fragmented amateur boxing body into one.

There was SAABA for whites, SABU for blacks, SAABB for coloureds and SAABC, which represented mostly the coloureds in Cape Town and Indians.

Few men devoted themselves to boxing in South Africa as Mthembu did.

He leaves behind eight daughters. His wife, a nursing sister at Chris Hani- Baragwanath Hospital, died in a accident when she and Mthembu were on their way to a boxing tournament about 35 years ago.

He was buried on Wednesday.