David Isaac­son

Boxer who died af­ter bout might not have had a fight­ing chance of sur­vival, writes

Sunday Times - - OBITUARIES -

BOXER Her­bert Nk­abiti’s fi­nal wak­ing mo­ments were drenched in sear­ing panic. He was in trou­ble from the in­stant he sank to his knees and slumped into a bow­ing po­si­tion late in the sixth and fi­nal round of his un­der­card con­test against Wil­lis Baloyi at the Car­ni­val City casino com­plex in Brak­pan on April 28.

Trainer Manny Fer­nan­des didn’t even wait for the ref­eree to fin­ish count­ing, climb­ing straight into the ring.

Then Nk­abiti sat up. “He was say­ing: ‘I’m suf­fo­cat­ing, I can’t breathe,’ ” re­called the coach.

“He said he was boil­ing hot, like he had heat ex­haus­tion,” said Fer­nan­des, who un­screwed the cap from an ice pack and poured the con­tents over his boxer, hop­ing that it would ease the fighter’s dis­com­fort.

Fer­nan­des has paid his dues in this game, start­ing his own gym 20 years ago with just one name fighter, na­tional feath­er­weight cham­pion An­drew Matabola.

Then he groomed stars Isaac Hlatshwayo and Mal­colm Klassen, and worked with oth­ers along the way, among them Cas­sius Baloyi.

But this was the first time Fer­nan­des had a boxer in this type of dis­tress.

The paramedics and ring­side doc­tor Steven Selepe were soon in the ring.

Nk­abiti, hav­ing been helped to his cor­ner, com­plained that he felt hot.

“He was bit­ing on his gloves, try­ing to pull them off. He wanted us to take ev­ery­thing off, his socks, ev­ery­thing. He was tak­ing off the oxy­gen mask,” said Fer­nan­des.

Then the boxer top­pled over, ap­par­ently un­con­scious.

Nk­abiti, 36, be­gan box­ing when he was in high school in Kanye, Botswana.

He con­tin­ued af­ter en­list­ing in the army, go­ing on to win a sil­ver medal at the 2007 All Africa Games and earn­ing a pres­i­den­tial award.

He left the mil­i­tary to turn pro­fes­sional in 2009 and for ex­tra in­come he ran a gym, train­ing young fight­ers and help­ing all­com­ers with fit­ness.

He had only 14 paid bouts, all in South Africa, win­ning 10 with knock­outs, the man­ner in which his three de­feats also ended. Not even his only draw, against Zan Jonker, went the dis­tance. It was waved over in the fourth round af­ter an ac­ci­den­tal clash of heads.

Stretchered from the ring at Car­ni­val City into an am­bu­lance, Nk­abiti fought for his life. The odds were against him.

Some 560km away in Fran­cis­town, his wife, Ni­cola, was look­ing af­ter their six-mon­thold son, Her­bert jnr.

Sit­ting in their two-bed­room house in the work­ing-class sub­urb of Som­er­set — Somer­rrset, as the lo­cals pro­nounce it, with em­pha­sis on the R — she was obliv­i­ous to the un­fold­ing tragedy that would leave her a widow within the next 20 hours.

The first news of her hus­band’s plight came be­fore sun­rise.

It took 10 min­utes to ferry Nk­abiti to Net­care’s Sun­ward Park Hospi­tal in Boks­burg. He ar­rived there at 9.45pm. Pro­fes­sional box­ing in South Africa is gov­erned by an act of par­lia­ment and reg­u­la­tions dic­tat­ing how the sport must be run are gazetted.

The sec­tion on the sanc­tion­ing of tour­na­ments says pro­mot­ers are re­quired, among other things, to give reg­u­la­tor Box­ing South Africa “con­fir­ma­tion that a hospi­tal close to the venue has been no­ti­fied of the tour­na­ment and that its neu­ro­log­i­cal depart­ment and all other med­i­cal di­vi­sions nec­es­sary will be on standby for the du­ra­tion of the tour­na­ment”.

The hospi­tal’s ad­mis­sions staff had not been alerted to the box­ing tour­na­ment at Car­ni­val City, and the hospi­tal said no ar­range­ments were made.

The pro­moter, Cape Town­based box­ing and mixed mar­tial arts veteran Steve Kalakoda, whose son Vir­gil once boxed pro­fes­sion­ally, de­nied this.

He said he got to the hospi­tal af­ter Nk­abiti and sorted out the ad­mis­sion.

Some two hours af­ter ar­riv­ing there, the boxer un­der­went a CT scan which, ac­cord­ing to some sources, showed bleed­ing on the sur­face of the brain.

It is not nec­es­sar­ily a death sen­tence.

In March 2004, Sy­d­well Mokhoro ex­pe­ri­enced that sear­ing heat af­ter suf­fer­ing a thir­dround stop­page de­feat at the Carousel casino, north of Pre­to­ria.

“My body was boil­ing. I asked them [his sec­onds] to strip me,” the boxer told me a few days af­ter his or­deal.

He col­lapsed in the dress­ing room and was taken to hospi­tal in Pre­to­ria, where he was di­ag­nosed with bleed­ing on the right side of the brain and op­er­ated on.

He sur­vived. Ini­tially he suf­fered from de­pres­sion and ad­mit­ted to hav­ing sui­ci­dal thoughts in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math.

Mokhoro re­counted how he was vis­ited just once af­ter the bout by his man­ager, who asked for his cut of the R1 200 purse.

It should have been R1 500, but Mokhoro for­feited 20% for fail­ing to make the ju­nior mid­dleweight limit, hav­ing been more than 10kg over­weight just 10 days be­fore the bout.

Any­one in box­ing will tell you that rapid weight loss is dan­ger­ous, FATAL NIGHT: Her­bert Nk­abiti on the can­vas dur­ing his fate­ful bout against Wil­lis Baloyi at Car­ni­val City caus­ing de­hy­dra­tion and suck­ing up the cere­brospinal fluid that is sup­posed to pro­tect the brain.

Mokhoro’s story had a happy end­ing: a month af­ter­wards he was ac­cepted to a learn­er­ship pro­gramme and later found em­ploy­ment with an in­sur­ance com­pany.

One of the head­line fight­ers on Nk­abiti’s tour­na­ment was Tommy Oosthuizen, whose fa­ther, Charles, a for­mer na­tional cham­pion, put chal­lenger Don­ald Ngo­mane in hospi­tal in Oc­to­ber 1990.

Ring­side that night was Dr John Flem­ing, one of the mem­bers of the then Transvaal

Doc­tors waited for the swelling on the brain to go down be­fore they could op­er­ate. It never did

board. Flem­ing had ob­served that vic­to­ri­ous box­ers some­times en­dured more pun­ish­ment than their op­po­nents.

So he de­vel­oped the Pun­ish­ment In­dex to doc­u­ment the dam­age each boxer in South Africa suf­fered in ev­ery fight.

It re­mains part of box­ing leg­is­la­tion to this day, and can be used as a ba­sis for sus­pend­ing box­ers for up to three months af­ter a fight, or de­mand­ing they un­dergo brain scans, or even to can­cel their li­cences.

The pro­vin­cial box­ing boards were scrapped with the in­tro­duc­tion of Box­ing South Africa in the early 2000s, a move some old-timers say has opened the READY TO THROW IN TOWEL: Trainer Manny Fer­nan­des way for what they per­ceive as de­clin­ing stan­dards in the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Flem­ing recog­nised the warn­ing signs in Ngo­mane and ar­ranged for him to have emer­gency surgery at Mil­park Hospi­tal in Jo­han­nes­burg.

“I went to visit the boxer the next morn­ing,” said Stan Christodoulou, then the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the South African and Transvaal boards.

“The man had had brain surgery the night be­fore, and when I got there he was sit­ting up in bed eat­ing break­fast. I couldn’t be­lieve it.”

Per­haps Mokhoro and Ngo­mane were the lucky ones. Nk­abiti was the 52nd paid fighter to die in South Africa since 1889, ac­cord­ing to box­ing his­to­rian Ron Jack­son. The am­a­teurs num­ber 24.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to save ev­ery boxer, even with the best-laid plans.

Jake “Danc­ing Shoes” Mo­rake, the only paid boxer to beat ju­nior light­weight great Brian Mitchell, col­lapsed in the 12th round of their fourth and fi­nal con­test at Sun City in 1985.

With no hos­pi­tals nearby, a he­li­copter was on standby. It flew him to hospi­tal, but even so, he died the next day.

It is not known if Nk­abiti would have sur­vived had he been treated faster; there are al­ready ru­mours in box­ing cir­cles about an old hair­line frac­ture on the left side of his skull.

Nk­abiti wasn’t treated fur­ther at Sun­ward Park. Kalakoda said med­i­cal staff there felt he would get bet­ter care at the govern­ment Thelle Mo­go­er­ane Hospi­tal in Vosloorus.

At around 3.20am the boxer was put into an am­bu­lance and trans­ferred.

By the time he got there, it was too late, it seems. Doc­tors waited for the swelling on the brain to go down be­fore they could op­er­ate, the Sun­day Times has been told. It never did.

Nel­son Nk­abiti, who lives in Pre­to­ria, vis­ited the man he calls his brother in the hours be­fore he died. Their fa­thers were brothers in Botswana and Nel­son’s moved to South Africa be­fore he was born.

A ma­chine was help­ing Nk­abiti breathe and he was cold to the touch.

Those who loved Nk­abiti are left won­der­ing if his death might have been averted.

Nel­son re­called that, re­cently, “I asked Her­bert: ‘When are you go­ing to stop [box­ing]?’ And he said: ‘I still have strength, maybe next year.’ ”

Fer­nan­des re­mem­bered a mo­ment in the sec­ond round when Nk­abiti was driven back­wards by two hard blows.

The trainer didn’t like what he’d seen and reached for the towel, ready to throw it into the ring in sur­ren­der if his charge took any more shots like that.

But box­ers are glad­i­a­tors and the old sol­dier in Nk­abiti bat­tled back, con­vinc­ing Fer­nan­des it was still a fair fight.

The least Nk­abiti de­served was to be given a fight­ing chance af­ter he was taken from the ring.

Pictures: NICK LOURENS

PUNCH BAG: Her­bert Nk­abiti takes a bat­ter­ing from Wil­lis Baloyi dur­ing their fight on April 28

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