Boxer who died after bout might not have had a fighting chance of survival, writes
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.
PUNCH BAG: Herbert Nkabiti takes a battering from Willis Baloyi during their fight on April 28