Left hook, right cross
Two rings loom large in the life of Anthony Sithole — the boxing arena where he holds a tragic record, and, on one fist, the symbol of his happy marriage
● There are good anniversaries and then there are painful reminders, but somehow the Sitholes of Soweto have outlived tragedy and are looking forward to a joyful milestone.
They will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in November; tomorrow will mark 47 years since Anthony Sithole’s fists became the deadliest weapons in a modern boxing ring.
In his heyday Sithole fought at just under 54kg, less than half the weight of reigning world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, and there was nothing to suggest that his scheduled 10-round bantamweight contest against Alberto Jangalay of the Philippines was going to end inside the distance at the Festival Hall in Brisbane on October 1 1971.
Sithole was on his second tour of duty in Australia, contracted to a television network there, as were a few other South Africans, including future world bantamweight champion Arnold Taylor and welterweight Johannes Dladla.
Just over a month earlier, the durable Jangalay, 28, had lost on points over 10 rounds to Taylor.
Now, in the eighth round against Sithole, the Filipino stung the South African with a couple of blows. Sithole retaliated with a barrage that ended with a devastating twopunch combination. A left hook twisted his opponent sideways and a right cross lifted him clean off his feet.
Jangalay crashed to the canvas, then attempted climbing to his feet but lost his balance in the process, stumbled forward and toppled over again. The referee waved that it was over.
Sithole never suspected anything was wrong. Neither did his Australian trainer, Johnny Phillips, and manager, Ed Silver, who wanted to visit the fallen opponent in hospital.
But they were assured there was no need for panic; Jangalay had been admitted merely for observation. The next day, however, he was dead.
Silver went to inform the 28-year-old Sithole. “He was stunned,” the manager said at the time. “He just melted into the chair.”
Killing an opponent is a huge psychological blow to any boxer, but for Sithole this was the second time he had sent a foe to an early grave. Local historians say the records show he is the only boxer of the gloved era to have killed two opponents.
Once is bad enough. Johannesburg star Willie Toweel was haunted for the rest of his life by the 1956 death of Hubert Essakow, and US world champion Emile Griffith struggled to come to terms with the demise of Benny Kid Paret in 1962.
Even Brian Mitchell nearly walked away from the sport after the death of opponent Jacob “Dancing Shoes” Morake.
“It’s like a death in the family,” said Mitchell. “A professional boxer gets into the ring to win, not to kill someone. To kill two people … it must have been terrible.”
Killing an opponent is a psychological blow to any boxer, but for Sithole this was the second time
Grace Sithole, 73, says Anthony had already paid her lobola when the first tragedy struck in March 1967.
A young Sithole had put his unbeaten record on the line against Lumkile “Young Clay” Dunjana when they met at the Centenary Hall in Port Elizabeth’s New Brighton township.
The 21-year-old Dunjana, a former South African amateur champion who had never been on the canvas in the paid ranks, dominated the bout and was way ahead on points by the time he came out for the sixth and final round.
Sithole, needing a knockout to win, landed a short, sharp punch that briefly left his opponent teetering on the ropes before he slumped to the canvas unconscious. Dunjana died before midnight.
“I wanted to leave boxing,” says Sithole,
75, “but they [his manager and trainer at the time] came to me and said: ‘It’s a game, it could have happened to you’.”
His religious mother, Dora, advised him to pray and he also turned to cultural custom to help him deal with Dunjana’s death, slaughtering a goat and speaking to his ancestors.
But there was no quick fix. In his next bout, barely a month later, Sithole suffered his first professional defeat when he challenged for the national black bantamweight crown. His record was chequered for the next 16 months and he failed to score two consecutive victories until October 1968, shortly before he and Grace were married.
His reputation as a boxer made their union a celebrity wedding, attended by journalists and photographers as well as plenty of guests and the usual hangers-on.
“You know what weddings are like in the locations,” chuckles Ezekiel Mtshali, their best man half a century ago.
“He was very famous,” recalls Grace.
“Even now they respect him when they see him in the street. They still call him a champ.”
In his working role, however, Sithole was a modest messenger for a company in central Johannesburg. Not many white South Africans knew him as anything else.
Grace, whose childhood playmate in Orlando West was neighbour Kaizer Motaung, the future soccer star and club boss, was still at school when she met her future husband at a party.
“It was love at first sight,” she says.
The year after their wedding, Sithole won both the black South African flyweight and bantamweight crowns, and then came the Australian deal.
Grace, a machinist at a clothing factory at the time, joined him a few months into his first stint in Australia.
The Qantas flight to Australia was her first taste of air travel. “I was scared on that plane,” she recalls. “But a white lady next to me told me not to worry. She said: ‘It’s just like a car’.”
Just after they landed in Sydney, she heard a welcome announcement over the cabin loudspeaker: “Mrs Grace Sithole, your husband is waiting for you in the airport.”
Anthony had arrived in Australia with a learner’s licence and the ring name Qash, an abbreviation of his given Zulu name, Macashelana.
It is pronounced with an Nguni click, a difficult phonetic manoeuvre for
Australians. Phillips arranged for Sithole to get his driver’s licence in Sydney but the trainer couldn’t get his tongue around the name.
Sithole does a dramatic re-enactment of the conversation with Phillips:
“What’s your name?”
“No! It’s Qash!”
“No, that’s too difficult. We’re going to call you Kid Snowball.”
Sithole’s first bout after Grace arrived was against Jean-Claude Lapinte, a former French bantamweight champion who was considered the favourite.
“Kid, you can’t beat this guy,” says Sithole, re-enacting another conversation in which his reply was: “My wife is joining me. There’s no ways I can lose when she’s here.”
Sithole stopped the Frenchman in the eighth round.
Armed with a car and a road map courtesy of Phillips, Sithole found recognition and help in Sydney.
“I often got lost, but I would ask people at garages and they’d recognise me. ‘Kid, you’re here,’ they’d say, pointing at the map. ‘You need to get there.’ ”
Sithole always found his way back home, a downstairs apartment at Phillips’s seafacing house.
Grace laughs when she remembers not being able to operate Australian appliances. “I was using my hands to do the washing. I had to learn to work the washing machine.”
She made new friends, especially “The Girls”, five spinster sisters who lived next door. “We would have tea or go shopping, go and see the markets.”
Life was good — and free of apartheid — but they were never tempted to settle in Australia.
“The reporters used to say we must go live there, but I’d say, ‘What about our family? We’ve got parents, sisters, brothers, children — we can’t’,” says Grace.
She had to cut her trip short and return to SA when her father died.
Sithole finished up in Australia soon afterwards with a points win, then headed back to Soweto.
He surrendered his South African bantamweight crown on a surprise loss to Joe “Green Cobra” Gumede at the Jabulani amphitheatre, after which he returned to Australia, where he beat Willie Cordova, lost on a close decision to Australian bantamweight champion Paul Ferreri, and prepared to face Jangalay in that fateful bout. Two opponents dead in 35 fights.
“I think the second time it was even worse,” says Grace. “For him and for us.”
On learning of Jangalay’s death, she raced to comfort her mother-in-law in Rockville — and to be comforted. Reporters arrived there to find both women in tears and unable to speak to the media.
“His career went down after that,” Grace says, sitting in the lounge of that same
No, your name is too difficult for Australians. We’re going to call you Kid Snowball
house, which now belongs to her and Anthony. “I think he didn’t want to go through that again. I think he didn’t throw his punches like before.”
Sithole’s last bout in Australia was against Shintaro Uchiyama of Japan for a world ranking, but he was well beaten on points, failing to win even one of the 10 rounds.
Back home he lost a rematch to Gumede and then fought 20 more bouts, winning nine, before retiring in 1975.
Tragedy stalked the Sitholes outside the ring, too. They have buried two of their four children. Son Vincent, whose daughter was just a year old when he died, was murdered by thugs on the streets. Daughter Jacinta, who was married and living in Frankfort in the Free State, died of natural causes.
Grace, a devout Catholic, is philosophical about the hardships they have faced.
Their son’s killers were caught but they had no desire to attend the trial. Grace says: “What’s the use? The next thing they’re showing the photos of what happened. No. We just leave it as God will see fit. The hardest was our daughter in the Free State, because it’s very far. It is our custom to visit the cemetery and clean up, but we have to make special arrangements to go there.”
Vincent’s daughter has spoken about arranging a party to celebrate their November 23 anniversary, although they don’t have an inkling of what will actually materialise.
Even after more than half a century together, Grace says Anthony is still a romantic.
“Every time I come in he says, ‘Kiss me’. Also when he goes out. Even when we’re at the church, when we’re parting — maybe he’s going for a meeting or I’m coming home. I can say he is romantic.”
Their house harbours no sign of the pain they have experienced, but everywhere there is evidence of happiness. During the interview, one of their six greatgrandchildren is brought around, having been pulled out of crèche for the day because he was feeling ill. Grace takes care of him with great tenderness.
Anthony, who still runs to keep fit, tries to remember only the good side of boxing. A few times he starts throwing punches while shouting the instructions he would have received from his trainer.
“Jab, Kid. Jab!” he yells, shuffling forward as he hunts an imaginary opponent, his left hand probing for openings before his right finishes the bout.
Qash always knocks them out, but this way they never die.