Once upon a time, boxing in South Africa was almost as popular as soccer. The sport’s local origins are in 19th century Johannesburg and it enjoyed a golden age in the 1980s and 1990s. Stars such as Dingaan Thobela, Gerrie Coetzee and Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala dominated the ring. Matlala, who passed away in 2013, has the distinction of being history’s shortest boxer (he stood just 4 feet 10 inches, or a bit over 1.4732 metres!). Even Nelson Mandela was a boxer!
But the sport has been in decline since the 90s. Financial mismanagement and the unstable leadership at Boxing SA (BSA) served an uppercut to the once thriving sporting code. As a result, if you asked most South Africans today who the current champion is, they’d draw a blank – unlike in the heydays when boxers were celebrities in their own right.
But last Saturday saw a new generation of fans drawn to their screens thanks to a celebrity match. Hip hop artist Cassper Nyovest was defeated in an exhibition boxing match by actor turned musician NaakMusiq. The match trended on Twitter and the larger event, featuring matches with actual boxers, drew 3000 fans to the venue in Sun City. It has provided a much-needed ratings boost to the sporting code. 🥊
Now BSA is in talks with local boxing promoters to pick which fights to broadcast live. The organisation is aiming for a May return to the SABC.
Though the sport is slowly rebounding, more needs to be done to get it back to the heights it once reached. The move by BSA to resume broadcasting might be the fist bump the sport needs. While opinions have been divided on the benefits of celebrity boxing, Saturday’s fight has proved that, given enough marketing, even a pacifist can enjoy watching fisticuffs.🥊
This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 11 April 2022. Sign up to receive our weekly updates.