One of the biggest lures for me and I believe for many others to the sport of boxing is not merely the sweet science involved in defeating an opponent in the ring, but also the characters and colorfullives of many of the participants. Those exceptionally talented boxers whose footwork, uppercuts, jabs and hooks are thrown with such precision that we get lyrical about the pure poetry of their motion are certainly the prize gems, but the others whose stories motivate and inspire, whose personal demons and angels are laid bare for us to relate to and learn from, who give us true stories of heroism and struggle towards a better life, for survival, they are the unpolished diamonds who, in most cases, for me carry more respect and worthiness than many of the so called “world champions” who proliferate the record books.
As we all know the best boxers or most deserving and toughest opponents do not always receive a shot at the big time, as title holding champions are by and large protected as the investment they are for their handlers and promoters. We can re-open that debate another time, this piece is one looking at a man’s life, a man who although he never held a world title, was heralded in Europe as a champion of the world.
Andrew Jeptha, the son of a Cape Town carpenter, became the first colored fighter to win a British championship. He won the welterweight title in England on March 25th 1907. His reign lasted a brief six months and it was to be another 41 years before British boxing rules were relaxed to allow once again a colored boxer to challenge for a domestic title.
The tall, slim and good looking Jeptha was from a fairly well off background and was educated at Marist Brothers in Hope street. In a biography he dictated to a friend in later years, Jeptha admitted to have been a soft and rather cowardly youth. His mother died when he was very young and he was pampered by the rest of his family.
When he was 15 he discovered however that he had fistic abilities and could in fact fight better than anyone else in his neighbourhood and from then on he was “never perfectly happy unless using my fists, either for pure enjoyment or in serious earnestness.” Although he had abilities to pursue other career options, his heart was set on becoming a professional boxer and did so at the age of 18.
After winning an open competition organized by visiting world champion Kid McCoy in South Africa in 1902, Jeptha decided to pursue his fistic career in England. Once there Jeptha quickly found his footing and developed into one of the best Welterweights in the land. Weight classes mattered little in those days and he often found himself in matches against middle and even heavyweights. Gunner Moir, the British heavyweight champion of the day was one of his regular sparring partners.
By 1904, Jeptha had settled in England, married a local girl and had a son. He was also commanding an impressive purse for the turn of the century of 100 pounds a fight. Nicknamed “the Boer” in Ireland and “le Negre” in France, stories of Jephta were regulary featured in newspapers and magazines and he was often billed as the Welterweight champion of the world.
He won the British title in a third encounter with Curly Watson. Watson had defeated him on points in their first two bouts. Unbeknownst to most however was that Jeptha was already battling with his eyesight going into this fight. His problems started when he was beaten by Watson in a brutal twenty round fight a few months earlier. His nose had been broken in the 12th round and by the end of the fight he was blinded to such an extent that he had to be guided to his dressing room. For two weeks following he could not see his hand in front of his eyes.
After receiving medical treatments his vision returned slightly, but he was still seeing everything through a hazy fog. Despite this Jeptha requested a third meeting with Watson and a princely purse of 550 pounds was put up for the fight. “When the gong sounded, we shook hands and started fighting,” Jeptha explained later. “Watson came at me like thunder and lightning, but I was on the defensive and did not hit at all, but just kept smothering up and looking after myself. Watson tried all he knew to land an effective punch, but could not succeed; I was working my plan all the time. When time was called I had not struck him once.”
“I used the same tactics in the second round, just smothering up and making him do all the hitting. I kept close to him to avoid his landing an affective punch, following him all over the ring, feinting and when the gong sounded the end of the second round, again, I had struck no blow.” Round three followed the same course and on hearing Watson battling for air at the end of the round, decided that it was now his time.
“Directly the gong sounded I jumped out of my chair and met Watson very nearly in his own corner. Instead of smothering up and covering as I had been doing throughout the previous three rounds, I struck at him with all my might, landing a straight left hand punch to the pit of his stomach. Directly I felt I had landed, I saw Watson’s head drop and then I stepped in an upper-cut as hard as ever I could on his chin, poor Watson fell as if he had been shot.”
While enjoying the success of this victory, Jeptha knew that it would be unwise to ever step foot in the ring again. He had a family to support however and thus continued to fight and suffered more severe beatings. He also lent his hand to acting and appeared in a Vaudeville play called “Black and White” This did his failing eye-site no good however as he was made to endure blows to the head in every night of its run. The general public was still not aware of his worsening condition and he was frequently accused of losing fights on purpose. His heart remained strong, but his valour was to weigh a heavy price. In a match against the Navy’s middle-and heavyweight champion Jimmy Doran, Jeptha received a huge blow which permanently ruined the sight in his right eye. For two rounds he did nothing but support himself on the ropes as Doran pounded himself to exhaustion on the smaller man. After visiting the canvass five times in the ninth round and Jeptha was according to reports “nearly dead” the referee call the fight.
His fighting instincts helped him to a few victories but they were getting fewer and far between. In his last fight against Joe White his sight failed completely and he ended up throwing punches wildly and suffering severe punishment, when the referee stopped the fight saying he was unwilling to let it continue or to give it an official result. Andrew Jeptha’s ring career was over.
While many prominent people of the day rallied to help the blinded boxer and he underwent months of treatment, it was all to no avail. Jeptha returned to South Africa and spent his last years sitting on a pavement by the flower sellers in Adderley street in Cape Town, a broken, blind old man selling a thin booklet of his life story. Those who passed him by would not have known the richness of the memories he carried with him, in the end, that’s all he had left … memories for sale.