While attending a friend's wedding in December, thinking I wasn’t going to know anybody except the bride there, I was delighted to bump into one of South Africa’s all-time boxing greats amongst the guests, the irrepressible Willie Toweel.
Following a sensational win over Lenny Matthews at Madison Square Garden in 1959 the American press and public went wild for the very likable Willie Toweel with headlines reading: “There hasn’t been a boxer as good as this South African smoothie since Willie Pep was dazzling his fans and his opponents.” “Willie Toweel moved like Sugar Ray Robinson in his prime.” “Toweel was the master craftsman” and “South Africa’s man of courage.”
Although he received these accolades they were unfortunately too late as he was nearing the end of his career and while it was one of his finest performances it was a case of the candle flickering brightest before it ends. He did return to Madison Square Garden a year later to fight another future legend Emile Griffith in what was his last fight.
The name of Toweel was for many years synonymous with South African boxing, given that family’s incredible contribution towards the sport locally. No family has had a bigger impact on boxing in South Africa than the Toweels and is ever likely to again.
Although I hadn’t seen Willie for a good few years, he was already well on his way to greet me when I was still getting up from my chair. I felt humbled merely by the fact that this 71-year-old living legend would remember me across the room, never mind walking over to greet me. Willie has the amazing ability to make you feel as though you are a part of his family and is quick to say if there’s any trouble he’ll look after you and show that his fists are ready for action.
Amongst the six Toweel brothers, four participated as boxers, one as a trainer and one as a promoter. Between Jimmy, Viccie and Willie (Fraser, the fourth fighting Toweel, was less successful than his other siblings). They won a world title and made successful defenses thereof; scored a draw in a world title bout; won two British Empire titles and seven national championships. Viccie and Willie also represented their country at the Olympic Games. Maurice was an internationally-known promoter and manager who put on fights featuring the likes of Bob Foster and Victor Galindez, to name a few.
The second Bob Foster-Pierre Fourie light heavyweight world title fight which Maurice engineered and staged in South Africa in 1973 played a tremendous role in breaking down racial barriers in boxing. Alan excelled as a trainer and manager and groomed the likes of four-time world title challenger Pierre Fourie, as well as heavyweight contenders Mike Schutte and Pierre Coetzer, amongst a legion of others. Willie himself also went into training and was involved in the careers of Sugar Boy Malinga, Brian Baronet, Charlie Weir, Pit Crous and Brian Mitchell, to name a few. Naming all the fighters these men were involved with would be to practically put a who’s who together of South African boxers in the sixties, seventies and eighties.
Beyond this, the Toweels were the ones who introduced world renowned referee and official Stanley Christodoulou to boxing, as well as promoter Rodney Berman and boxing aficionado Bert Blewett. As can be seen, the Toweel family’s achievements as a family in boxing are perhaps without equal even on a global scale. And remember they did all this when South Africa was not even a blip on the boxing world’s radar. They were all trained and brought into the sport by their father “Pappa” Mike Toweel, who raised his family from impoverished circumstances and against tremendous odds.
Although Willie is often placed in the shadow of his older brother Viccie, who won the world bantamweight title by outboxing another all-time great, Manuel Ortiz, in 1950 in only his 14th pro fight, there will always be a good argument that Willie was one of the best, if not the best, boxers ever produced in South Africa. Tall and angular in build, Willie was an incredible technician with a perfect orthodox style. He had tremendous reflexes and speed seldom seen in the ring. His left jab was lighting fast and was itself a dangerous weapon. He had knockout power in both fists. The only factor which counts against him is that he never won a world title.
He did score a draw for the world bantamweight crown against Robert Cohen in a fight most thought he should have won, including Cohen himself. He also won the British Empire lightweight title and won national titles in four weight divisions – bantam-, feather-, light- and welterweight. These were in the days before the junior categories and Willie would fight as a lightweight and then a few months later contest a featherweight bout.
A terrible tragedy shortly after his fight with Cohen was to have a marked effect on Willie and his fistic career. He was matched to defend his national featherweight title against a 21-year-old who was rocketing up the feather-and lightweight rankings by the name of Hubert Essakow, a murderous body puncher with scant regard for defense. Essakow had suffered from polio as a boy, but had overcome his handicap with a rare determination, competing successfully in a number of sports and was an excellent scholar.
Essakow and Willie were good friends and often socialized together. Although both were more comfortable at lightweight they agreed to being matched at the lower weight, in a time when the dangers of pulling weight were not as well known as today. Essakow collapsed in the eleventh round of a grueling contest and died 52 hours later.
Although he did continue fighting, after council with Essakow’s family, the impact of the tragedy is illustrated in the fact that prior to the Essakow fight Willie had won 15 of his 23 fights by knockout, whereas in the 30 fights following he only KO’d 7. He had already claimed the British Empire lightweight title and was holding the national feather- and lightweight titles at the same time. During a very successful campaign in the UK in which Willie garnered impressive wins against a high caliber of opposition, the likes of Jimmy Carter, Dave Charnley and Billy “Spider” Kelley, a dramatic scene took place in a dressing room before one of his fights.
While his hands were being tapped by brother Allan, they started shaking uncontrollably and he started sweating to such an extent that he needed to be toweled down. A psychiatrist diagnosed that Willie was living in fear that he would kill another person in the ring. Although he received treatment and it did help to a degree, the horror of Essakow has remained a haunting factor in his life.
When Willie retired in 1960, he had amassed a record of 46-6-2 (23). That’s 54 fights in seven years including one world title fight, seven Empire title fights and seven national title fights in four weight divisions; he twice headlined fight cards at Madison Square Garden. Other names amongst those he defeated were Guy Garcia, Al Neveraz, Orlando Zulueta and Jose Henandez. All of that by the meager age of 26. He still throws a lighting fast jab and when he was 57 he dropped then WBC super middleweight world champion Sugarboy Malinga with it during sparring. He still runs a boxing gym, which is mainly used for fitness training, and when his beautiful wife isn’t looking he’ll quickly slip on the gloves and do some sparring with the youngsters.
An incredible man and, along with his brother Viccie, who lives in Australia, should be considered for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. What’s the point of calling it International if some of the best fighters and biggest contributors to the sport around the world are not included? The Toweels as a family should be acknowledged while they are still with us. Sadly, both Maurice, who was handicapped by polio as a youngster, and Alan are no longer with us.