Boxing Snippets

30 years a champion

Brian Mitchell and Alfredo Layne embrace, 30 years ago today.

It was a night that nearly took the Sun City roof off, 30 years ago today.

Cocky Brian Mitchell, a pike of a fighter at 57kg, sauntered in as if he owned the place. He almost did, given that Sol Kerzner, the sun king himself, and Anneline Kriel, the one-time Miss World, had thrown down the red carpet for him. More than that, they promoted the world championship fight.

Mitchell was at the centre of the glitzy extravaganza on account of winning 29 of his 30 fights. He was a burgeoning South African hero, his outsize moustache matching his ambition.

All he had to do to become world champion was beat a Panamanian named Alfredo Layne. Trouble was, Layne could fight. Loose and long-limbed, he arrived with a huge reputation, having battered the mighty Wilfredo Gomez into submission to claim the WBA junior-lightweight championship four months earlier.

brian-mitchell-vs-alfredo-layneFew expected Mitchell to win, but they hadn’t reckoned on a fighting heart given sustenance on the tough streets of Johannesburg’s inner city, where he endured a hard-scrabble early life.

Mitchell boxed with great composure, making sure not to let his nerves interfere with the job at hand. Gripped briefly by anxiety, he overcame this by working harder than ever.

Layne was worked over, notwithstanding Mitchell feeling his power shots rippling through to his boots.

“Layne was a big puncher, one of the biggest ever,” he recalled this week. “He had long arms and could crack. My conditioning got me through.”

Even as Layne unloaded his bombs, Mitchell stuck to his plan. He came on strong late in the 15-rounder, dropping Layne three times for a TKO win in the 10th round.

Cue pandemonium.

brian-mitchell-hof4-front-coverMid-1980s South Africa was a lousy place. Apartheid was at its zenith and sport was on the outer. Only Mitchell and Zola Budd flew the flag internationally. Even then, they had to do so by stealth.

But this night belonged to us all. South Africans of all colours celebrated, not least the black fans Mitchell had earned through fighting in townships like Kwa-Thema, Sebokeng and Vosloorus.

World championships also had more currency in the 1980s when only the major belts existed. The top 10 itself looked like a Who’s Who of greats with names like Rocky Lockridge, Jon Jon Molina, Azumah Nelson and Tony Lopez all in the mix.

For Mitchell to ascend to the top of the heap was a magnificent achievement, not least because he had started out as a nine-year-old given little chance of making anything worthwhile of his life.

“If I have to weigh up my whole life from starting out as a boy to fighting Lopez in two epic wars, that night at Sun City is my most favourite win ever. The media gave me no chance and Layne had a big reputation. I knew that I had to hang onto the title because of politics and weight. I struggled to keep my weight down, but chances were few, so I had to stay champion. I was determined not to lose it.”

The old fighter recalls that people couldn’t believe his confidence going into the fight. Top sports writer Norman Canale admitted to being shocked at how assured he was, even in the face of such a formidable, frightening challenge.

Mitchell was nothing if not canny. Even now, he doesn’t claim to have been a better fighter than Layne. But he insists he was better conditioned.

“It was lekker . . . in the tenth I could see he was tiring. I could see his mouth guard as his mouth opened gasping for air. That’s when I broke him and knocked him out.”

Brian Mitchell in more recent times, with the late Baby Jake Matlala and Sugar Ray Leonard.

Nowadays, at the age of 55 he admits to getting goose bumps when he mentions the fight during talks he often gives to the public. “I was 25-years-old and on top of the world, this little South African who came from nothing,” he says with unstinting pride.

It was a whirlwind few weeks for Mitchell. He celebrated the night of his win at dinner with Kerzner and Kriel. He then finally got married a week after his supreme triumph. Kathy, his pregnant fiancée, had insisted they do so before, but Mitchell was adamant: “We’ll do it when I’m champion.”

His son, Brian jnr, was born four months later.

One hundred people were invited to the wedding in Kensington. Four times that many pitched up, a clear sign of his new-found popularity.

Sadly for Layne, it all went downhill after losing to Mitchell. He slid to five more successive defeats, but far worse was to come. Thirteen years after losing his title, Layne was shot dead, aged 39.

Mitchell was luckier. Post-retirement was highlighted with induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2009 and the generally comfortable life of a celebrity sportsman. He keeps himself busy with charity projects, TV work with SuperSport, as much golf as he can muster and as publicist for Golden Gloves.

“I’m happy that I’ve abandoned the Pierre Coetzer-Harold Volbrecht moustache,” he quips.

Although he only signed to fight for Golden Gloves some years after beating Layne, he and promoter Rodney Berman forged a friendship that endures.

Says Berman: “I was with the opposition at the time. That night I did commentary on Radio 702 with Chris Gibbons. I remember saying how I didn’t think he’d win. But what I saw that night was a youngster with fierce ambition. I knew he was going to go very far. The only problem was politics. But somehow we made it work and he became the ultimate road warrior.”

Mitchell will spend today quietly celebrating with friends. Talk will inevitably swing to that memorable night; the night he became king.

Oh, how we loved him.


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