Boxing Snippets

Brian Mitchell and Azumah Nelson: African giants of the junior lightweight division.

The junior lightweight or super featherweight division was established way back in 1921 with a weight limit of 130 pounds (59 kg). An invention of famous promoter, Tex Rickard, his fighter, Johnny Dundee, was crowned the first world champion when his opponent, George KO Chaney, was disqualified in the fifth round.

Although there were some long reigning champions, like Todd Morgan, who set a then division record of 11 successive successful title defenses in the 1920’s, the title was generally not regarded with the same esteem as the featherweight and lightweight titles, the weight division not enjoying universal recognition at the time. Hence, many of the early junior lightweight champions often fought at feather- and lightweight.

The African continent has produced a total of six major world champions at the weight.

The first South African to challenge for a world title in the division was the popular Nkosana “Happy Boy” Mgxaji. Mgxaji, the national champion at the time, was a pioneer and the forerunner of many excellent world champions to come from the Eastern Cape. Although he carried an impressive 70-1-2 record into the ring at the Goodwood Showgrounds in Cape Town when he challenged the WBA champion from Puerto Rico, Samuel Serrano, in 1979, it was not to be. He put Serrano down in the fifth round, but Serrano got up and stopped him in the eighth to retain his title for the ninth time.

Serrano would make ten successful title defenses before losing his belt to Japanese challenger, Yasutsune Uehara, in a big upset. He regained his title in a rematch and made three more defenses before losing it to Roger Mayweather.

Mgxaji fought on until 1985, even winning the South African junior welterweight title from Arthur Mayisela along the way (he later lost it back to Mayisela), before retiring as an Eastern Cape legend.

Cornelius Boza-Edwards had all his pro fights overseas, except for two early fights in Zambia, but he was born and learned to box in his native Kampala, Uganda. He captured the WBC title in 1981 when he upset Rafael “Bazooka” Limon over fifteen rounds and then made a successful defense forcing the popular Bobby Chacon to retire in his corner after thirteen rounds. His reign was short, losing his belt by getting knocked out in five rounds by the unknown Rolando Navarette but his decision loss to Bobby Chacon in a rematch was awarded The Ring’s “Fight of the Year” in 1983 and he challenged twice, albeit unsuccessfully, for the WBC lightweight title against Hector Camacho and Jose Luis Ramirez. An all action fighter, he now resides in Las Vegas.

After Happy Boy Mgxaji, South African fans would have to wait until 1986 for the next South African to challenge for a world title in the 130-pound division but this time, the challenger was successful, and his reign lasted for a long time. Alfredo Layne from Panama caused a big upset when he stopped Puerto Rican legend, Wilfredo Gomez, for the WBA world title. He elected to make his first defense at the Sun City Superbowl against Brian Mitchell. Bad mistake! Mitchell administered a systematic beating, stopping Layne in the tenth round to become South Africa’s sixth world champion.

After his victory South Africa was expelled from the WBA because of its Apartheid policies. It was decided that Mitchell could keep his title, but he would not be allowed to defend it at home. Mitchell proved to be the ultimate road warrior and gained the unique distinction of never having defended his title at home, fighting all over the world from Puerto Rico to Panama and Spain, to Italy and the UK, as well as the US. He racked up twelve defenses of his title, setting a new division record for the most successive successful title defenses. Among his victims were future WBO champion, Daniel Londas, Jim McDonnell, who later derailed the comeback of Barry McGuigan, and former Olympian, Jackie Beard.

It was in his twelfth defense in 1991 that he faced Tony Lopez, the two-time reigning IBF world champion, in a unification showdown. The fight took place in as hostile an environment as one could get, in front of Lopez’s rabid fans at the Arco Arena in his hometown of Sacramento. In a great fight, Lopez had his moments early and Mitchell came on later in the fight. At the end, many thought that Mitchell had done enough to edge it but the result was a split draw with both hanging on to their world titles.

A rematch was scheduled for later that year, but Mitchell was forced to vacate his WBA title as he was due to face mandatory challenger, Joey Gamache, the Lopez rematch being a much more lucrative option. He may have been robbed of making a 13th defense of his WBA title and becoming the first South African to unify a world title, but in the end, the payoff was much bigger. Mitchell administered a boxing lesson to win a unanimous decision and become the new IBF champion. He promptly retired, making a two-fight comeback in 1995 before finally hanging them up for good. His final tally read 45-1-3 with 21 stoppages, having avenged the single defeat and all three draws on his record, some of them several times.

He is still regarded by most pundits as South Africa’s greatest boxer.

When talking about the greats of the junior lightweight division such as Mitchell, Lopez and Molina another name from the African continent inevitably comes up: Azumah Nelson.

He burst on the scene as little-known fighter from Accra, Ghana who gave the great Salvador Sanchez all he could handle when challenging him for the WBC world featherweight title. He gave Sanchez a hard night before succumbing in the fifteenth round, the only time he would fail to go the distance in his long career. He went on to capture the vacant WBC featherweight crown after Sanchez’s untimely passing, knocking out Wilfredo Gomez in 11 rounds and made six successful defenses before moving on to the 130-pound division.

He signaled his arrival by capturing the vacant WBC super featherweight (as that organization called the junior lightweights) world title by winning a split decision against the tough Mexican, Mario Martinez, in 1988. He went on to make ten successful title defenses, recording wins over former and future world champions such as Juan Laporte, Jeff Fenech, Calvin Grove and Gabriel Ruelas. During that time, he also challenged the great Pernell Whitaker for the lightweight title but came up short on points.

It was his rematch win over three weight world champion, Jeff Fenech, in 1992 that was perhaps the highlight of his title reign. He was considered lucky to hang on to his title with a draw in their first fight but then went to Australia to give Fenech a rematch in front of his home crowd. He was a big underdog and considered an ageing champion after a long, hard career but he surprised friend and foe by taking Fenech apart, stopping him in eight rounds in a bout that was awarded Ring Magazine’s “Upset of the Year.”

He lost his world title to Jesse James Leija in 1994 (this was a rematch of their first fight where he retained his title on a draw) but came back at the end of the following year to regain his title at the age of 37, stopping Gabriel Ruelas in five. He defended it by stopping Leija in six rounds of a rubber match before losing it on a split decision to Genaro Hernandez.

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