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South Africa’s greatest boxer

A question that keeps cropping up – who is South Africa’s greatest fighter of all time?

With a track record like Brian Mitchell’s, he possibly has the strongest claim of all. After winning the WBA junior-lightweight belt on 27 September, 1986, when he stopped Panamanian Alfredo Layne at the Sun City Super bowl, Mitchell was denied the champion’s privilege of defending his title at home.

Due to politics he was forced to embark on a remarkable journey around the globe, facing demonstrators and hostile fans due to the political policies of his homeland.

An American magazine described him as boxing’s “Ultimate Road Warrior”.

This great little champion has not been forgotten and Emperors Palace near Kempton Park has announced that it will present The Road Warrior: The Life of Brian Mitchell, the story of his journey directed by Tim Newman, which will take place in the Theatre of Marcellus from 26 October to 29 October and will be performed at 8pm from Thursday to Saturday, with a Sunday matinee show at 3pm.

The nuggety little champion defended his belt in Puerto Rico, Panama, Spain, Italy, Sicily, England, France and the USA. The journey not only made him a boxing legend but also a sporting legend in South Africa among all colours and races.

The hardships of “life on the road” moulded Mitchell into a seasoned campaigner who had no fears about going into his opponent’s backyard. He showed resilience by going to Sacramento to take on Tony Lopez on two occasions, with Lopez’s fanatical supporters baying for his blood. The local hero was given a lucky draw in the first fight and then in the return was given a boxing lesson by Mitchell to take his IBF crown. Mitchell became the first South African to win two world titles.

When South African boxing historians talk of great champions or who was the greatest of all time, the majority must begin with Brian Mitchell.

It all started on the east side of town in Malvern and Belgravia, where his mother Cecilia, a real fighter, and his wife Cathy, both stood by his side through his fears and anguish before reaching the top to become a world champion.

After a rather undistinguished amateur career, Mitchell joined the professional ranks in August 1981, only 15 days before his 20th birthday, coming up against Joseph Moneone in a four-rounder, which he won on points.

This was the beginning of the road around the black townships because he could not get fights with the big time promoters. He fought in places like Diepkloof, Kwa Thema, Vosloorus and Sebokeng, where he was often referred to as the “black fighter” with a white skin.

Mitchell suffered his first and only loss in May 1982 in his sixth professional fight against Jacob Morake. Putting this setback behind him, Mitchell went on to win the South African junior-lightweight title when he stopped Chris Whiteboy in the ninth round in April 1983. He defended this title on eight occasions and also won the prized “Old Buck” championship belt.

The low point of Mitchell’s career came on 2 November, 1985, when he took on Jacob Morake for the fourth time.

Morake was stopped in the 12th round and never regained consciousness.

Mitchell was devastated but, after much soul searching, he decided to continue with his career.

After he became WBA junior-lightweight champion the World Boxing Association ruled that he could not defend his title in South Africa, so he was forced to travel extensively in defending his belt. The first defence of his belt was rather shaky as he received what many thought was a lucky draw against Joe Rivera in Puerto Rico.

With absolute dedication and relying on his superb conditioning, durability and technique, Mitchell went on to successfully defend the WBA belt on 12 occasions on foreign soil, which at the time was a record for the junior lightweight division.

When questioned on his greatest performance Brian said, “The Lopez fights, because in both fights, especially the first fight, everybody had him as the underdog.” Many of the fans believed all the Lopez hype and did not think he had the ability to beat the so-called super-champ.

During his career some people claimed that Mitchell was often cocky but, be this as it may, he always confounded the critics by winning against the odds every time.

At the age of 30 and, having achieved all his goals in the boxing ring, Mitchell relinquished his IBF belt on 23 January, 1992, and retired from the ring.

After an absence of two years and ten months from the ring and easy living, with his weight ballooning during this period, Mitchell once again showed character by making a return to the ring on 26 November, 1994, as a junior welterweight to stop Mike Evgen in seven rounds. In April 1995 he outpointed Silvio Flores over ten rounds but the spark was gone, so he decided to quit the ring for good.

Mitchell finished his career with an outstanding record of 45 wins, one loss and three draws, with 21 inside the distance.


In 2009, Mitchell became the first South African boxer to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota. He was also inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame and the SA Sports Hall of Fame.

Among the other awards he won are:

King Korn/SA Boxing World boxer of the year – five times
King Korn/SA Boxing world fight of the year.
Boxing SA lifetime achievement award
Eder Jofre belt for achievements as a WBA champion
British Boxing Board’s best foreign boxer of the year
Rand Sports Writers Society sportsman of the year, three times
State President’s award six times
Holiday Inn sports star of the year
Germiston super sports star of the year award
Smirnoff/Top Star sports star of the year
Yardley sports star of the year
Honorary Springbok blazer.

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