A fighting champ of the sixties

2010-02-02 00:00

THERE is a champion boxer named Ahmed Haffejee who was born in Church Street, grew up in Pietermaritzburg, worked in the then Transvaal and fought all over the country. However, if you look in sporting records of the period 1957 to 1973, you will find no trace of him. It is as if he did not exist, which is not surprising, ­because he did not.

In the boxing records and news­paper archives of the period, you will, however, find eloquent evidence of the career of one Ahmed Choonara, whose boxing career took in seven amateur and 15 professional fights. “Boxer” Haffejee is now a well-known businessman in the city.

Haffejee (72) attended Woodlands School till the age of 14 when he left to find work after his father died. He moved to Johannesburg and lodged with the Choonara family in Sophiatown. In terms of apartheid legis­lation, Indians were required to have a pass to move from one province to another and were allowed only a three-week stay. “Because I was in ­Johannesburg illegally, I took on the Choonara surname.” This became the name he fought under too.

A small wiry man, Haffejee got into boxing because Sophiatown was “a rough place where you had to know how to look after yourself”. A friend persuaded him to join the Yanks ­Amateur Boxing Club in Fordsburg. He discovered he had a natural talent for the sport and in 1959 won his first ­amateur fight in the bantamweight division, maximum 118 pounds (53,5 kilograms).

He went on to win his next five fights before switching to featherweight ­because there was no competition left in the bantamweight division.

“Because of apartheid I wasn’t ­allowed to fight white boxers so most of my opponents were black, and my fights were in townships, particularly Coronationville.” Later, he also fought in the lightweight division.

Haffejee turned professional in 1959 and found a promoter in ­Durban, butcher Razak Sirkot. “It was tough. I trained four nights a week and fought matches on Saturdays. I would get on a train from ­Johannesburg on Friday night, fight in Currie’s Fountain or Durban on Saturday afternoon and take the ­Sunday train back. The first purse I won in 1959 was £5.”

He also fought in Soweto, Mamelodi, Cape Town, Witbank and Kimberley.

He believes the highlight of his ­career was the technical knock-out (TKO) he scored against the champion Freddie Whiteman in Cape Town in the sixth round in 1963. Also ­memorable was topping the bill for a fight against Pretoria’s Amos Lukhombo in Witbank, which he won on points in 1963. It was the first ­professional fight in Witbank and the first time an Indian fighter had topped the bill. He was also billed to fight against the then Rhodesian boxer, ­Tiger Sheke, but since Ahmed ­Choonara did not ­really exist, Haffejee could not get a passport to leave the country.

He fought until 1973 when the Transvaal Boxing Board of Control suddenly and without explanation, withdrew his licence. “I suspect it was because many boxing fans were ­uncomfortable to attend matches in the townships, where many fights were held. Although I was a popular draw card for the promoters, the smaller crowds counted against me.” Although he appealed this decision, his career was over. “Before that I had already been battling to get fights, and when I did, it was usually as a ­last-minute replacement for someone else.”

A report from 1970 records that “The only Indian bantamweight boxer in the Transvaal” protested that “Indian boxers were being forgotten and allowed to die slow boxing deaths” for lack of fights. Haffejee and his family returned to Pietermaritzburg, where he and his brothers opened their well-known garage (Haffejee Service Station) in Church Street.

He admits that his family was opposed to his boxing, “but because I did not live at home, but far from them, I took a chance. I understood their ­position because boxing is tough. You can get hurt and just one punch can kill you.” Although concerned about him, his wife Zubeida, whom he ­married in 1961, “was always a great support to me”.

He says that Muslims are not encouraged to take up boxing, although they “love to watch it. I had cuts and stitches many times, and fought Whiteman with a broken nose — and still won.” None of his four sons has followed him into the sport. “They all prefer football, which was my second sport too.”

Haffejee keeps a scrapbook of his boxing career. A yellowing news­paper cutting from 1976 records the then Minister of Sport, Piet Koornhof’s decision to allow professional boxing “to go multi-racial”.

Alongside the story is a photo of Haffejee and Leslie Tangee, noting that it was “a great pity” that apartheid had prevented the two “old-time” boxers from achieving higher honours. The report comments that: “Both were brilliant boxers and could have certainly made world ratings”.

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