Cape Town - Willie Toweel was the last surviving brother of the famous Toweel boxing family. He died peacefully on Christmas Day at home surrounded by his wife and all his children and grandchildren.
When he was inducted into the South African Sports Hall of Fame, Toweel was asked what his greatest sporting moment was.
“My greatest moment was when I realised that I had a voice to give someone a hand up in life.”
This response sums up his life. No matter how impressive his boxing record, or how much he uplifted South Africa through the use of his skills and courageous heart, Toweel was a man of God and gave his life to serving and empowering others. A devote Catholic, his life incarnated his Faith. In and out of the ring his was brave, bold and a man of healthy discipline.
Toweel, entered the ring at the tender age of 14 and began a career that would write an impressive history. As an amateur he took all the junior and senior titles in the East Rand, Transvaal and South Africa in his weight division.
In 1952 he represented his country at the Olympic Games in Helsinki and returned with a bronze medal.
Toweel astonished the boxing fraternity when he won the Transvaal bantamweight title in a 30-second blitz, including the count.
After a succession of victories he defeated the American Pappy Gault, ranked first in the world and earned the right to fight for the world title against the Frenchman, Robert Cohen.
Although it was rated the greatest quality and most exciting fight ever staged in South Africa, everyone thought it was over for Toweel after he was knocked down twice in the second round.
But Toweel was known to be unmatchable when it came to heart and courage.
The crowd roared with certainty at the final bell that his comeback had out-pointed Cohen and Toweel had won the world title.
What a shock to all witnesses, even the critics, when the judges' decision was announced as a draw.
But that day Toweel became the People’s world champion, no matter the score.
Toweel went on to become the only South African to hold SA titles in four weight divisions: Bantam, feather, light and welterweight.
Toweel also won the British Empire lightweight title and was the first South African to top the bill at Madison Square Garden and the only South African to top the bill there twice.
Toweel's scientific style and phenomenal agility and speed was filmed and studied in the UK to help others.
Toweel will also be remembered for never being afraid to pursue his Faith. When he fought Paddy Graham in Belfast in October 1959 he was told not to make the sign of the cross in the ring, because of all the political trouble in Ireland between Catholics and Protestants. He never broke his ritual of prayer as he entered the ring. It took him three hours to leave the stadium as he was carried on the shoulders of the people.
Toweel was struck by immense tragedy when he defended his SA featherweight title against a dear friend Hubert Essakow.
Essakow was knocked out and never regained consciousness. He died a few days later. Toweel was unable to pick up his gloves again. Hubert’s family counselled him and told him that Hubert would want him to honour him by becoming the greatest fighter of all time. He must box on.
Toweel offered daily Holy Communion for the soul of Essakow and fought against his own desire to retire from the ring.
Although Toweel had won 50% of his bouts by way of knockout, he now pulled back whenever he came close to knocking down opponents.
When Toweel returned to the venue where the tragedy occurred the fans were shocked when he was disqualified against Jannie Botes for a low blow.
Toweel told his trainer, his beloved brother Alan, the memories of Essakow came flooding back and he just wanted a way to end the fight.
After another bout of victories in SA, he and his two brothers, Alan and Maurice, campaigned in the UK.
Toweel defended his British Empire Championship against Dave Charnley, the British champion and European title holder over 15 rounds. This fight was considered the best contest seen in London for 25 years. The press compared Toweel to "Peerless" Jim Driscoll. He was considered the best lightweight in the world when he beat the American Jimmy Carter, a former three-time world champion.
After 12 fights across the UK he was invited to top the bill at Madison Square Garden as the 14/5 underdog against the most feared knockout lightweight boxer in the USA, Lenny Matthews, who was feared for his extreme knockout power.
Toweel, outclassed him for seven rounds in his typical speedy scientific manner. But in the eighth round Matthews knocked Toweel down again and again. With 90 seconds still on the clock Toweel got up from the second knock down and without hanging on the ropes or clinging to his opponent put up his gloves and stood toe-to-toe with Matthews.
Toweel attacked Matthews and fought on until the 10th round. The crowd booed the American after taking one judges' decision and cheered and chanted Toweel as he gained a victory decision by the two other judges. The press compared Toweel to Willie Pep and said he moved like Sugar Ray Robinson in his prime. He was heralded as South African’s Man of Courage.
Toweel returned to Madison Square Garden for a welterweight world title eliminator against Emil Griffith. With a power start Toweel looked strong for the first four rounds but with serious cuts above both eyes could not see the punches and was knocked down three times in the fifth round. Toweel begged the doctor to give him one more round, but was denied the request.
This was the end of the fighting career of a man two world champions refused to box.
Toweel retired from professional boxing and became an amateur trainer at the YMCA in Mayfair for many years. In the early 1970s he and his brothers Alan and Maurice promoted professional boxing under the banner of Springbok Promotions, and, among other things, negotiated for and promoted the first multi-racial boxing fight in SA, breaking
apartheid in sport.
In 1977 when Toweel became a professional trainer contributing to boxing and raising future South African and world champions such as Sugarboy Malinga, Charlie Weir, Bruce Mcintyre, Brian Mitchell and Piet Crous, the Boxing Board of South Africa acknowledged his lifetime contribution with an Award of Honour in 2006.
"Willie Toweel was a master of strategy and always made you feel confident walking to the ring. Both his mastery of the ring and the personal prayer he would say for you took me to the top. I became South Africa's third world champion with Willie Toweel in my corner. He left a print on my heart," says Piet Crous.
Toweel was his daughters' cuddly teddy bear. He loved them deeply and taught them to believe in themselves and to care for the welfare of all.
Toweel has left a legacy of empowerment and upliftment for the next generation.
A non-profit organisation called Growing Champions has been founded. It was inspired by and built to continue the legacy of Changemakers and positive contributors laid by Toweel and the rest of the fighting Toweel family.
Toweel is deeply mourned by his wife, children and grandchildren and extended family and friends.
Toweel’s funeral will be held on Saturday, January 6 at 13:00 at St. Charles Catholic Church, Road No 3, Victory Park in Johannesburg.
Toweel’s family have asked that any gifts of respect be provided in the form of donations to the NPO which is his living legacy, Growing Champions.
First National Bank
Account Name: Growing Champions
Account Number: 62629436024
Branch Code: 254905
Reference: Your surname & Toweel