Dingaan Thobela is among the top of the list when mentioning South African sport legends. Thobela was a brilliant boxer and his achievements in the ring have earned him legendary status.
He had an illustrious boxing career but, just like any other sport hero, Thobela went through ups and downs.
“I had a great boxing career and I am so thankful to all the people that supported me throughout the years. I had many wonderful moments as well as tough moments in boxing and I gave my best in everything that I did as a fighter,” says Thobela.
“I learned a lot during my fighting days and now that I have retired I still have a passion for boxing. I am involved as a promoter and trying my best to help young boxers who want to emulate me.”
Thobela, known as ‘The Rose of Soweto’, began on the dusty streets of the township to become a household name.
He had a few high profile fights that put him in the spotlight and he always had many South African fans cheering him on whenever he entered the ring. When he won his first national title against Mpisekhaya Mbaduli, doors were opened for him. He was ultimately victorious at international level, beating Mauricio Aceves to win the WBO lightweight title in 1990.
His most popular fight was against Tony Lopez, which Thobela lost. Many boxing experts thought he was robbed of a result and a rematch at Sun City was organized. He did well enough in that bout to convince the judges he was the worthy champion.
“A lot of people remember my fight against Lopez because he was such a good fighter. I lost my first fight against him because of a controversial decision, so I was happy when the rematch was organized. I won the rematch and was helped by the support of a lot of people at home,” says Thobela.
“I believed in myself and I believed that I had what it took to do well against Lopez. I was really motivated for that fight.”
As more and more money was rolling into his bank account, Thobela started to gain weight, which affected his performance. He later lost his title to Orsubek Nazarov in one of his worst performances in the ring.
After taking a break for almost two years, Thobela made a comeback but struggled as age caught up with him.
“I was a disciplined fighter because I worked hard and I was focused. My strength was my mental capacity, as I used to analyze each fight,” he says.
“My fight against Mbaduli Mpisekhaya was very interesting because he was a strong fighter and he was determined to win. I had prepared myself well for that fight and I was ready for the battle. It is good that I stayed focused during that fight and was able to win.”
Thobela had always looked up to Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard and says his fighting style was based on theirs.
To this day, he attracts the attention of people whenever he walks down the street. He even takes the time to assist young boxers that ask him for advice.
“When I was young, there were other professional boxers that I used to watch in order to improve as a fighter. Now I am interested in giving back my knowledge to young fighters who are also determined to make an impact like I did. I am involved in marketing and promoting the young fighters who approach me for help,” he says.
“In boxing there is a lot that is needed when preparing for a fight. A young fighter may have potential but that is not enough. I do my best to give advice because I am very passionate about boxing. I also approach some sponsors to help wherever they can.”
Back in the day, Thobela and Jacob ‘Baby Jake’ Matlala were role models to many people in the townships. Thobela says he still keeps in touch with Matlala as they are both passionate about the development of boxing in South Africa. He is aware of how boxers often earn decent money while they are active but struggle financially after they retire.
“I do communicate with Baby Jake whenever the need arises and we do talk about how we can contribute and make the difference,” says Thobela.
“Today, boxing is not of the same standard. Back in the day, there was myself, Baby Jake and Vuyani Bungu,” he says.
“Development is key; it is the feeder to the professional ranks. Young boxers need to be guided properly from an early age and I would like to see Boxing South Africa ensuring that managers look after their fighters when they sign a contract.”
Thobela is now in the funeral insurance industry and runs his own business, The Rose, in Chiawelo, Soweto. He was always aware that he could not be a professional boxer forever, so he prepared himself for business while he was still fighting.
Thobela copes well with the challenges he faces. There is plenty of competition in the business, but he feels that through good managerial skills and with the right people around him, he will be able to survive and succeed.
“Our aim is to help people and make a difference. I would say that the business is doing fine because I also manage to help some young boxers with the money from The Rose,” he says.
“Of course there are some challenges, such as when you don’t get materials on time from suppliers. But, I am as committed in business as I was in boxing.”
Thobela keeps his eye on the South African economy and is aware of the weak rand that is affecting the market.
“I manage my schedule well and I know when the time is right to do certain things. It is also important to stay updated on what is happening in the market,” he says.