It’s 10AM and the scorching summer sun burns over the lush suburb of Rosebank in Johannesburg. On this morning, under the shade of a tree, in the quiet backyard of a law firm office, is Africa’s top boxing promoter Rodney Berman, the guiding spirit of Golden Gloves Promotions. In a light blue short-sleeve shirt and cut-off jeans, Berman meets an equally casual boxing trainer Colin Nathan. Almost two years ago, a suited Berman met Prince Albert II at the Palace of Monaco, a meeting a world away from this tree in Rosebank, but at the heart of his business fortunes. On that day, an African entrepreneur met a prince with an idea of making money out of putting Monte Carlo back on the boxing map.
“It will take time, but we will build Monaco as one of the boxing Meccas in Europe,” says Berman.
The two men, under the tree in Rosebank, finalized the undercard fight for the next Monte Carlo bout between Hekkie Budler, the South African WBA and IBO minimum weight champion, and Jesus Silvestre, a Mexican with a famous first name and a strong jab. Budler defended his titles against Xiong Zhao Zhong in Monte Carlo in October.
The drawcard for February 21 in Monte Carlo, with a $3-million purse, is undefeated Russian Gennady Golovkin against Martin Murray, an English middleweight.
“It will break all the previous records, notwithstanding the Marvin Hagler and Norberto Rufino Cabrera fight in 1979. Television audiences all around the world will have it. It’s the fruition of what we have been working towards for more than 30 years, in a nutshell. I was very fortunate that I was into Golovkin, who in my opinion is the most exciting fighter in the world today, and even Mayweather respectfully ducks him. I understand Mayweather wishes to beat the Rocky Marciano 49/0 record. He is entitled to it, he has earned his greatness,” says Berman.
It’s a fight that sprang from an African connection with Monte Carlo – Princess Charlene, the wife of Prince Albert II. The former Olympic swimmer was born in Zimbabwe and bred in Benoni, a suburb east of Johannesburg. Her father, Michael Kenneth Wittstock, a former salesman in Johannesburg, had a chance conversation about boxing in Monte Carlo with the South African Emperor’s Palace Casino chief executive. He recommended Golden Gloves to Wittstock and his royal in-laws.
“The reality is I am very proud of the fact that I am from South Africa, the backburner of boxing in the world. Without the financial muscle and without the talent my opposition has, we are still regarded as one of the leading promotion companies in the world, which is a big endorsement. One thing Monaco has done for me was to level the playing field to put on Murray and Golovkin, where on the South African basis, you talking R4 million ($350,000) just for one fighter. HBO television will pay $10 million for the fight; I can’t reasonably expect to get that amount of money. The casino will pay $5 million and the crowd will pay $2,000 for a ringside seat, so despite all that, for over 30 years we have managed to build this reputation,” says Berman.
Berman has come a long way since his first venture into the fight game. That was with Charlie Weir, known as the Silver Assassin because of a streak of white hair, and Bushy Bester. It all began amid blood and fury at Wembley Ice Rink in Johannesburg on August 29, 1977. Weir, who died of cancer at the age of 35, knocked out Bester in the first of six rounds to become Golden Gloves’ first middleweight champion. The company produced more than 50 world champions, most South Africans. Among them: Vuyani Bungu; Welcome Ncita; Brian Mitchell and Budler. It took Golden Gloves 12 years to breed a world champion. Ncita won the world super bantamweight title in Israel against Fabrice Benichou in 1990.
Berman’s 37-year career in boxing has rarely been dull. He staged one of the greatest upsets in the history of heavyweight boxing at Brakpan, a grimy mining town east of Johannesburg, in 2001. The swaggering British millionaire heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis lost to underdog Hasim Rahman in the fifth round. The fight, which Lewis dedicated to Muhammad Ali, was described as the greatest upset since Gene Tunney defeated Jack Dempsey in 1926.
Speaking of Ali, another Berman adventure was the great man’s daughter’s fight in 2006. The historic first female professional bout in the continent between Laila Ali and Gwendolyn O’Neil, of Guyana, was cancelled at the last minute when a Cape Town promoter couldn’t find the money. Ali’s fee alone was $522,000. She won Berman’s rematch at Emperor’s Palace, in Kempton Park, Johannesburg, on February 3, 2007. Apparently, it was Ali’s wish that his daughter fight in Africa, as he fought in Kinshasa in 1974, the famous Rumble in the Jungle with George Foremen.
Many people saw the historic fight of Laila as a breakthrough for female boxing in Africa. Berman disagrees.
“In my opinion women should not be boxing. To me it’s not a sport for women,” Berman says.
The 72-year-old father of two believes casinos are the future.
“Monte Carlo Casino is the most magnificent casino I’ve ever seen. Boxing revolves around casinos. The Mayweathers, the Pacquiaos, the Klitschkos the Mitchells and even the Baby Jakes, they could have never achieved what they had achieved without pay television and casinos. The national televisions around the world cannot afford to pay what these boxers command and what they are entitled to,” he says.
Peter Leopeng, a veteran boxing analyst in South Africa, agrees.
“In America, Madison Square Garden was the Mecca of boxing before MGM Grand in Las Vegas took over. Mayweather fought most of his fights in MGM; Las Vegas is known worldwide as the capital of gambling. Casinos pay promoters to host their fights; it’s not about boxing but the event. These events attract punters and gamblers to the casinos and that means more money to them,” says Leopeng.
Golden Gloves has more than 300 international fights under its belt, but Berman himself has never thrown a punch. He is a football fanatic and played at the University of Witwatersrand in the 1960s. Berman tells FORBES AFRICA he was a good goalkeeper and if were not for his lack of height he would have turned professional. During the political turbulence in the country in 1993, Berman staged a friendly between Orlando Pirates and Italian side AC Milan, at Ellis Park, in Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela, who was to become president the following year, attended the 3-2 win by the Italians along with 60,000 fans.
Berman was close to Mandela and has fond memories. During Laila Ali’s fight, Berman welcomed Mandela, ready to usher him to his ringside seat.
“As he was getting out of his car he shouted: ‘Rodney, Rodney, you may not remember me, its Mandela here, Nelson Mandela.’ That’s the kind of man he was. He just made everybody feel comfortable.”
Though the future appears bright for Golden Gloves, Berman says he’s concerned about the dimming talent of boxers and administration in his country. There’s no point of taking boxers to fight for international titles when they are not up to it, he laments.
“It’s not about the greatness of the promoter but it’s the greatness of the boxer. You can be the best promoter but if the level of boxers is lowering, you can’t do anything. Africa is not good at producing heavyweights. Nigeria is trying but it’s not good enough. It is a sad indictment,” says Berman.
Even so Berman – the ring entrepreneur – is ready to go another round. Monte Carlo or bust!