The Boxing Civil Servant In Rocky’s Corner

Published 11 years ago
The Boxing Civil Servant  In Rocky’s Corner

It is mid-morning and the bright light of a South African spring shafts through the windows. Outside, the bush birds twitter contentedly in the garden, inside, the whistle and thud of gloves pierce the air of the tiny gym in the suburb of Linden in Johannesburg.

Inside the ropes of the ring, Alan Toweel is having the time of his life behind the training pads; taking the punches to his palms, before wheeling his arms, shoulder high, to force his fighter to bob and weave. It is a work out that gleams with sweat and concentration. It is training to hone the skills and reaction that can make the difference between sweet victory and defeat in a bloody heap.

“People say boxing is dead, I don’t think so,” says Toweel with his broad smile.


To say Toweel has made a change and taken a risk, late in life, is almost like saying Muhammad Ali was quick on his feet. Six months before spending his days sweating in the ring, Toweel occupied a cozy desk at the South African Revenue Service in Johannesburg, where he was a senior manager with 24 pensionable years of service under his belt. At the time he quit public service, for a life of boxing gloves and punch bags, he was offered an executive position at the age of 47.

“I was told it was a very good job and they were a bit surprised by my decision. I still get phone calls about it now from colleagues who can’t believe it!” he says.

“It is a bit risky, but I am a fitness trainer as well, so it all helps pay the bills. I am probably the only boxing trainer in the country who has a B.Com in finance and a higher diploma in tax.”


It is a tough game to switch to. There are too many titles and vested interests in the boxing world where a canny negotiator is as useful a solid right hook.

“There are too many titles, they should unify them and make it more interesting,” says Toweel.

The financial decision for Toweel to chance it, in the topsy-turvy world of professional boxing, was a split decision on points. Emotionally, to extend the metaphor, it was a first round knockout.

For Toweel, boxing is his working week and his Sunday rest. He is one of the fighting Toweels, the tough Johannesburg family, which produced a string of professional boxers. They include his late uncle, Vic Toweel, the Benoni Atom, a world-class battling bantamweight who won the world title in 1950 and ended up on the cover of The Ring Magazine.


“He was the best this country has ever produced, he was this country’s only universal and undisputed world champion,” says Toweel.

On the walls above the ring, are pictures telling the story of the gloved Toweels with all their championship belts, knockouts, sweat and glory. As a young man, Toweel did his ring apprenticeship with the gloves and carrying the ice bucket in the corner. His relatives ran a string of professional fighters over decades.

In the ring below, one of Toweel’s new charges is one of many fighters who would give his eye teeth for the accumulated glory of the pictures above. Zolani Marali’s fists are pounding the pads like his life depends upon it and in a funny way, it does.


For months, Toweel has been training Marali for his last shot at greatness against father time and growing odds. If anyone has a claim to being Africa’s Rocky, it is Marali, the fighter who learned to box in his father’s garage in Mdantsane, near East London, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.

The light welterweight is ranked fourth in South Africa and 67th in the world with five defeats in 26 professional fights. At the age of 35, Marali is deemed in his last five minutes as a professional boxer. The wiry southpaw, with his quick feet and sharp jab, was once known as “Untouchable”, now the young fighters call him “Old Bones”. Like Rocky, he believes there is at least one more fight in him and that he can defy the critics to be a champion of the people, standing proudly in the limelight, one last time. In any case, he needs two or three more good purses to set himself up after the final bell.

“I want to get enough money to set up my own gym back at home so I can train youngsters and make a living,” says Marali.

Toweel came across Marali at Emperor’s Palace, in Johannesburg , on a night of defeat in 2009. Marali lost to the up-and-coming South Korean, Ji-Hoon Kim, in a technical knockout in the ninth.


“His style was asking for a good right hand, he was fooling around and he got caught. I predicted that night that he would get knocked out. After that, he was written off and lost everything. About a year ago his manager came to me and said no one wanted to train him and months later we began to work together,” says Toweel.

“I want him to win three more fights to set him up for the future. He has got a bit of fuel left in his tank. He is a very determined and disciplined fighter, but he still has a lot to learn.”

On November 3, in Marali’s old stamping ground of East London, this education will be put to the test against what is likely to be a severe examination at the swift hands of Ali ‘Rush Hour’ Funeka, a classy fighter, ranked 41st in the world, who has fought in Las Vegas.

The fight has all the history and needle that makes for interesting boxing.


The two boxers fought their hearts out at Monte Casino in Johannesburg on November 19, 2011 for the vacant WBF light welterweight world title. Funeka won on a split decision.

“I thought he [Marali] won the first fight and I think the re-match in East London will be one of the best fights you will ever see,” says Toweel.

To spice it up even more is backyard rivalry. Marali and Funeka grew up and trained together in Mdantsane. They have been fighting each other since the age of 12.

“It is a bit like one of those kung fu films… You remember, 20 years ago you killed my father, you remember?” laughs Marali.

“Our wives are even friends with each other, but on the night there will be no laughing, just killing.”

Toweel wants to make sure Marali laughs last on his way to comfortable retirement to prove a boxing point on behalf of both of them.

Only the hardest of hearts would deny the Rocky of Africa one last hurrah.

The Agony of Victory

It was a story written in blood on an African night of fistic fury. Twenty thousand people screamed victory and millions listened in on radio as the referee raised the right arm of the new world champion, Vic Toweel, at the end of 15 grueling rounds. His battered and swollen face managed a faint smile and even planted a good natured kiss on the cheek of his equally bruised opponent, but inside he must have been in agony.

Toweel was taken from the ring to hospital where surgeons operated on his broken nose and busted ear drum. He was to spend the first week of his two-year reign as champion between the operating table and a hospital bed. It was the painful end to a victory that put the image of the young fighter from Africa on the streets of New York and on the cover of the boxing bible, The Ring.

In only his 14th bout, after a mere 16 months of professional boxing, Toweel had weathered a barrage of punches to reach the pinnacle of his chosen career. He was the new world bantamweight champion and South Africa’s only undisputed and universal title holder. Those were the days, a world away from the current plethora of throwaway alphabet soup titles, when there were eight weight divisions and eight world champions.

It was even sweeter for the Toweel camp that the title was taken from a truly elegant and world-class fighter, Manuel Ortiz, of Corona, California, one of the world’s great bantamweights who notched up 100 victories in 131 fights.

Many argue that Ortiz, then 33, was on his way down as a fighter, when he fought Toweel at Wembley Stadium, in Johannesburg. He had held the world title for more than two years after winning it in 1949, in Honolulu, Hawaii, the home town of Dado Marino.

Certainly, black-and-white film of the fight shows Ortiz oozing confidence as he breezed into the ring in a silk dressing gown looking like he was going for a Martini cocktail instead of a punishing boxing match. When Ortiz realized he was behind on points in the latter rounds he threw everything bar the kitchen sink at Toweel, so it was no easy ride for the new champion.

It was the fruit of years of sweat for the Toweel boxing clan. Toweel, who fought at the London Olympics in 1948, had been boxing with his brothers since the age of nine.

The patriarch of the family, Mike Toweel, who had immigrated to South Africa from Lebanon at the turn of the 20th century, had trained his sons to box in a tin shack at the back of the family home in Benoni in eastern Johannesburg. Each one was to make his mark

in boxing.

Toweel, a former woodcarver, held on to his title until November 15, 1952 when he lost to Australian Jimmy Carruthers at the Rand Stadium in Johannesburg, before 28,000 people. There were attempts at a comeback, but Toweel, who struggled with his weight and breathing problems, caused by his many nose injuries, called it a day after 28 fights, three defeats and one draw. He emigrated in the 1980s and died in Sydney, Australia, in 2008, aged 80, leaving a legacy of grit and determination that made the name of the Benoni Atom.