With bright lights shining and the crowd baying for his blood, Rofhiwa ‘War Child’ Maemu must have been hungry as he prepared to throw the first punch. He wanted to win so badly, he starved himself for two days to make his weight for this World Boxing Federation International featherweight title fight in Bloemfontein – a city that didn’t want him.
The bell rings and Maemu goes in for the kill. He’s quick, cautious and has amazing footwork but his first punches miss. Maemu is too quick for his rusty, but composed, opponent, Tello ‘King Razor’ Dithebe, who had not had a fight for four years. Maemu starts each round with quick footwork and aggression. In the eighth round, the tables turn. Dithebe gains momentum and cuts Maemu above his left eye. A few powerful punches by Dithebe in the last two rounds dashed Maemu’s title hopes. Dithebe wins his first title with a split decision; Maemu walks through the dark tunnel to the dressing room disappointed and alone.
“I feel good, for me a loss is nothing… I will come back stronger and be a champion,” says Maemu after the fight.
In the downcast dressing room, trainer Alan Toweel is optimistic with a tinge of sadness.
“There’s a lot of work to be done but I’ll bring you back slowly; it’s only a matter of practise, practise and more practise,” he says to his fighter.
“I really thought you won that match but that’s boxing for you, it’s a tough sport,” says Toweel.
Maemu knows how tough training is; four weeks earlier he was hard as nails. He runs a 23-kilometer round trip from the dusty streets of Soweto to the suburbs of Linden, in Johannesburg to the Toweel gym.
“He is very lucky, he’s got natural fitness, he’s got natural stamina, he thinks like the old-school fighters, a lot of them used to walk or run to the gym,” says Toweel.
His life has taken heavy punches, so bruising that he took his own ring name. One night he was watching a documentary, War Child, about a hip-hop star who returns to Sudan where he served as a child soldier.
“That war story seemed as if they were referring to me, how I grew up,” he says.
Punishment from his father was just part of it.
“When I grew up I didn’t love running. When I was 12 my dad used to punish me by making me run for 12 kilometers. Whenever I did something wrong, he would give me shorts and say ‘Okay lets go, we’re running’. I would feel my feet are sore and I would be crying but I got used to it,” says Maemu.
Having been brought up in a struggling family, he believes his past could never stand in the way of his future.
“My family is one of those families that are trying. Even at school, I didn’t go further, I ended in grade 12. Even though I didn’t go further with schooling; I still have that heart of a lion to go further with whatever I do.”
His partnership with Toweel is a second chance for Maemu to repair his past tainted with greed, betrayal and hustle.
“For me, each and every time they told me about fights, I would go just go for it because I knew I am going to get paid. For me, it wasn’t about boxing, it was about money. I never had an income back then so when you’re boxing, the purse tend to become exciting sometimes,” says Maemu.
He would receive R7,000 (around $500) for a fight. While sitting on the couch instead of training, he would accept the offer without hesitation.
“I would take any fight even though the divisions were not my divisions, I’d just go. In boxing, divisions speak a lot; you don’t have to get at any division,” says Maemu.
“I think the future looks very bright for Maemu whose career almost ended before it started due to being involved in wrong fights. A good trainer will make appropriate decisions that will see the career of a fighter taking shape by choosing right fights. I think Toweel has done that well. Toweel just needs to add to what Maemu [has] and not to change him to something he is not. A trainer must adapt to a boxer’s style and not vice versa. Once they get that right, then they will be home and dry,” says veteran sport journalist, Bongani Magasela.
His loss to Dithebe may have been a bolt from the blue to many but Maemu is still optimistic about facing South African featherweight Azinga Fuzile, who beat Macbute Sinyabi for the title.
“Azinga is a good boy but Macbute is finished. The last person who I know who won a title after four fights is my uncle Vic. We will put on a fight for the South African title, that’s for sure,” says Toweel, before the fight in Bloemfontein.
Despite the loss, Toweel is still singing the same tune, he wants Fuzile. Maemu dropped from second to sixth in the South African boxing rankings and will have to climb up to be a contender at the top again.
“Theres a lot of room for improvement and I am willing to work with him,” says Toweel.