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Nelson Mandela: The Boxer

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Photo via swide.com

Nelson Mandela was a fighter. He fought for freedom, equality, and to unify a land that was thought beyond hope.

The former President of South Africa and anti-apartheid victor passed on Thursday, December 5, 2013 at the age of 95. Aside from his numerous battles as political activist he also found refuge in the sport of boxing.

Mandela began boxing while attending college at Fort Hare University in Eastern Cape. He later went on to obtain his law degree at University of Witwatersrand, where he was the only native African student. He is also known for his 27 years of shadow boxing behind bars for suspicion of treason in apartheid ridden South Africa before going on to become South Africa’s first black president.

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In his autobiography “The Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela stated, “Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, color, and wealth are irrelevant . . . I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress . . . It was a way of losing myself in something that was not the struggle. After an evening’s workout I would wake up the next morning feeling strong and refreshed, ready to take up the fight again.”

His love of boxing extended beyond his college days and time in confinement, and he became an avid fan of the sport.  Nearly two decades after defeating Muhammad Ali at the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1971, Joe Frazier had the opportunity to meet Mandela, who had just completed his 27-year sentence. Frazier, who was inspired by what he knew of the man, presented him with the championship belt from that fight, which he considered a prize possession.

Muhammad Ali also met Mandela (twice) and has a photograph of the two of them on display at the Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. The photo was taken on Ali’s trip to South Africa to mourn the assassination of Chris Hani, anti-apartheid leader who was killed in 1993.

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Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali

In response to Mandela’s passing Ali issued a statement saying, “What I will remember most about Mr. Mandela is that he was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge. He taught us forgiveness on a grand scale.

He inspired others to reach for what appeared to be impossible and moved them to break through the barriers that held them hostage mentally, physically, socially and economically. He made us realize, we are our brother’s keeper and that our brothers come in all colors.”

The Mandela house also displays a championship belt belonging to “Sugar” Ray Leonard. In an interview with SecondsOut.com, Leonard recalled meeting the President while visiting South Africa.

“So I had the pleasure of going to Nelson Mandela’s home and having dinner with his family and his grandkids. I knocked on the door and he answered the door. He says, ‘Hello Sugar, how are you doing?’ He then added, “One thing I don’t tolerate, is people being late.’ I started sweating. It was puzzling, because I was about half and hour early. He then said, ‘My photographer should have been here a long time ago!”

Nelson Mandela Meets with United States Boxers
Nelson Mandela (third from left), Deputy President of the African National Congress meets with boxers from the United States who have helped in the struggle against Apartheid. From left to right are : Mike Tyson, US boxer; Jose Sulaiman, President, World Boxing Council; Nelson Mandela; Sugar Ray Leonard, US boxer, Mayor David Dinkins of New York City; Joe Frazier, US boxer. 1990

Two years ago, Mandela’s daughter Zindsi attempted to arrange a highly anticipated match between Floyd Mayweathter Jr and Manny Pacquiao to take place in South Africa in celebration of her father’s 93rd birthday. Unfortunately, the bout did not take place due to legal issues with the contract negotiations and funding.

This was not the world’s first attempt to arrange a Mayweather v Pacquiao clash, which has still yet to come to fruition. Negotiations between the two parties have been in place since 2009, but have failed numerous times due to disagreements on the purse and pre-fight drug testing, not to mention a highly publicized lawsuit for defamation filed by Pacquiao against Mayweather the same year that negotiations commenced.

Early in 2011 Zindsi Mandela stated to the press, “My father is still very much aware of who the fighters are. I was just telling both Shane Mosley and Manny Pacquiao . . . my father sits up to watch a fight (on television) and he still loves the sport with a passion.”

“I grew up knowing that my father was a boxer,” said Zindzi, “We always had those pictures at home of him shadow boxing and I knew the gym where he used to go and practice and spar and so on. When he came out of prison, he was already a grown man and he couldn’t go back to the sport but we used to go boxing bouts together.”

Mandela was a part of a life long struggle to discover the proper time and place for the use of force. Originally, as President of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League he promoted non-violent protest as a way to battle apartheid. When it came apparent that this tactic was unsuccessful he had a change of heart and requested the ANC ask the People’s Republic of China for weaponry assistance, which they refused at the time. Violence was never Mandela’s first choice, but he was ever aware of it as an option.

In his autobiography Mandela stated, “I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it. I was intrigued by how one moved one’s body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match.“

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Nelson Mandela fought round after round for his cause with this same scientific analysis of the bout, and for his efforts to unify South Africa and inspire the world, he will forever hold a champion’s title.