Peter Mathebula, the first black South African to win a world boxing title, has been described as a “trailblazer” who broke down barriers in the sport and changed attitudes towards African fighters.
Mathebula, 67, died at a hospital in Johannesburg late on Saturday after battling ill health for some time.
Nicknamed “Terror”, the celebrated fighter started competing as an amateur in his late teens. He first came to prominence in 1976 when he won South Africa’s national flyweight title.
Four years later, he made history by defeating South Korean Tae-Shik Kim at the World Boxing Association (WBA) flyweight title bout in Los Angeles, United States.
South African journalist Arthur Molisiwa said Mathebula was not expected to win against defending champion Tae-Shik, arguing that the Gauteng-born boxer had in fact been lined up as a “sacrificial lamb” to boost the South Korean’s winning record.
“He went against the odds … but he did the unexpected and defeated his much-fancied opponent,” Molisiwa told Al Jazeera.
“He was one of the most dedicated boxers ever come out of South Africa. He was a genuine role model. After he won that title, every kid in the townships wanted to become another Peter Mathebula.”
Born in 1952, Mathebula fought in the apartheid era when sport in South Africa was split on racial grounds, with the country itself under international sporting isolation due to the rogue nation’s segregation policy.
Racial segregation in South African boxing was officially lifted in 1997, but it came into effect two years later when black and white titles were abolished – the 1976 bout between Mathebula and former champion Joe Ngidi was allowed to have national status because the fighters competing for the title were both black.
Black South African citizens cheered Mathebula’s world championship in 1980 as an important milestone, a sign that all races were equal and that the non-white communities of the country could excel in any chosen field as much as anybody.
“Peter was a trailblazer,” Zimbabwean boxing coach and promoter Ed Hammond told Al Jazeera.
“An absolute hero to even us non-South Africans in this part of the continent and beyond,” he said. “What he did was that he showed the world that black Africans can fight, that they can take on anybody in the ring and defeat them.”
A year after his historic feat in Los Angeles, Mathebula surrendered his title to Argentina’s Santos Laciar at Orlando Stadium in Johannesburg.
He retired from the sport at a relatively young age, 31, three years after his world title win.
In 45 professional fights, Mathebula won 36 times and lost nine.
“He was nicknamed ‘Terror’, and indeed, in his heyday, he could instil terror in anybody he came across,” Hammond said.
A figure of awe in South African sporting circles and beyond, Mathebula became a boxing trainer following his retirement. He was honoured with several accolades for his contribution to the sport.