When the small, gentle looking man with spectacles opened the door at the house in Noordgesig, we thought we had come to the wrong place. We were looking for a man with a broken nose, cauliflower ears and a brain like scrambled eggs. That is how boxing leaves a man, not so?
But it was the right place and we had found the right man. His name is Jacob Ntuli — otherwise known to all who love boxing as Jake Tuli.
Anybody who knows anything about boxing will agree that he is one of the greatest boxers ever to come out of South Africa.
Bra Jake was the South African flyweight and bantamweight champion in 1951. In 1952 he won the Empire Flyweight title in England. He was number one in line to fight the world champion.
Bra Jake never got his shot at the world title. The champion at the time, Yoshio Shirai from Japan, refused to fight him. ”I will never fight that cannibal from Africa,” he said.
But there was no bitterness in Bra Jakes voice as he told us his story. And, after all the fighting, he is not ‘punch drunk’ either. Bra Jake’s mind is still sharp and quick — just like his left hook, all those years ago.
A TOUGH NEIGHBOURHOOD
“I was born in a tough neighbourhood in Johannesburg,” says Bra Jake. “Almost everyone was a tough guy. I was bullied left, right and centre. Everybody picked on me because I was so small.”
Bra Jake went to St Mary’s School in Orlando. While he was doing standard one he met a guy called “Baby Batter”. That, of course, was not his real name. Like many boxers, Baby Batter did not like to use his own name.
Baby Batter was the South African welterweight champion. He went from school to school, teaching the youngsters how to box. When the young Jake met Baby Batter, he saw the chance to pay back the township bullies. He learned how to box under Baby Batter.
“But at school we didn’t spar a lot,” says Bra Jake. “I was bitten by the boxing bug and I wanted to learn more. So I joined the Orlando Boxing club. It was run by Pele Pele Mkhwanazi.”
At the club Bra Jake got all the sparring he wanted. “In fact, I did so much sparring that I almost gave up boxing,” says Bra Jake.
‘You see, under Pele Pele I always went home with black eyes — and that is when my mother found out I was boxing. She was dead against it. She didn’t like to look at my black eyes and puffed up face day after day. So she said no more boxing.”
Little Jake’s heart was heavy with disappointment. But he did not give up. He thought of ways to to make his mother let him box. Then he got an idea. He started disappearing for many hours after school.
This game went on for some time. Then Jake’s mum made up her mind. She decided that it was better if Jake went back to boxing. At least she would know where to find him after school. She asked Pele Pele to take him back to the gym. He happily agreed.
JAKE’S FIRST PRO FIGHT
In his very first professional fight Jake fought Kid Snowball. Kid Snowball was the South African flyweight champion. People just smiled and shook their heads before the fight. They said things like: “Either this kid is mad or just plain stupid.”
But Jake said nothing. He let his fists do the talking. He climbed into the ring and started throwing punches. Before the end of the tenth round Kid Snowball was lying on the canvass. It was Kid Snowball’s last fight.
Jake said he had a rule of never ‘dodging’ dangerous fights. His courage and skill in the ring is one thing that nobody ever questioned. Why, at one time in his career, Bra Jake knocked out two guys in the same week. And he knocked them both out in the first round!
With the flyweight title on the line, Jake knocked out Gilbert Seabala in one. Then he went to Durban the following Friday where he fought Pancho Villa. Jake knocked him out in one to win the bantamweight title. It was a good week’s work for the young champion.
THE TOUGHEST FIGHT
Bra Jake did not fly straight to England after winning the title. He stayed for a while to give other guys a chance to try him out. They did — and left the ring a lot wiser.
Kid Sweetie was the number one flyweight contender. After eight rounds he could not take any more of Jake’s shots to the body. The fight was stopped.
Others followed — Kid Chocolate, Pancho Villa again, and another boxer, who Bra Jake says gave him his toughest fight. His name was David Gogotya — but everybody in boxing called him ‘Slumber’. Jake soon found out why.
The power in ‘Slumber’s’ fists nearly always sent the other guy to dreamland. Jake felt that power — and in the third round found himself on the canvass. “That guy hit me so hard that I thought it was the end of the world,” says Jake.
But Jake picked himself up and went on to win the fight. Jake had a few more fights in Durban before he left for England. He was 21 years old.
VICTORY AND TRAGEDY
In September 1952 in London, Jake Tuli stood face to face with Teddy Gardner, the Empire flyweight champion. In what he calls “the greatest night in my life”, Jake knocked down the champion with the very first punch that he threw… a left hook.
The champ got up but he was in for a beating. After dropping the champion again in the seventh round the fight was stopped. Jake Tuli was the new Empire flyweight champion.
After winning the Empire title, Jake knocked out Jimmy Pearce in eight. In his next fight he met a boxer from France, a guy by the name of Honore Pratesi. The fight ended in tragedy. After a fierce fight Jake was the winner. But Pratesi died soon afterwards.
Jake was heartbroken. He gave all his purse money to Pratesi’s widow. Jake now wanted to stop boxing and come home. But first he talked to a priest. The priest told Jake that it was not his fault. He told him to get back into the ring as soon as possible.
LEARNING TO FORGET
Jake’s next fight was against Emile Delplanque. Jake said that Emile was the boxer who helped him to forget about the death of Pratesi. Jake fought Emile twice.
“In the first fight I was leading on points when our heads clashed by accident,” says Jake. “Emile came out of the head banging with a big cut above his eye. The referee stopped the fight and I was the winner.
“The next fight went the same way as the first. Going into the fourth round our heads clashed again. The same cut above Emile’s eye was opened again. We looked at each other and dropped our hands. I started laughing and walked to my comer. Emile just stood there and shook his head.
“After the fight we went to a nightclub together. When somebody asked who won the fight I pointed to Del and said, ‘He won’. Del pointed to me and said, ‘He won’. We were sportsmen and friends.”
‘THE FIGHT OF THE YEAR’
Because the world champion did not want to fight “the cannibal from Africa”, Jake took on the bigger bantams to keep himself busy. And that is when Jake, for the first time in his life, began to lose fights.
In 1953 Jake fought a tough bantam called Robert Cohen. Before the fight Cohen had never been knocked off his feet.
At the beginning of the first round Cohen rushed Jake and threw punches — which all missed. “I bobbed and weaved under his punches,” says Jake. “Then I dropped him with my very first punch. Again, it was my left hook.”
But Jake could not keep Cohen down. At the end of the fight the referee said Cohen was the winner. But the crowd didn’t think so.
“In fact,” says Bra Jake,” when the referee lifted his arm, Robert shook himself free and ran over to me. He raised both my arms and said I was the winner.” The fight was voted ‘Fight of the Year’for 1953.
LOVE OF THE GAME
Bra Jake,-who is now a trainer, said in his day boxers did not fight for the money. They fought for the love of the game. He has some more advice for the young boxers of today. He says that “if you are lazy, keep out of boxing. It is not for you”.
“In our day we used to train everyday, whether we had a fight coming up or not. Nowadays many guys go into a fight unfit and get hurt — or maybe even killed. And what happens? Boxing gets another black eye!
“But this does not mean boxing should be banned. If you ban boxing, you must ban other sports as well. What about the rugby player who died when other players trampled on him? And the wrestler who died after the other guy jumped on top of him? What about bike and motor car racing? Why single out boxing?”
Bra Jake says that sparring is one of the best ways to train. “Sparring gets you ready for the ring,” says Jake. “A boxer must know the all moves — like how to slip punches, how to block and when to throw a jab. You can only learn these things from sparring.”
Bra Jake’s eyes light up when he talks about Simon Tsipa’ Skosana and the late Arthur ‘The Fighting Prince’ Mayisela. He says they are the best boxers he has seen in South Africa. But he forgot about another great boxer. What about Jake Tuli?
Calling all boxing fans! Can you please help us. We are trying to write a book on the life and times of Jake Tuli. Did you know him? Did you ever see him fight? Do you, packed away with your other treasures, have any old photographs of the champ?
If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, we would love to hear from you. Please write to : Learn and Teach Boxing Department P. O. Box 11074 Johannesburg. 2000