Triumph and Tragedy in South Africa: Morake vs. Mitchell

By Ted Sares It was very tough on me…I was a 24-year-old baby and already thinking about retiring. I didn’t want to box anymore. That was a real low point of my life. It throws you around a bit. It’s still tough to talk about — Brian Mitchell

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner. –Nelson Mandela

I didn’t want to end up one of those boxers who keeps coming back and everybody wishes he’ll stay retired…It wasn’t easy but another big payday wasn’t worth destroying a legacy I had worked so hard to achieve. –Brian Mitchell (from article by Deon Potgieter)

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. –Nelson Mandela

Brian Mitchell was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame this month and thereby became the first South African boxer to be so enshrined. There were celebrations all round Johannesburg when the news was announced. The only other South African to join boxing’s legends in the Hall is acclaimed referee Stan Christodoulou, who was inducted in 2004. Mitchell defended his WBA Super Featherweight Title a record 11 times, and never lost a title fight. Because of South Africa’s past apartheid policy, he became the quintessential road warrior, defending his title almost exclusively outside of his home country. He proved his worth by making 10 of his title defenses on the road. Spain, Italy (5 times), England, Panama, Puerto Rico, The US (three times) and France were all countries in which he toiled, but prior to his championship run, he participated in one of boxing’s great, albeit lesser known, rivalries.

Morake vs. Mitchell

Jacob “Dancing Shoes” Morake was a skinny Sowetan whose upper body was covered in burn scars. He toiled as an insurance clerk by day, but like so many others, he relied on boxing to support his family.

In 1985, “Dancing Shoes” (20-10-2) faced Mitchell for the fourth time. The tally was 2-1 in Mitchell’s favor going in. The fight was held at the famed Superbowl in Sun City, South Africa and at stake was the South African super featherweight title. Mitchell was 25-1-1 coming in with his only loss coming at the hands of this same Morake in 1982. Mitchell was 6-0 back then.

Ironically, Mitchell wasn’t really considered a puncher, nor was Morake for that matter. Jacob could sting, slice and dice and he loved to showboat. In fact, he was notorious for letting an opponent back into a fight because of excessive showboating. The Ali shuffle was his favorite move and gave him the nickname “dancing shoes.” Both were smooth and fluid boxer as well.

Back then, Mitchell was one of the few white South African boxers to fight in black townships, and that served him well when he later fought on the road, frequently defending his title in hostile environments. In fact, he became so popular with the black fans, he was often referred to as a ‘black boxer in a white skin.’

The Fourth Fight

Going into their fourth and final fight, there was a palpable atmosphere of apartheid in South Africa. Yet here was a black from Soweto fighting a white from Johannesburg in front of a segregated crowd of boxing fanatics at the supercharged Superbowl in Sun City (a great boxing venue with a great boxing atmosphere). These two were professionals; what they did in the ring transcended the hatefulness that existed elsewhere in the country during those times of turmoil. These two were professionals who respected one another and even the crowd at the Superbowl seemed to know it.

They had fought a total of 34 rounds, but this time Mitchell stopped the game Morake in the twelfth and final round. Morake had taken a significant amount of punishment in the fiercely contested fight. A dehydrated Morake collapsed in the 12th round and never regained consciousness. He was hospitalized and died the following day of head injuries. Some say that in the final rounds, he clearly was unable to defend himself, but I have never been able to corroborate this though in this connection, reference is made to the compelling book by Gavin Evans entitled Dancing Shoes Is Dead: A Tale of Fighting Men in South Africa, Black Swan, 2003. According to one account, Evans believes Morake’s courage, his trainer’s desperate hope, and what he terms the inaction of the referee all contributed to the tragic ending. After deep self-reflection, an emotionally devastated Mitchell returned to the ring in March 1986, knocking out Julio Ruiz in six rounds at Sun City.

In the end, he and the classy Mitchell had a great rivalry going, and according to South African boxing lore (and in a bizarre twist of fate), Morake stated to friends before his fateful fight with Mitchell that he’d rather die than lose.

Mitchell

As for Mitchell, he later fought hometown “hero” Tony “The Tiger” Lopez in 1991 in Sacramento and the fight was declared a draw, a decision that shocked most boxing experts at the time. The South African was then stripped of his WBA crown for facing Lopez for the IBF title, and for the first time since 1986, he found himself without a world title. Most aficionados felt that the WBA was trying to make things tough for him since it was boycotting South Africa( allegedly because of Apartheid but quite likely because of its desire to get an American into the title picture). However, he returned to Sacramento in September and this time won a dominating fight reclaiming the IBF title. He retired after that, but came back for two more wins in 1994 and 1995 before permanently retiring from the ring.

In all, he finished with a great record of 45-1-3, won the WBA and IBF junior lightweight titles, was always the epitome of dedication, was highly respected because he had beaten all notable local opposition before beginning his tour of title defenses, and retired on a high note. However, to this day, he cannot talk about his rivalry with “Dancing Shoes’ without his eyes misting up.

Addendum:

1946 Apartheid (apartness) begins as a Government system in South Africa
1981 Morake over Tsotesti in 10 to win Transvaal Super Featherweight Title
1982 Morake over Mitchell in 12 to win Transvaal Super Featherweight Title
1983 Mitchell over Morake in 12 to win South African super featherweight title
1984 Mitchell over Morake in 12 to win South African super featherweight titles
1985 Mitchell over Morake by TKO in 12 to win South African super featherweight title
1986 Mitchell over Layne by TKO in 10 to win WBA World super featherweight title
1994 End of apartheid as a Government enforced policy, though vestiges still exist.
1995 Mitchell over Flores in 10. Mitchell’s last fight

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Boxing News Triumph and Tragedy in South Africa: Morake vs. Mitchell