With news of Nelson Mandela’s death becoming a headline story all across the globe, many are searching for unique bits of information and insight on the man. Well, many do not know that Nelson Mandela was himself a former boxer, and also a great fan of the Sweet Science.
Mandela’s most famous sporting ties may be to rugby, and the inspirational way he helped to unite his country via the Springboks, recently portrayed in the Clint Eastwood directed Invictus, in which Mandela was portrayed stunningly by Morgan Freeman.
However, in his youth Mandela was a boxer, and during his long tenure in prison on Robben Island, he kept himself fit and focused with a daily boxing regimen. He would become acutely aware of the power of sports on the people of a nation, and for South Africa, it was rugby and the Springboks. But for Mandela, it was always boxing.
In his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom”, Mandela wrote of boxing:
“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.”
In Johannesburg, in front of the Magistrate’s Court, can be found a sculpture of Mandela by Marco Cianfanelli, known as “Shadow Boxing”. The sculpture is five-meters tall and features Mandela in a boxing pose, based on a photograph taken of Mandela sparring with a professional boxer in 1953.
Muhammad Ali, who met Mandela on several occasions, released a statement on Mandela’s death:
“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.”
Ali, of course, shared not only an affinity for boxing with Mandela, but also status as a force for political and social change, and as a global icon.
Saturday night on HBO, the network will be replaying an interview with Mandela which took place in 2001 before the Lennox Lewis vs. Hasim Rahman Heavyweight title fight which took place in South Africa. Conducted by Larry Merchant from Mandela’s home in Mozambique, the two discussed the icon’s involvement with and appreciation of boxing.
Mandela’s name would pop up occasionally in the decade since, rumored to be involved in helping to attract more major boxing matches to his country.
Certainly I cannot say anything more about Nelson Mandela, the man and the hero, than has already been said, and said better, by so many others. But ultimately, Mandela was a fighter. He fortified himself through boxing, and carried a love for its craft through the end of his years.
*This article was first published on Yahoo Sports on December 6, 2013