Veteran Mtshali remembers the day teenage Lehlohonolo Ledwaba walked into his gym
Veteran Hezekiel Mtshali has played many roles in South African boxing over the years, but it is the ability to spot talent that makes the 78-year-old's heart somersault as if he's on a rollercoaster ride at Gold Reef City Theme Park in the south of Johannesburg.
Mtshali has served the sport he loves with all his heart for several decades as a trainer, matchmaker and promoter, but it is the uncanny ability to separate the pretenders from the genuine article that excites him to this day.
He told TimesLIVE he knew within five minutes that future world champions had graced his presence when teenagers Lehlohonolo Ledwaba, Morgan Ndumo and the Thwala brothers Fana, Patrick and Mooi sauntered into his Central Western Jabavu (CWJ) gym in Soweto several years ago.
Few were aware of their incredible talents at that stage and even fewer knew who they were, but Mtshali knew within those few minutes that the young men in front of him would plot an ineffaceable path that would live on long after they had walked away from the sport.
He remembers the day they walked into his gym as if it was yesterday,
“Then, unexpectedly, Lehlohonolo, Fana, Patrick, Mooi and Morgan walked through the door,” reminisced Mtshali.
“I looked at them and immediately told Obed Molekwa, he was my former boxer who later became my assistant trainer, that we were looking at one or two world champions in those boys.
“Obed trusted my judgment and believed me.”
Mtshali's faith in the boxers came into fruition earlier than he expected as Fana Thwala went on to represent SA in the Summer Olympics in Barcelona in 1992. His brother Patrick was a tough boxer whose ability should have led to great things, but unfortunately he could not win the SA flyweight title when he got a chance to face the champion at the time, Nkqubela Gwazela. He also lost another attempt at the title when he fought Xola Mayana.
Ndumo won the WBC International minimum title but later lost to feared Mexican Ricardo Lopez when he fought for the WBC belt at MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas, US, in a fight that was the undercard of Evander Holyfield’s first fight against Mike Tyson in November 1996.
But it was Ledwaba who fulfilled Mtshali's prophecy and became a household name.
He gave a hint of what was to come when he was voted the best SA Boxing Union Champion in the SA Championships in Giyani in 1989, and he never looked back.
“He won the featherweight title. I turned him pro in 1990 and he made his debut on the same day as Ndumo,” said Mtshali.
Ledwaba later left Mtshali and joined David Kgotsane, who helped him win the SA junior featherweight title, WBU bantamweight and IBF junior featherweight belts.
Kgotsane died two days before Ledwaba’s first defence of the IBF belt against Edison Valencia Diaz in 1999. Norman Hlabane was in the corner when Ledwaba lost the belt in his sixth defence to Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas in 2001.
Ledwaba would eventually quit the sport in 2006 due to a detached retina and followed in Mtshali's footsteps, finding great joy in honing the skills of young fighters as he sought to give back everything he learnt from the veteran who opened the door for him years earlier. He produced national champions Doctor Ntsele and Tshepang Mohale.
Ledwaba’s first world champion was Zolani Tete, who won the IBF junior bantamweight belt in 2014. He was in the corner when Thato Bonokoane lost to Asror Vokhidov for the WBO Oriental junior featherweight belt in Russia on January 23. He was also in the forefront of the establishment of TLB Promotion, a joint venture with former world champions Dingaan Thobela and Jan Bergman.
The trio worked with Joyce Kungwane, who later became the company's co-director with Ledwaba after Thobela and Bergman left to pursue other avenues.
Covid-19 claimed “Hands of Stone” Ledwaba's life a few days away from his 50th birthday in July, and he died while on his way to Lesedi Clinic in Diepkloof.
Mtshali remembered the soft-spoken yet straight-talking former champion with fondness and said he died too young.
“He died very young, and just when he was beginning to make his name in the training of fighters,” he said.
“Until we meet again.”