Alfonso Tissen: A rose that grew from concrete

Alf survived a hard life to find his mission as a fighter

26 August 2018 - 00:00 By DAVID ISAACSON

Alfonso Tissen has battled the odds since he arrived on this planet prematurely, born to a pair of drug addicts.
He has visited both his parents in prison, himself flirted with drugs and eventually lost a half-brother to an overdose.
Tissen, who worked as a petrol attendant before turning his own life around to become a professional fighter, will once again be the underdog when he takes on veteran Ryno Liebenberg in the main undercard bout at Emperors Palace on Saturday night.
The 26-year-old is expecting nothing less than a 12-round war in the super-middleweight contest, and as tough as it may be, it's unlikely to match the bumpy road life has thrown at him to date.
He's the latest boxer to emerge from the tough streets of the working-class suburb of Jeppe on the eastern reaches of Johannesburg, once the stomping ground of old stars like Arnold Taylor and Spider Kelly.
"Of my friends and the guys I grew up with, I'd say only 40% of us made it off the streets," Tissen told Sunday Times in an interview at the sprawling flats where he spent some of his childhood and engaged in his first fight.
Just eight years old, he was egged on by his father, also Alfonso, and the other boy's dad. They slugged it out for about 30 minutes in front of a growing crowd.
Tissen retraced the winding route of that brawl from 18 years ago, from the lawn where it started to the entrance of the apartment where his foe lived. "I had him. I landed a few shots and I was about to finish him when his mother grabbed him and pulled him inside and locked the door," he recalled.
Tissen had done enough to convince his father to send him for boxing lessons.
"I was born premature," Tissen said. "I was a crack baby. When I was nine months old my paternal grandparents took me in and raised me ... My grandmother even threatened to leave the country if my dad didn't clean up his act."
The grandparents lived in adjacent Kensington, a respectable neighbourhood, and he spent weekends with his dad in Jeppe, some times watching him commit crimes.
A painful childhood memory, from when he was 10, is walking with his grandmother when they spotted his mother on the other side of the road. He skipped along to greet her, but she ran away. "I cried."
The cotton wool cocoon his grandparents gave him didn't extend to school either, where he struggled with learning disabilities he said were caused by his parents' drug abuse.
He was also taunted for his parents' failings, being teased that his imprisoned mom had supposedly died of Aids so therefore he had Aids, or that his dad was actually in jail for murdering his mother.
In grade six Tissen took on a kid for pushing a friend of his, telling him to pick on boys his own size.
"Aids boy!" retorted the child, who had two mates alongside him. Tissen flew into a rage, and by the time he was finished he had beaten up all three. "Their parents wanted to press criminal charges against me, but the principal talked them out of it.
"They said I was a bully, but I wasn't, actually."
Tissen, who dropped out of school at 16, went into a spiral after his grandparents died - he was in his teens. He experimented with drugs and got into scraps at clubs, trying to build a reputation on the streets. "I wanted to be like my dad."
He was working as a petrol jockey, earning R3,000 a month plus tips of up to R80 a day, when boxing coach Gert Strydom happened to pull up.
The trainer recognised Tissen from his amateur boxing days where he had won medals at national tournaments and told him he needed to return to the ring.
"I handed in my uniform right then and left with him ... Coach G saved me," he said, adding he was also assisted by girlfriend Daniella Mitchell, with whom he now has six-month-old daughter Harmony-Rose.
Two years ago his half-brother through his mother, Gerald Goodes, arrived to stay with him straight after a lengthy spell of rehab, and they went out that night.
They had a few drinks, and when Tissen wanted to leave, Gerald told him he'd stay a while longer; he was found dead the next morning of an overdose. "It eats me because I was the last person to see him alive ... I shouldn't have left him there alone."
Tissen has a love-hate relationship with his mother, but has pure admiration for his dad. "He gave up drugs for me. I am very proud of my father. He's 63 or 64 this year - I never thought he'd make it."
Tissen too is winning at life these days. In the ring, armed with a terrific left hook to the body, he's surprised a few favourites.
He's planning to do the same on Saturday...

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