Peter Mathebula made history in 1980 when he pummeled South Korea’s Tae-Shik Kim to win the World Boxing Association (WBA) title fight in Los Angeles
Fearsomely skilled in the ring, Mathebula was nicknamed “Terror”.
Apart from being South Africa’s first black world boxing champion, Mathebula was again the first South African of any color to lift a title fighting overseas.
Growing up in apartheid South Africa, Mathebula’s dream was to become a professional soccer player. But he would end up in the ring – the ring Nelson Mandela flirted with in his 20s because his soccer coach kept leaving him on the bench.
Mathebula was 13 when he took to boxing and he was first shot to prominence in 1978 when he won apartheid South Africa’s national flyweight title.
Mathebula would make history four years later by winning the WBA flyweight title.
It was huge a victory that Mathebula thought he was in a dreamland. “The reality of me being the first black South African world champion did not sink in immediately,” he told Sowetan Live years later.
“I did not believe that I beat an incredible boxer like Tae-Shik Kim. I won on a split decision and you can imagine my anxiety before the final announcement.”
Mathebula, however, remained hopeful about his chances because he believed he did well (enough) to convince the judges. And, when the ring announcer paused a bit before making the final verdict, he nearly stopped breathing.
“But seconds later the announcer screamed ‘and the new WBA flyweight champion of the world, Peter Terroooooor Mathebulaaaaaa!’ I nearly collapsed with joy. It was unbelievable,” Mathebula recounts to Sowetan Live.
Mathebula celebrated his history-making victory with loads of drinks with his trainer Willie Lock, manager Bobby Toll and one other until the wee hours of the morning. He could not sleep because of the magnitude of what he had achieved.
Mathebula recollects that he went to the dining room and stood in front of a world map and boasted, “this world is now aware who Peter ‘Terror’ Mathebula is.”
He earned $7500.
Like many before him, Mathebula lost the title in his first defense at Orlando Stadium in Soweto in March 1981 because he lost focus, didn’t train as he should and took the bout for granted.
He was stopped by Santos Laciar of Argentina.
“Too much celebrating cost me my title, perhaps. To be honest, though, Santos was not in my class but I lost that fight (a seventh-round TKO) because my mind was not in that fight,” he would explain years later, adding: “There was a serious family matter that was bothering me.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera, South African journalist Arthur Molisiwa described how Mathebula was not expected to win against Tae-Shik. He said Mathebula had in fact been lined up as a “sacrificial lamb” to boost the South Korean’s winning record.
“He went against the odds … but he did the unexpected and defeated his much-fancied opponent,” Molisiwa told Al Jazeera.
“He was one of the most dedicated boxers ever come out of South Africa. He was a genuine role model. After he won that title, every kid in the townships wanted to become another Peter Mathebula.”
Born in 1952, Mathebula fought in the apartheid era when sport in South Africa was split on racial grounds, with the country itself under international sporting isolation due to the rogue nation’s segregation policy.
Racial segregation in South African boxing was officially lifted in 1997, but it came into effect two years later when black and white titles were abolished. The 1976 bout between Mathebula and former champion Joe Ngidi was allowed to have national status because the fighters competing for the title were both black.
“Peter was a trailblazer,” Zimbabwean boxing coach and promoter Ed Hammond told Al Jazeera.
“An absolute hero to even us non-South Africans in this part of the continent and beyond,” he said. “What he did was that he showed the world that black Africans can fight, that they can take on anybody in the ring and defeat them.”
Mathebula retired from the sport at a relatively young age – 31 – three years after his world title win. In 45 professional fights, he won 36 times and lost nine.
Mathebula died at the age of 67 on January 19.