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Boxing’s Invisible Opponent: The Story of Simiso Buthelezi

Simiso Buthelezi

Fear no death – but defeat.

Those five words, emblazoned on the back of one of Siphesihle Mntungwa’s old ring vests, worn as he paced through another passionate South African crowd on a previous fight night, described the mentality that all professional fighters assume they must possess. Mntungwa (7-1-2, 4KOs), who hadn’t tasted victory in any of his last three contests, squared off against the short, squat, undefeated, Simiso Buthelezi(4-1, 2KOs) last week.

That name might mean something to you. Well, not ‘mean something to you,’ but perhaps ring a bell, if you’ll excuse the pun. It means a constant, disruptive, permanent amount to Mntungwa.

Buthelezi. Ring moniker: Gandaganda, or Tractor when translated from Zulu; he wore it on his trunks. The little man from KwaZulu-Natal had earned that nickname by way of his relentless pressure, low centre of gravity, and his refusal to give ground. He was the master of the soil, planting seeds, waiting for the harvest. At age 24, Buthelezi stepped up to fight Mntungwa over 10 rounds for a belt that we’d normally turn our noses up at, mock, or devalue. But achievements are all relevant – especially in boxing.

It was less than a month ago that I was sitting writing something similar about fighters and the unshakeable risk of serious injury. They’re like children, left unattended, climbing on anything, and fearing nothing. Boxers must be detached from the limitations of the human body; they must believe they are the exception to the rule, that man or woman purchasing their first lottery ticket, self-assured that victory awaits them.

The reality is, sadly, that sometimes as people, we will suffer. If someone loses when playing the national lottery, they rip their ticket up and try again, or remain disheartened, jealous of winners, ranting to friends about how it ‘should have been them.’ It hurts for a while. For Simiso Buthelezi, losing when fighting last weekend meant everything, as the fighter passed away in a Durban hospital after suffering a bleed on the brain during the closing stages of the bout, not before having his final act shared to tens of millions across all social media platforms.

“Bizarre,” “The strangest thing I’ve seen,” “Cursed,” and “Damaged.” Comments from the entire world over. And now, silence. Pain, suffering, and the permanence of death.

Renowned South African fight figure, trainer and manager, Colin Nathan, was working as a colour commentator, calling the action as he’d seen it from just a couple of feet away. I’d spotted some of Nathan’s social media posts as the story unfolded: bizarre viral clip, then medical concern, then tragic death of a young, aspiring almost-champion. When we spoke, the air was permeated by deep, thoughtful exhaling at either side, Nathan searching for his thoughts, considering his words.

He has worked in the corners of African world champions (including Hekkie Budler and Moruti Mthalane) but even for him, this was chillingly unique. This was the leg-breaking challenge we didn’t have to see replayed in slow motion, at every angle, with angst displayed on the face of the expensive striker. But for Nathan, it’s available whenever he closes his eyes, and it still hurts.

“It’s been a rough week, you know,” he started. “It was probably the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I never saw him taking any major head trauma. He got caught here and there, but there were never signs of being buzzed, legs buckling, him not having his faculties or anything like that. Major fatigue had set in – that’s only normal when you’re setting a hard pace in a fight. In terms of physical issues and co-ordination, shape of his punches, then no. The only thing I could see was fatigue setting in, but it was for Mntungwa, as well.

“We could all have our theories; did he cut weight badly? Did he get concussed in sparring? Was he knocked out in sparring? Now, we’re never gonna know the true situation because I don’t think anyone in that position – given the vulnerability of what’s just happened – is gonna be forthcoming and honest. What we do know, for 100 per cent, is that the motive is boxing. Irrespective, the motive remains the same: it’s boxing.”

Boxing is the motive. I’d never heard that before. But it rings true. Every crime, every injustice, every deliberate act must have a reason – its motive. What other reason could justify the death of Simiso Buthelezi?

I could tell when speaking to Nathan that he’d truly been impacted by what had taken place in the Greyville Convention Centre, Durban, that evening. Normally a place of celebration, decked out in chairs with dangling ribbons and a top table, or a small stage and a dance floor, June 5th was a very different setting. In fact, when Mntungwa was almost punched through the ropes by Buthelezi in that final minute, Nathan must have been close to catapulting the more experienced fighter back into the ring given his proximity. But alas, he wasn’t quite close enough to stop what would follow.

“Early on Buthelezi was leading and then Mntungwa came back nicely, and in the last two, three rounds, Buthelezi steamed ahead. He was winning the fight; there was no sign of any neurological issues, physiological issues, as well. He was looking good, coming on strong, and winning the fight. He was winning the last round, there were no signs up until the last 40 seconds of the fight. He inexplicably started chasing the referee thinking he was the opponent. The referee pointed to Mntungwa, kind of skipped out of the way, and Buthelezi carried on walking towards the corner, throwing punches [at nobody in thin air.]

“That’s the hardest part to swallow of this whole event,” choked Nathan, after another thoughtful, breathy pause. “We have seen fighters take a tremendous hiding and we question the referee, we question the corner, we question the medical doctor at ringside. If he’d taken a sustained beating throughout the fight, you’re thinking, ‘Okay, he’s gonna collapse, Jesus.’ It just happened so sudden. There I am, doing commentary, and I’m trying to think of what to say because I’m stunned. Scared when he started collapsing, to the point of teary where I’m thinking, ‘Wow – what do I say here? How do I remain calm, collected, but sensitive to the situation?’ It was one of the most bizarre and most tragic things I’ve ever seen in my career and life.”

I can remember seeing the clip of Buthelezi, 24, suffering in that last round. It was shared with the utmost concern and respect by boxing’s international supremo, Tim Boxeo (@TimBoxeo), on Twitter. I shared it myself in disbelief. What had I just witnessed? How is the fighter now, after rest and rehydration? And I can recall the WhatsApp message from a friend which read: ‘Fuck’ (accompanied by a screenshot of the South African Boxing federation’s confirmation that Buthelezi had passed away.) I was abroad, on a short holiday, and couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t shake a small sense of guilt. I’d shared that man’s last minutes in the ring and hundreds of thousands of people had seen it. Why? For what?

Colin Nathan said: “The story goes, ‘Oh, it’s the hurt sport.’ Yes, we get that, until it faces you in the eye; until you’re a part of it. I don’t care that I was ringside doing commentary, I think we’re all part of the problem. You’re a part of the problem, I’m a part of the problem. When I say problem, we love this sport, but at times we have to question what we do. I love this sport with all of my being, and it’s given me a very special life. And my family. But I do question what I do sometimes. Particularly, this week, more now than ever before. Does my passion and love for the sport carry on? Absolutely. I don’t wanna do anything else with my life. But there is that question…”

We spoke of fans seeking big knockouts, searching for sprinters to run 100 metres faster than existing world records, shot putters throwing that heavy metal further and further. It is the nature of competitive sport. But in boxing, the consequences aren’t the same. I’m here, searching for fancy words and applied decoration to appreciate those lucky enough to crawl out with their health intact. What part am I playing? Give this article two weeks and we (you and I both) will be cheering on the next, well-matched contest. It’s a virus, boxing, that’s what Ed Levine, IBO President, told me years ago.

I caught up with Isaac Chilemba, currently residing in his native Malawi, to discuss South African boxing and the medical provisions when fighting on South African cards. Chilemba spent a large chunk of his career battling his way to prominence in venues such as Emperors Palace, Kempton Park, and Graceland Hotel Casino. In fact, he’d boxed 18 times as a professional under the auspices of the South African boxing commissions.

“Events in South Africa are okay. Yes, we get that you [fans outside of South Africa] look at them and think, ‘What is this?’ But as most [events] are all over the planet, [South African shows] are pretty well organised. People love boxing in South Africa, so they’re usually packed and lots of fun.Major medical checks like brain scans and heart scans (ECGs) do not happen regularly, that’s the set back. Usually, for the local small fights, nothing is tested. Sometimes, they will have the usual physical test at the weigh in, but that’s all.”

“The blood test, for local fighters is only done once a year, therefore, if one picked up some STD, they would only find out the following year when the annual medicals are done,” Chilemba continued. “Unfortunately, for foreigners like myself, as I always fought under Malawi [license] since I was born there, though my mother was a South African, we get tested for every fight, so I had to go through blood work and other minor check-ups before every fight, unlike South Africans that only did this once a year. Major test like MRI and ECG are only done when fighting for a major title as it is required by the sanctioning body, rather than SA boxing’s governing body. So it is unfortunate for the fighters as they step into the ring not knowing the state of their physical fitness.”

Chilemba, still just 33, never took his own career seriously at times, telling me during previous interviews that he would often drink before some of his big fights and faced mental demons at the peak of his powers. He’d abandoned his team, going AWOL before his fight with Dmitriy Bivol, for example. Now, he is more at peace, and is at home, safe from boxing’s invisible opponents and utilising support from local Alcoholics Anonymous groups. He escaped after a career of tough fights on the way up, and money spinners on the way down, lucky, and unlucky in equal measure. He finished, “He [Buthelezi] was just a child at 24, and it’s so sad. May he rest in peace.”

Despite the outlets covering the death of Simiso Buthelezi, CNN, BBC, and hundreds more, there are some that will only peer through cracks in their hands. His death has sparked a couple of questions: How can we improve medical provisions for professional fights held anywhere? Can those solutions or suggestions be universal?

Colin Nathan mentioned the dangers of heavy sparring, and I can’t help but agree. Shouldn’t we be introducing some type of sparring log, to monitor or track how many rounds fighters are sparring during a fight camp? I’ve interviewed hundreds or fighters, managers, trainers during my short time in the sport and have heard numbers range from 50 to 150 in terms of sparring rounds per camp. Who is monitoring that? How much is too much? Enough is enough. He mentioned an instance in his own gym, some 14 years ago, where he’d let ego interfere. A mistake he would only make once. We must ensure trainers are learning and improving their methods – but for now, who actually cares?

Before Siphesihle Mntungwa, Buthelezi’s opponent, deleted his Facebook, I managed to speak to him. I’d read that in the aftermath of the contest, he’d been on the receiving end of relentless abuse, which had caused him to consider suicide. That stuck with me. It hurt me, seriously, when thinking about the ‘other man’ and what must feel like the excruciatingly painful passing of time. During my brief interaction with Mntungwa, he was an absolute gentleman, carrying his broken heart like a heavy wardrobe strapped to his back. He couldn’t shake it, worn out, broken, disheartened. This isn’t his fault or his doing. It is imperative that he – and any mindless detractors – understand this.

Mntungwa told me, “It hurts me because somebody has just passed away because of me. I am blaming myself for taking the fight, signing the contract. If I knew before what going to happen, I swear to God I’d not accept the fight. I’m so heartbroken – even today – I can’t even fake a smile. It meant a lot to me [this fight] because it was one of my dreams to become a champion, and I’ve made that dream become true. But even now, I haven’t celebrated for the win because of my opponent Simiso; he was injured during the fight, so, I’ve just been hoping that he’d recover very fast. Unfortunately, he couldn’t. That’s the sad part because it wasn’t my intention to take his life; we both wanted to become champions that day.”

Mntungwa continued, explaining that he thought Buthelezi was doing a warm-up ahead of his big, final push in the last part of their contest, not unusual after flooring his opponent. But he is toiling, tagged with guilt that shouldn’t belong to him. He’s spoken of killing himself and being unable to escape the grief, and when asked about fighting again, he told me, “I need to find closure – there’s a lot on my mind.” Let’s hope he’s encouraged to return when the time is right.

For now, all we’re left with is the visual of Simiso Buthelezi, a university graduate, a smart man, and an undefeated fighter, struggling. He ignores the calls of the referee, he doesn’t pay any attention to his opponent, who has risen to his almost-steady feet after stretching the ropes to their capacity, and he doesn’t understand what’s to come next. His brain is playing tricks on his well-tuned and well-trained body, his arms flailing, throwing punch after punch, at nobody. He is swinging recklessly, like a scared guest at a picnic swiping at wasp during high season, discarding accuracy and valuing volume to strike first. This isn’t the work of a trained technician. It is the work of a broken – or presently breaking before our eyes – fighter. It is a man tragically fighting his own ghost.

Again, I’m drawn to those five words stitched to the back of Siphesihle Mntungwa’s old fighting uniform: Fear no death – but defeat. Simiso Buthelezi, a 24-year-old fighter from South Africa feared neither. But realised both.