With South Africa's newest boxing sensation, before and after her landmark fight in Khayelitsha. Photos by Chris de Beer.
Bukiwe Nonina spars with men. It’s not an ego thing, really. “I just don’t see any female in South Africa who can give me a good challenge,” she says.
Four months ago, Bukiwe was named South African Female Boxer of the Year. Only 25, she has held the South African national women’s welterweight title for the last five years. So how about sparring with a female middleweight? “The weight doesn’t matter,” she says – it’s a matter of quality. “I am the best female boxer in South Africa,” she insists. “I have to step out to find a new challenge.”
And a new challenge approaches. On Friday, Bukiwe fights a former eight-times world champion for the World Boxing Federation world welterweight title. “My aim is to prove the point,” she says, smiling: “I am the best.”
Women’s boxing in South Africa has technically only been formally legal and recognised since 2001. As per Boxing South Africa’s latest figures, there are only 46 professional women boxers in South Africa, across all weight divisions. An improvement over past years; still, some struggle to find regular fights.
In that context, it’s unsurprising that Bukiwe’s bout is the only women’s duel on the bill for the Fight for Hope tournament coming to boxing-starved Khayelitsha. As when most things come to townships, the tournament comes under the guise of “outreach” – this time, a charity fight between former twice-European Muay Thai champion, Uwe Hück, and Francois Botha, one-time IBF world heavyweight champ and all-round scary dude. The fight is a full-stop to the launch of an apprenticeship programme sponsored by Porsche, of which Hück is currently the Labour Manager in Stuttgart.
It’s going to be a big deal, they say. An article on News24 says that Arnold Schwarzenegger will be in attendance at the OR Tambo Hall. Imagine that – the Governator in Khayelitsha.
There’s another muscular European, however, that Bukiwe should be more interested in.
Alesia “The Tigress” Graf is thirty-six years old, but has the body of an athlete half her age. She and Bukiwe were supposed to square off last year, but their meeting had been postponed and postponed – until now.
On Thursday, at the weigh-in for the Fight for Hope, Alesia strips down to a navy bikini. Bukiwe opts for a powder blue T-shirt, boxer briefs and sunglasses. The contrast between them is startling, in both garb and body: the compact Belarusian-German, the lanky one who lives in Limpopo.
Howard Goldberg, president of the WBF, doesn’t really fancy Bukiwe’s chances: “Alesia is considered, pound-for-pound, one of the best women’s fighters in the world.”
“She’ll have a challenge beating her.”
Bukiwe has a strategy, of course. “I have to beat myself before I beat her,” she says. “And I know how to beat myself.”
And how do you do that? “Pressure,” she says. “I hate a fighter who comes at me.” Luckily, she’s got reach, a hinge for a waist. Her coach, Immanuel Neluoende, emphasises footwork. He makes her sprint every morning, “until the chest bursts open”.
“The best thing in boxing is fitness,” Bukiwe says. “I won’t let her get close to me.” She doesn’t think she’ll knock Alesia out. It has to go all ten rounds. Box smart, and win on points.
“I don’t believe in aggressive boxing anyway,” she says.
“I fight with love.”
She fights with love.
Bukiwe was born in iDutywa in the Eastern Cape, one of boxing’s traditional heartlands. She only started boxing, though, when she moved to the North-West for high school. “To be honest,” she says, “I don’t really love boxing.” Perhaps part of that is because, no matter where she goes, the same stereotypes of women boxers persist.
“It’s not my sexuality that brought me to boxing,” she says. “I was gay before I boxed. But even so, it’s hard to go to the location and say to kids, ‘Let’s go to the gym’, because parents think we are devils.”
“People have an attitude where they want to fight me in the street. But I’m already too sensitive in the ring – I can’t fight in the street.”
Of her sixteen professional fights, Bukiwe has lost only three. The first two were among her first bouts; the other was the first, and last, time she took a step into the international arena.
Lusaka, two-and-a-half years ago. Her opponent was Catherine Phiri, hometown star and holder of the WBC Silver bantamweight title. The Government Complex on Independence Avenue was hot, the ring small, the lights too close. “My father and my manager were in my corner,” she recalls. “I said to them, let’s stop this before I get injured. So they agreed.”
The next day, the Zambian papers were mocking. Bukiwe had “surrendered”, The Post said; she was worried that Phiri “would have killed her in the ring”. Bukiwe maintains she never said those things. “Now it’s personal. They can bring their ring. I’ll train in Limpopo, outside in the sun.”
“I want Catherine Phiri now. I just need the title on Friday.”
Schwarzenegger, as it turns out, isn’t here. A few hundred other people are, though, coming in from the mist. A large German contingent are in the ringside seats, among the old men of South African boxing, in their blazers and top hats. Children mill around the edge of the crowd, shadowboxing, eating Simbas and raisins, playing shibobo with Coke cans.
Bukiwe shares a humid changing room – more a repurposed store room – with three or four male boxers. The undercards are almost over. A third-round knockout by a rookie junior middleweight rocks the crowd. Inside, Bukiwe has her earphones in, her phone tucked into the elastic of her fight shorts. Her parents stand by as Immanuel tightens her gloves. The male fighters and their hangers-on gather as Bukiwe’s mother, Noteko, prays over her. Then the singing starts.
Alesia has a sequined tiger on her vest, which she discards to reveal that muscled torso again. Her gloves look too big for her, especially when she moves them that fast, whirling out from her sides, and back into her compact, stone-hard stance. She’s trying to coax Bukiwe into countering her attacks, so she can counter herself. Chess, with sweat raining on the canvas.
Bukiwe keeps her distance, retreating into the corners, more the tiger than the Tigress herself. She bends, avoids, lands a hard jab. Alesia swings, wilder and wilder. She comes after Bukiwe, her face glowing red. But she can’t reach her opponent. Bukiwe is awkward, her face serene, feet like a ballroom quick-stepper. She’s in control.
Then, suddenly, the ringside Germans roar: Bukiwe’s finally caught in a flurry. Thud. The locals roar louder: the referee has slipped, fallen over.
In the seventh round, it’s Bukiwe’s turn to slip. She falls through the ropes, dazed. Then at the round break, her continence changes. She sits on her stool and looks past Immanuel at the crowd, at the photographers surrounding the ring. She isn’t listening to anyone – she’s just smiling. People like her hit many obstacles; pain thresholds, glass ceilings. By now, Bukiwe knows the way to get past this. The last push always has to be the hardest.
Seconds out. The bell. Bukiwe just about runs out of her corner. The new aggressor. She pushes Alesia down, then asks her to come get her. Alesia is desperate, charging around the ring, her gloves met only by the silence of clean air. The Tigress literally begins to growl.
And sure enough, only minutes later, Bukiwe finally falls. Only, for Alesia, it’s too late. Her opponent can be brought to her knees only by the knowledge of her victory.
94-96, 93-97, 94-96 – unanimous, but close. She is mobbed on the way back to her changeroom – no VIP protection here. Inside, safe, Noteko wipes tears from her eyes. There are plenty places to rest, but Bukiwe doesn’t sit. There’s blood on her white Nikes – she doesn’t really notice that her eyebrow has been split. “I feel awesome,” she says.
Outside, Hück and Botha gear up to face each other. But the real fight has already been fought. Through the wall, a live band shrieks out a song by Toto. It’s “Africa”, of course. The continent Bukiwe will soon leave to find the appreciation she desires.
Well, maybe. Maybe she’ll stop off in Lusaka first.