Brian Mitchell and “Dancing Shoes”
Brian Mitchell became so popular with the black fans in South Africa that he was often referred to as a “black boxer in a white skin…”
“It was very tough on me…I was a 24-year-old baby and already thinking about retiring. I didn’t want to box anymore. That was a real low point of my life. It throws you around a bit. It’s still tough to talk about.”—Brian Mitchell
“I didn’t want to end up one of those boxers who keeps coming back and everybody wishes he’ll stay retired…It wasn’t easy but another big payday wasn’t worth destroying a legacy I had worked so hard to achieve.”—Mitchell (from article by Deon Potgieter)
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”—Nelson Mandela
Much of what can be written about South African boxing can be found in the drama that unfolded in the four great fights between Brian Mitchell and the late Jacob “Dancing Shoes” Morake.
Mitchell was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2009 and thereby became the first South African boxer to be so enshrined. There were celebrations all round Johannesburg when the news was announced. The only other South African to join boxing’s legends in the Hall is acclaimed referee Stanley Christodoulou, who was inducted in 2004. Mitchell defended his WBA super featherweight title a record 11 times, and never lost. Moreover, because of South Africa’s past apartheid policy, he became the quintessential road warrior, defending his title almost exclusively outside of his home country. He proved his worth by making 10 of his title defenses on the road. Spain, Italy (five times), England, Panama, Puerto Rico, the U.S. (three times), and France were all countries in which he toiled, but prior to his championship run, he participated in one of boxing’s great, albeit lesser known, four-fight rivalries.
Morake vs. Mitchell
Jacob “Dancing Shoes” Morake was a skinny Sowetan whose upper body was covered in burn scars. He worked as an insurance clerk by day, but like so many others, he relied on boxing to support his family.
In 1985, “Dancing Shoes” (20-10-2) faced Mitchell for the fourth time. The tally was 2-1 in Mitchell’s favor going in. The fight was held at the famed Superbowl in Sun City, South Africa, and at stake was the South African super featherweight title. Mitchell was 25-1-1 with his only loss being at the hands of this same Morake in 1982. Mitchell was 6-0 at the time.
Ironically, Mitchell wasn’t really considered a puncher, nor was Morake for that matter. Jacob could sting, slice, and dice and he loved to showboat. In fact, he was notorious for letting an opponent back into a fight because of excessive showboating. The Ali shuffle was his favorite move and gave him the nickname “Dancing Shoes.” Both men were smooth and fluid boxers as well.
Back then, Mitchell was one of the few white South African boxers who would fight in black townships, and that served him well when he later fought on the road, frequently defending his title in hostile environments. In fact, he became so popular with the black fans that he was often referred to as a “black boxer in a white skin.”
The Fourth Fight
Going into their fourth and final fight, there was a palpable atmosphere of apartheid in South Africa. Yet here was a black from Soweto fighting a white from Johannesburg in front of a segregated crowd of boxing fanatics at the supercharged Superbowl (a great boxing venue with a great boxing atmosphere). These two were professionals: What they did in the ring transcended the hate that existed elsewhere in the country during those times of turmoil. These two were men who respected one another and even the crowd at the Superbowl seemed to sense that.
Morake and Mitchell had fought a total of 34 rounds, but this time Mitchell stopped the game Morake in the 12th and final round. Morake had taken a significant amount of punishment in the fiercely contested fight. A dehydrated Morake collapsed in the 12th round and never regained consciousness. He was hospitalized and died the following day of head injuries. Some say that in the final rounds, he clearly was unable to defend himself, but I have never been able to corroborate this though Gavin Evans makes reference to the bout in his compelling book Dancing Shoes Is Dead: A Tale of Fighting Men in South Africa (Black Swan, 2003). Evans believes Morake’s courage, his trainer’s desperate hope, and what he terms the inaction of the referee all contributed to the tragic ending. After deep self-reflection, an emotionally devastated Mitchell returned to the ring in March 1986, knocking out Julio Ruiz in six rounds at Sun City.
In the end, Morake and the classy Mitchell had a great rivalry going, and according to South African boxing lore (and in a bizarre twist of fate), Morake stated to friends before his fateful fight with Mitchell that he’d rather die than lose.
As for Mitchell, he later fought hometown “hero” Tony “The Tiger” Lopez in 1991 in Sacramento in a fight that was declared a draw, a decision that shocked most boxing experts at the time as they saw Mitchell the clear winner. The South African was then stripped of his WBA crown for facing Lopez for the IBF title, and for the first time since 1986 he found himself without a world title. Most aficionados felt that the WBA was trying to make things tough for Mitchell since it was boycotting South Africa (allegedly because of Apartheid, but it’s quite likely that it had more to do with the WBA’s desire to get an American into the title picture). However, Mitchell returned to Sacramento in September and this time he dominated Lopez and reclaimed the IBF belt. Mitchell retired after that fight, but came back for two more wins in 1994 and 1995 before permanently retiring from the ring.
In all, Mitchell finished with a great record of 45-1-3, won the WBA and IBF junior lightweight titles, was always the epitome of dedication, was highly respected because he had beaten all notable local opposition before beginning his tour of title defenses, and retired on a high note. However, to this day, he cannot talk about his rivalry with “Dancing Shoes” without his eyes misting up.
1946: Apartheid (apartness) begins as a Government system in South Africa
1981: Morake over Tsotesti in 10 to win Transvaal Super Featherweight Title
1982: Morake over Mitchell in 12 to win Transvaal Super Featherweight Title
1983: Mitchell over Morake in 12 to win South African Super Featherweight Title
1984: Mitchell over Morake in 12 to win South African Super Featherweight Titles
1985: Mitchell over Morake by TKO in 12 to win So. A. Super Featherweight Title
1986: Mitchell over Layne by TKO in 10 to win WBA World Title
1994: End of apartheid as a Government enforced policy, though vestiges still exist
1995: Mitchell over Flores in 10 in Mitchell’s last fight