Tshabalala: Potential Unrealized

By Ted Sares on September 26, 2012
Tshabalala: Potential Unrealized
The Battle at The Blue was hailed as one of the most exciting heavyweight fights of the year.

Courage was a shooting star from 1993 to 1996, winning nineteen in a row with twelve first-round KOs and three in the second round…

“I remember when Larry Merchant said after the Riddick Bowe-Jorge Gonzalez fight in 1995 that he would bet that Courage Tshabalala would be the heavyweight champ in the year 2000.”—Brent Alderson (CBZ)

“A good example of how people with adjectives as their names sometimes seem very silly when they don’t live up to them. Tshabalala had so much potential but also a complete unwillingness to either apply himself or knuckle-down when things got tough in a fight.”—Poster named The Kurgan (ESB)

On December 14, 1996, I drove down to Atlantic City with a couple of Boston friends to watch two free-swinging heavyweights, Courage “No Limit” Tshabalala (19-0) and scrappy 6”5” Brian “Bam Bam” Scott (21-3), go to war in the Convention Center. Both had several fights under their belts. Both were fun guys to be around. A month prior to this fight, Tshabalala fought Jessie Henry (5-6) and Scott fought Brian “The Beast” Yates (6-18-2), not exactly the best opposition.

Bam Bam Scott fought from 1991–94 and started out with an unbeaten streak of fifteen before stepping up and being taken out by Tommy Morrison in the second round. Leading up to his fight with the Duke, Scott’s opponents included Andre Smiley (0-25-1), whom he beat twice, and “tough” John Basil Jackson (4-75-2), whom he also beat twice. He then went on a seven-fight unbeaten streak before losing to Derrick Roddy and a streaking—at least then—Jorge Luis Gonzalez, both by second-round KO. Many of Bam Bam’s early opponents had losing records; some had never won a professional fight. But this was about hype, and the South African Tshabalala had far more publicity than the overweight (278 pounds) heartland heavyweight, out of the unlikely boxing state of Kansas. This was about showcasing a streaking heavyweight who was called “The African Tyson” in his home country of South Africa

Warning Signs

Courage was a shooting star from 1993 to 1996, winning nineteen in a row with twelve first-round KOs and three in the second round. Only three fights went the distance. But there were warning signs, albeit subtle at first. One was his alleged amateur record of 72-1. Reportedly, he lost his first fight by DQ and then went on to win 69 or 72 (whichever story you believe) consecutive first-round knockouts! I have not been able to verify this, so let’s just call it the best amateur record in history that cannot be corroborated.

A less than subtle warning sign appeared when HBO commentator Larry Merchant termed Tshabalala one of the saviors of boxing and the best heavyweight since Mike Tyson. Merchant, arguably not the most energetic researcher, stated in 1999 that Courage Tshabalala would be the heavyweight champion in the year 2000, and, if it wasn’t him, it would be Shannon Briggs. After this inexplicable comment, all kinds of amber lights started to flash. Merchant had once considered Clifford “the Black Rhino” Etienne another possible savior, but as Fres Oquendo later proved, this prediction was precipitous. Perhaps Larry had gone to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa to check out Courage’s eye-popping amateur KO record. Merchant also forgot to mention that many of Tshabalala opponents leading up to the Brian Scott fight had atrocious, if not even verifiable records. As for Briggs, he proceeded to get KO’d by Darroll “Doin’ Damage” Wilson on March 15, 1996 at the AC Convention Center.

Tshabalala vs. Scott (1996)

At any rate, the highly touted Tshabalala was a strong favorite on December 14, 1996, and we all anticipated an early knockout a la Tommy Morrison. We were not disappointed. There was only one problem: it was” No Limit” who got blown away by a sneaky, sharp, and surprisingly fast Scott right hand in the second round. As we left the venue in semi-amazement, we wondered out loud whether this had just been a fluke and whether Tshabalala had been exposed. Was Scott that good, or was Tshabalala that bad? The consensus was that Courage would come back.

Courage then fought Stanley Hughey (7-16) in January 1997 and won by first-round KO. His next “big” fight was scheduled for June 3, 1997, at the legendary Blue Horizon in Philadelphia against the aforementioned Darroll Wilson and it was one for the books. This was the same Wilson who had waxed future world champion Shannon Briggs, so the warning lights should have been flashing for Team Tshabalala.

Tshabalala vs. Wilson (1997)

After being knocked down in the first and engaging in an ebb and flow second, Wilson (18-1-2 at the time) used his superior boxing skills to outpoint Tshabalala in the exciting third stanza. Suddenly, however, Wilson was caught by a winging right hook and went down like he had been blackjacked. He barely got up and then fell down again, but he made it up just as the referee got to ten, though I felt he had been counted out. Lou Duva (Tshabalala’s manager and trainer) protested the referee’s call in his usual hyperventilating and irritating fashion but to no avail. Then, in an amazing display of grit, Wilson held off the South African in the fourth when Tshabalala moved in for the kill.

Wilson then fought back (like he had against Shannon Briggs) and began to take the heart out of Tshabalala. He soon drew the South African into fierce exchanges, and Courage tired badly. Finally, Wilson used punishing combinations to put No Limit down. Tshabalala spit out his mouthpiece and stayed down as referee Rudy Battle stopped the incredible back and forth fight.

The battle was hailed as one of the most exciting heavyweight fights of the year and further cemented the Blue Horizon’s legacy as a venue for great matchups. In just two years, Courage Tshabalala had participated in 1) one of the upsets of the year (1996), and 2) one of the most exciting fights of the year (1997). If nothing else, he was on everyone’s radar screen.

Tshabalala then fought and won by stoppage three fights against poor competition, including one against the woeful Danny Wofford (16-61-2) and one against fading Chicago journeyman Tony LaRosa who had lost seven in a row coming into the fight. LaRosa actually hurt No Limit, perhaps revealing still another weakness; namely a weak chin. Courage was then booked to fight chill-or-be-chilled Oleg Maskaev in a June 1998 fight.

Besides moving up significantly in class, the fight would be in Maskaev’s hometown of Moscow. Tshabalala, the underdog, was given a puncher’s chance and nothing else. He did not disappoint as he was KO’d in the ninth. However, Oleg reportedly had some ribs broken by No Limit’s incredibly heavy body shots, for Courage was an extremely good body puncher for a heavyweight.

A discouraged Tshabalala then took five years off to ponder his future. He returned to fight Lenzie Morgan (14-29-3), winning a six-rounder by spilt decision in Cape Cod, MA in July 2003. Morgan had lost seven in a row coming in. His next two fights were won by early stoppage, and he seemed to be getting a bit of grounding.

Tshabalala vs. Wiggins (2005)

Stepping up once again, he signed to fight mediocre but sometimes dangerous Robert Wiggins on July 1, 2005, in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It would be his fourth fight since his comeback began and his first semi-serious test. Still, only thirty-four years of age, he could conceivably line himself up for bigger paydays with a strong showing. To his credit, he weighed less than 235 pounds, the lowest weight of his comeback effort thus far.

Wiggins (19-4-1, 11 KOs) was out of Providence and was a hot-and-cold fighter who had fought decent competition and could make the fight a slugfest or a snooze fest, depending on which Robert Wiggins showed up. The bout shaped up to be a classic crossroads fight—and also a toss-up. But this time, I thought the likable Tshabalala just might pull it off, since Wiggins had lost three of his last five fights. Courage seemed poised to make a statement.

The two heavyweights went to war on the co-feature of ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights. And once again, Courage Tshabalala failed to live up to his name, as Wiggins scored a TKO in the fifth when Tshabalala could not come out of his corner. Both fighters were throwing heavy punches early, but Wiggins was landing the cleaner shots. Incredibly, Tshabalala landed three low blows on Wiggins and was deducted two points for them. After the fight, Tshabalala’s handlers claimed that their fighter had broken his hand in the first round, thus causing him to quit on his stool, but those watching this fight felt that his suspicious stamina once again may have played a bigger role in the stoppage. I also wondered why he would throw three low blows keeping in mind the Golota vs. Bowe debacle.

Now it would be easy to play off Courage’s name and write some pretty mean-spirited stuff like how can a five-round fight become a test of stamina, etc., but that’s not what this is about. I don’t disrespect boxers. Anyone who enters the ring does so with vulnerability and dependence; fighters depend on their corner or the referee to save them if things go badly. Sometimes, this dependence turns out to be unreliable, and the results are tragic. More to the point, any fighter who enters the ring risks his or her life and deserves respect. And no boxer who enters the ring lacks courage, whether it’s Courage Tshabalala, Brian Scott, Shannon Briggs, Darroll Wilson, Brian Yates, Danny Wofford, or John Basil Jackson. In this respect, all boxers are even.

Courage Tshabalala never fought again; despite his quick start and a strong endorsement from Larry Merchant, he simply never lived up to the hype. He had great potential and plenty of power, but in the end, he seemed to lack a fighter’s mentality. However, his fight with Wilson in 1967 will never be forgotten by those fortunate enough to have witnessed it.

As for the highly likeable Bam Bam Scott (25-7), he sadly passed away on August 20, 2010 at the young age of 41. Ironically, his last opponent was Shannon Briggs in 2005—the same Briggs who would later fulfill at least part of Larry Merchant’s predictions.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Courage Tshabalala | Marcos Gonzalez 1/1

Courage Tshabalala | Nick Kendrick 1/1

Courage Tshabalala | Jesse Henry II 1/1

Darroll Wilson | Courage Tshabalala 1/3

Darroll Wilson | Courage Tshabalala 2/3

Darroll Wilson | Courage Tshabalala 3/3

Oleg Maskaev vs. Courage Tshabalala 1

Oleg Maskaev vs. Courage Tshabalala 2

Oleg Maskaev vs. Courage Tshabalala 3

Oleg Maskaev vs. Courage Tshabalala 4

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  1. THE THRESHER 02:24pm, 09/27/2012

    And Courage held his own as well. That was a great fight.

  2. Tex Hassler 12:28pm, 09/27/2012

    Maskaev fought a brilliant fight against Courage.

  3. pugknows 10:44am, 09/27/2012

    Another well-researched gem, Bull. You get better with age. Wish I could say the same.

  4. the thresher 09:54am, 09/27/2012

    Well, Ike liked to rape women on the edge. That takes a real MAN. Ike found out the hard way that there ar certain crimes you just don’t do in Las Vegas..

  5. Mike Casey 07:56am, 09/27/2012

    Rather a shame that Ike Ibeabuchi lacked a bit of self-discipline.

  6. Mike Casey 06:11am, 09/27/2012

    Boy, Ted, how these names come back! Yes, Courage looked OK for a while, didn’t he? With so many of these guys, it just seems to be something in the mind.

  7. the thresher 06:00am, 09/27/2012

    Thanks, gents

  8. dollarbond 05:52am, 09/27/2012

    Love the way you played the irony at the end.  You seemed to close the loop and at the same time, give Merchant respect.  Artful writing.

  9. the thresher 05:04pm, 09/26/2012

    and the ironic

  10. Bob 04:43pm, 09/26/2012

    I was very high on Courage early on in his career. I was surprised when he lost to Brian Scott, but Scott was one of those what if… or if only… types. I saw him live against Buster Douglas in Connecticut and he had several brief moments where you could tell he had the potential to be more formidable. I like the way you wound this story up with the references to Courage, Scott, Briggs and Merchant. That’s boxing, the good, the bad and the ugly.

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