Corrie Sanders: Heavyweight world champion

 

Corrie Sanders was not a man accustomed to displaying emotion, but he burst into tears when returning from Germany after shocking the boxing world by obliterating the high-flying Wladimir Klitschko to win the World Boxing Organisation heavyweight title in 2003. He was expecting the usual family delegation to meet him at the airport but this time he was greeted by the roar of hundreds of fans, black and white, headed by his friend, the former flyweight champion "Baby Jake" Matlala.

"I'm just so proud to be a South African," he said between sobs, later explaining: "I just couldn't hold myself. I was so amazed that so many people came out for me."

The Afrikaner, then 37, was a modest man, refreshingly free from hubris, or from any hint of racial prejudice. A decade earlier, for example, in the dying days of apartheid, I invited him to join me on a trip to Soweto to visit Matlala, who had just won a world title. He didn't hesitate, and the 6ft 4in heavyweight and the 4ft 10in flyweight had a whale of a time together. He sometimes noted that he had more black South African fans than white – and seemed genuinely delighted when they would stop him in the street to wish him well.

His moment of glory in Hamburg took just three minutes and 27 seconds. By then he had dropped Klitschko four times, leaving him helpless. But in the end, it proved to be a solitary high-water mark in a 46-fight career (42 wins including 31 knock-outs) that never quite lived up to its potential.

Sanders was an extraordinary natural athlete. At 20 he played rugby union at centre for Northern Transvaal B (then South Africa's leading provincial side), ran the 100 metres in 10.9 seconds and went on to become a pro-am golfer with a one handicap, regularly shooting sub-par rounds. He also played a mean game of tennis, and generally preferred talking about football, cricket and rugby than anything pugilistic.

One of three children growing up in a working class family in Brits, near Pretoria, he started boxing at the prompting of his father and uncle and took to it effortlessly, ending up with an amateur record of 180 wins and 11 losses. He turned professional in 1989 as an alternative to a career in the police and soon showed his potential. He was fast on his feet for a big man, with sharp reflexes and wonderful hand-eye coordination, excellent defensive skills, and knock-out power in both hands. But his chin was dodgy and his dedication erratic.

He racked up 23 straight wins, his victims including Britain's Johnny Nelson along with several American fringe contenders. But three weeks after his country's maiden democratic election, he was poleaxed in two rounds by the American Nate Tubbs.

The rebuilding process involved regular forays to the US and Britain, and over the next six years he registered 13 wins, including 11 knock-outs. But he turned down advice to advance his career by relocating. "I love my country too much to move to the US like other boxers," he said.

Finally, in 2000 he was put in with a top contender, Hasim Rahman. Sanders outboxed him for a couple of rounds, but it turned into an atavistic brawl with both men tasting the canvass. In the seventh Rahman's greater desire, conditioning and resilience told. He went on to beat Lennox Lewis for the world title; Sanders languished without a fight for 18 months.

He returned to stop the future British champion Michael Sprott in one round, but it looked like his moment had passed until Klitschko, the dauphin of the division, offered him a shot at the lightly regarded WBO title. The 40-1 outsider was considered too old and fragile for a giant who was 10 years younger, two inches taller and 18lb heavier, but Sanders used a sports psychologist to motivate him and trained as never before.

He also listened to the advice of his friend, Lennox Lewis. "He told me not to hold back and said I should pressure Klitschko from the first bell and he wouldn't be able to handle that, and he was right. Then, after the fight, he phoned to congratulate me. I really appreciated that call."

It should have been the start of big things, but contractual problems and injury kept him out for 14 months, and he returned undertrained and overweight to take on Wladimir's harder brother, Vitali. Still, he managed to wobble the giant Ukrainian before being stopped in eight. After three more wins and a loss he retired aged 42 to concentrate on his business interests and on the fairways.

He was celebrating his nephew's 21st birthday at a restaurant in Brits when a gang of robbers burst in and opened fire. Sanders dived in front of his daughter to protect her and was shot in the stomach and hand. He was rushed to hospital but died soon after – one of around 50 people who, on average, are murdered in South Africa each day. "I think he died a hero," said his ex-wife, Sunette.

Cornelius Johannes Sanders, boxer: born Brits, South Africa 7 January 1966; married Sunette Sanders (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter); died Brits 23 September 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'