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
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum