From schoolyard scuffles to professional boxing matches, Sipho Ndongeni’s journey from Nyanga to the world resonates with the transformative power of following one’s dreams.
As a 10-year-old kid, a schoolyard fight involving Ndongeni caught the attention of Mr Mahlangani, the school’s boxing trainer and principal in East London. Impressed by his natural talent and composure, Mr Mahlangani wasted no time in offering Ndongeni an opportunity to train at the local gym.
“Mr Mahlangani took both me and the boy I fought with and he gave us the gloves and he said he is going to be the referee and there will be no time keeper. That’s how he spotted me and because I outboxed my opponent he told me to start at the gym in the same afternoon. That’s where I became a boxer weighing 32kg,” said Ndongeni.
Under the guidance of the renowned Soto Boxing Club and his mentors, Ndongeni’s skills flourished. His determination and love for the sport moved him forward. His success as a boxer was matched only by his integrity and fair play.
“At amateur level I never wore head guards. I never wore a groin protector. For me to have a mouth piece, a fan loved me in the ring and bought me a gum shield. We’ve come very far with boxing, back when the ring used to be made with school desks. I never wore boxing boots because we couldn’t afford it. Back at the time when a loaf of bread used to be R1… ,” said Ndongeni.
A turning point came when Ndongeni, a provincial police officer, found himself not only fighting but also serving as a referee and judge for his fellow boxers. The experience of impartially judging his younger brother’s fight instilled in him a steadfast belief in doing what is right, regardless of the consequences.
Throughout his illustrious career, Ndongeni has experienced both highs and challenging moments. One of his most cherished memories was the call he received from the World Boxing Organization (WBO) to officiate a prestigious fight in Namibia between Jeremiah Nakatila and a formidable opponent from Tanzania. The honour of overseeing high-profile fights, including the South African heavyweight title and elimination bouts, brought a sense of fulfilment to Ndongeni’s life.
“One of the best moments was also when I refereed a South African heavy weight title between Tian Fick and Joshua Pretorius from KZN as well as the elimination fight between Azziz Kunert against the late Mfusi Maxhaya,” said Ndongeni.
However, it hasn’t been without its share of humorous incidents. In Botswana, Ndongeni found himself in a peculiar situation when professional boxer, Onkarabile “Scara” Mothibedi couldn’t keep his eyes off the referee during the fight.
With a mixture of amusement and frustration, Ndongeni resorted to shouting at him, urging him to focus on his opponent. Little did Ndongeni know, Mothibedi’s eyesight was impaired, leading to a comical realisation after the match. Fortunately, Mothibedi emerged victorious, and Ndongeni was quick to apologise, sharing a light-hearted moment with the spirited boxer.
While officiating fights alone cannot provide a steady income, Ndongeni’s passion for the sport and the opportunities it presents, such as travelling to various countries, has made it all worthwhile.
“I remember when I started travelling through boxing. My first night in Germany I couldn’t sleep because I was so excited. I remember officiating another fight, one of the boys was from Ukraine and he couldn’t even understand a word of English and I had to use sign language. Same in Angola both boxers were struggling with English and in the hotel as well I took that as a challenge and today it’s what I also tell my kids, how important the sport is because you see places,” he said.
Ndongeni said a majority of his work was inspired by the watchful eye of former professional champion and national boxing commissioner, Mickey Klaas. Ndongeni said Klaas is a gem to the sport of boxing.
At the South African boxing awards in 2018, Ndongeni was awarded the most promising ring official of the year. Last year, Ndongeni was one of Boxing South Africa’s awarded recipients, following his dedication to the sport.
Ndongeni is preparing for his upcoming assignments in Mossel Bay, where he will oversee the highly anticipated World Boxing Federation’s title fight and the Western Cape title fights, presented by Jackie Brice Boxing Promotions, on Saturday July 8.