Corrie Sanders vs Wladimir Klitschko

Action Images/Reuters/Christian Charisius

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HEAVYWEIGHTS don’t hit much harder than Corrie Sanders, the former WBO champion who was killed at the age of 46 in his native South Africa.

On Saturday September 22, 2012 he walked into a restaurant to celebrate his nephew’s birthday but the party was curtailed when armed robbers opened fire. Sanders, who beat Wladimir Klitschko in 2003, was hit in the stomach and later died in hospital.

Born on January 7, 1966 in Pretoria, young Sanders was something of an all-rounder at school, playing cricket and rugby to a high level and in later life he would become a golfer of almost professional standard. He had a successful amateur career, claiming national titles while winning 196 of 200 bouts.

After turning professional in 1989, the southpaw had little trouble in coasting to 16-0 (10) before he encountered Johnny Nelson in 1992. Sheffield’s future world champion was yo-yoing between cruiserweight and heavyweight, and he was outweighed by two-and-a-half stone when they clashed in Sun City, South Africa.

“He was strong and fast,” remembered Nelson, who lost over 10 rounds. “They kept him away from me until the weigh-in. I think they thought I might pull out if I saw him. When he came out, I thought ‘Oh s***.’ It was surprising how good he was given his size.

What I remember most about him is how nice he was. There was no arrogance, no side to him. He was a gentleman and what has happened to him is sad and shocking.”

It wouldn’t be until the puncher’s 24th bout that Sanders would lose for the first time, stopped in two rounds by Nate Tubbs. He rebounded well before engaging in a rousing humdinger with Hasim Rahman in 2000. The pair blasted each other to the deck, shared a Rocky II-style double knockdown, before Rahman ultimately prevailed in the seventh.

I’ve never been hit like that in my life,” the American said afterwards.

Sanders, whose dedication to training was always a problem, considered retirement following that defeat but instead came back a year later and was matched with British hopeful, Michael Sprott, in Gauteng.

“Man, he could punch,” Sprott recalled. “He was definitely the hardest puncher I’ve faced. I don’t know where he got that power from. As soon as he hit me, I said to myself, ‘I’m in trouble here’.”

Sprott didn’t last a round.

“The punches didn’t even land on my jaw. If they had, I’d have been asleep for days.”

Two fights later, in 2003, Sanders was matched with heavily favoured WBO champion, Wladimir Klitschko in Hannover, Germany. The South African’s pre-fight interview with Sky’s Ian Darke offered few clues as to what lay ahead.

“At 37 it’s hard, to be honest with you,” Sanders responded when asked how he motivated himself for the contest with just five weeks’ notice. “If I lose I’ll probably retire.”

The 40-1 outsider dropped the Ukrainian twice in the opening session before finishing the job in the second, his speed and power the conclusive factors.

“His hand speed and accuracy made him so effective,” his long-term manager Harold Volbrecht told Africa’s Mail and Guardian after his death. “Muscle means nothing in boxing and Corrie knew that. He understood the techniques of the sport.”

A year after trouncing Wladimir, he went into a unification battle with Klitschko’s brother, WBC boss Vitali. The left hook specialist had his moments in the early rounds but was eventually outgunned in eight – a result that all but spelled the end. He would fight sporadically until 2008, retiring with a record of 42-4 (31) after losing to Osborne Machimana at the age of 42.

“We will remember Corrie as a great person both inside and outside the ring,” said the Klitschko brothers shortly after Sanders’ death. “He was a great fighter with a big heart who always positively represented the sport of boxing.”

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