Johnny van Rensburg

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Johnny “Smiler” van Rensburg the fighter who always smiled in the ring and one of the best fighters to come out of South Africa in the late 1950’s passed away at the Flora Clinic in Roodepoort on October 28, 2010 after a short illness. He was 78. Johnny has a unique place in South African boxing, being the only South African fighter to win two Empire titles, in the lightweight and welterweight divisions in the days when an Empire title was highly regarded in world terms.  He became one of the most successful SA amateurs, losing only three of 140 fights, the first two as a junior against Kewpie Wilson and Bennie Nieuwenhuizen. He later beat both in return fights. His third loss was in the 1952 Olympics. He won senior SA titles at bantamweight, featherweight, lightweight and light welterweight in 1949, 1950, 1951 and 1952. At the age of 17 he won the bantamweight gold medal at the 1954 British Empire Games in Auckland, New Zealand. One of several poor decisions at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki resulted in Johnny losing his first bout, on points to Argentina’s Americo Bonetti. Smiler met Britains’s Joe Lucy for the vacant Empire lightweight title at the Wembley Stadium in Johannesburg in February 1955. Weighing in at only 60 kg, the South African outpunched, outpointed and outlasted the southpaw British champion Joe Lucy over 15 rounds. With this victory, Smiler became the first South African to be awarded the Willie Corner belt. He made successful defences of his SA and Empire lightweight titles against Louis Klopper, Roy Louw and Willie Toweel.  In June 1956, Smiler lost his titles to Toweel, who had been a team-mate at the Helsinki Olympics. It was the second fight of their five-bout series. Van Rensburg moved up a division in September 1957 to beat Billy Lotter, a future SA heavyweight champion, on a tenth-round stoppage for the vacant SA welterweight title. Then, in January 1958 he regained the SA lightweight title when he stopped Sampie Pretorius in a clash for the vacant title to become the holder of two national crowns. In his next fight, on May 17, he became the first and only South African to win two Empire championships when he outpointed George Barnes of Australia in Salisbury, Rhodesia to take the welterweight title. Van Rensburg lost his Empire welterweight title to Barnes in a return match in Sydney on October 13. He was stopped in the 13th round after being well ahead on points. It later emerged that he had been confined to bed with influenza and should never have fought such a tough opponent as Barnes. In 1960, Van Rensburg campaigned in Britain, but with little success, winning against Ronnie Rush, Terry Gill and Billy Kelly and losing to Tony Smith, Boswell St Louis and Guy Gracia. His last fight was in Rome on October 1, 1960, when he took on the future Italian lightweight champion Giordano Campari. He retired with a record of 32 wins, 13 losses and 3 draws. Repoeted by Ron Jackson, Fightnews