Mandela was an amateur boxer in his younger days and he credited the sport with helping instill discipline and the will to withstand the blows of hatred and a long imprisonment.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, the anti-apartheid icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner wrote how a daily boxing program helped him cope with the demands and the pressures of the revolutionary movement in South Africa.
“I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress … After a strenuous workout, I felt both mentally and physically lighter. It was a way of losing myself in something that was not the struggle. After an evening’s workout, I would wake up the next morning feeling strong and refreshed, ready to take up the fight again.”
In taking up the fight, Mandela viewed boxing, in its purest form, as free from prejudice and discrimination.
“Boxing is egalitarian,” wrote Mandela. “In the ring, rank, age, color and wealth are irrelevant. When you are circling your opponent, probing his strengths and weaknesses, you are not thinking about his color or social status.”
Boxing great Muhammad Ali, a hero to many in his own right, met Mandela several times. In a statement released through his foundation, Ali said Mandela “was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge.”
Mandela also met several other boxing champions after being released from prison in 1990, including former world heavyweight titleholders Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis.
Mandela met Lewis in April of 2001, shortly after he lost his world title belts to American Hasim Rahman, who knocked out Lewis in the fifth round during a championship fight in South Africa.
“I know the history of boxing,” said Mandela during his meeting with Lewis, “and I know the quality of champions.”
The late, great champion of freedom and justice said the best fighters have the ability to overcome adversity and prevail, and he predicted with proper training Lewis could reclaim the world heavyweight title.
Seven months later, Lennox Lewis knocked out Hasim Rahman in the fourth round in their rematch in Las Vegas to regain the world heavyweight boxing championship.