A boxing match made in heaven

Thomas Oosthuizen was a gloveless boxer fresh out of prison when Harry Ramogoadi took a chance on him. They say their special bond will be the basis from which they both achieve success.

It is a union few, if any, local boxing experts would have foreseen. Thomas “Tommy Gun” Oosthuizen teaming up with trainer Harry Ramogoadi is the unlikeliest of partnerships in the domestic-fight game.

Oosthuizen, you see, is a former two-division world champion ​​– an accomplished fighter who could have achieved much more were it not for his antics outside the ring. 

Ramogoadi, on the other hand, may have been a boxer himself but is a pretty humble trainer slowly establishing himself. But to be in their presence, to listen to them speak of their reverence for each other, the bond they have developed in a short space of time and to hear the story of their coming together will leave you believing that some relationships are just preordained.

Tommy Gun, the former International Boxing Organisation super-middleweight champion returned to the sport following nearly a year in prison after being arrested on charges of assault with the intention of doing grievous bodily harm.

“The initial plan after incarceration was to rejoin Harold Volbrecht,” Oosthuizen says “But it was time for a change, time for me to turn a new leaf. I was looking for a new trainer and there was talk of going to Andre Thysse’s group but thank the Lord he led me away from that path. I can almost say that this was destined to be. I really think God makes things happen for a reason and he led me to come to coach Harry Ramogoadi.”

The trainer jumps in: “God planned it this way. Some connections are made somewhere else where we have no control.”

The story of their relationship gets much deeper though. A few years ago, when Ramogoadi opened his VIP Gym and Boxing Academy in the heart of Benoni, he received a gift that, looking back, supports the notion that his and Tommy Gun’s relationship was preordained in the heavens.

A relationship forged by fate

“One morning when my guys were putting up flyers in town about our gym being open, a man saw them and said to them, ‘I have old gloves in my garage that have been gathering dust. I will donate to you.’ He brought them in and they had on them the name Charles Oosthuizen. At the time, I honestly didn’t think much of them and simply put them safe.”

Tommy takes up the story. “They were my dad’s gloves and coach Harry showed them to me years back when I had visited the gym. They were gloves my dad wore for his Fight of the Year when he knocked Paul Toweel out [in April 1990]. It was actually the first time I’d met coach Harry and just speaking to you [Ramogoadi] back then, I could tell you are a boxing genius. Your intellect and spirituality was something different to everyone I had ever met.”

Later, Ramogoadi got the gloves framed and hung them over the doorway to the stairs leading from the gym to the offices we’re sitting in for this interview, not knowing that one day he would have Oosthuizen Jr back in the gym as one of his boxers.

17 August 2021: Tommy Gun training at Harry Ramogoadi’s VIP Boxing Academy in Benoni.

“Back then, when he came to visit, Tommy was at the height of his career and I admired him because he is a super-talented boxer. But not in my wildest dreams did I imagine him back here training with me. But looking back at it all, it was pointing to this current union. I mean, who would have thought Tommy would have come to me? I have not produced a champion and, knowing the history of South Africa, surely no one would have written this kind of script.”

Though they’ve only been together since February, boxer and trainer agree that theirs is a special relationship. 

“The connection between a boxer and his trainer is very important. You must realise that you are taking this man into a battle and he is literally entrusting you with his life. So, before going into that ring, the two of you must click personally. And Tommy and I clicked from the word go. For the first time in my training career, I have a fighter who calls me to say, ‘Coach, I am going to sleep now.’ Do you understand what that means? Trust.”

Doubt at first, then trust

Oosthuizen explains why: “Day by day we are earning each other’s trust. But for me, it happened from the onset. When we first met to discuss plans to work together, I listened as coach Harry spoke about the Lord. I just kept quiet because I’d not met anyone in the sport who spoke that way. The fact that here was someone who shared the same faith as I do, said to me I was at the right place. Remember I’d worked with Harold from when I was just 19, and I took in everything he said to me given his experience, without ever voicing my views or even my religious beliefs. But with coach Harry I knew it was going to be different.

“And for that reason, I’ve been able to open up to him emotionally. I’m open to him and I shared some very personal stuff with him which was getting to me. I lost two close friends who died of a motorcycle accident and a heart attack and I let it all out with coach Harry without fearing he’d judge me or see me as weak. I’d never shared my emotions with my previous coaches.”

It is perhaps a good thing they’ve managed to find each other before they venture into fights, as they endeavour to resurrect Oosthuizen’s career following his return from 10 months in jail.

17 August 2021: Thomas Oosthuizen at work in Harry Ramogoadi’s gym.

They both admit that they’d approached the relationship with trepidation – Ramogoadi wondering if it was wise to take on the role of guiding South African boxing’s “bad boy” and Oosthuizen not so sure what using a new trainer would be like, given his long association with Volbrecht.

“A lot of people in the industry were asking me questions and wondering if it was the right decision. ‘Why are you taking Tommy on, you know he’s trouble?’ they said. But all of them admitted he was a talent and wished me luck. On my side, I was like, ‘What have you got to lose?’ Besides, I felt, ‘Why kick a man when he’s down?’ I was not going to write him off and the opportunity to work with such a talent was simply one I wasn’t going to let pass by. And then we just clicked hey, we really connected and developed this incredible understanding of each other,” said Ramogoadi. 

Then he got confirmation of sorts that he was making the right decision. “Just the other day, a man came into this gym and said to me, ‘Someone has been sent to you so you can save him.’ And … he could only have been talking about Tommy.”

Good for each other

For Oosthuizen, having someone who accepts him as he is and does not judge him on his past is the best career lifeline he could have ever hoped for: “He understands my emotions. He understands me as a person and I’ve found that very few people can do that. Coach Harry has a gift of communication, he brings things out in a very understandable way and that’s one of the reasons it is easy for me to open up to him.”

Given that he’s generally been judged and written off by many as a bad boy, to have someone understand him is just what Oosthuizen needs to reclaim his status as a champion boxer.

“I do believe without a doubt that God has provided me with the best man to keep me away from the world’s opinions of me. Coach Harry is a very understanding man who deals with a lot of boxers. He plays the role of teacher and guide, not only in the boxing ring but in our personal lives as well. And I am not the only one who opens up to him when I have issues. If I was the only one you’d say, ‘Okay, these two have a special relationship.’ But when others open up to him, it means he’s a special man, someone that God is working through to better our lives.”

15 June 2007: Boxing trainer Harry Ramogoadi in the ring against Tshifhiwa Munyai at the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace in London, England. (Photograph by Action Images/ Andrew Boyers) 

Oosthuizen certainly wants a better life after his incarceration, which has seen him estranged from the mother of his children. He hardly sees his children, and that eats at him too.

But he knows that things will change once he gets that first fight, and starts earning a living and being able to provide for his kids.

“The key for me is to stay focused inside the gym and caring only about my coach’s opinion and not what the world out there says about me and where I’ve been. The good thing is that we have a boxing licence. We are talking to promoters all over the country and while we don’t have a solid commitment from anyone yet, we know that good things will eventually come.”

For now, they have a relationship seemingly made in heaven and both insist that “the Lord would not have brought us together the way he did without a goal for us”.

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