Top sportsmen usually have to overcome many challenges to achieve their dream of competing on the world stage.
Newly-crowned World Boxing Organisation (WBO) bantamweight champion Zolani Tete, who now has two major world boxing titles under his belt, is no exception.
His hurdle was refusing to allow an open fontanelle prevent him from taking up boxing as a youngster. His fontanelle – the soft spot on a baby’s head which usually disappears as the plates of the skull fuse together by the time a child is two – remained open throughout his childhood, causing endless worry for his mother, especially when he took to spending his afternoons boxing. The 28-year-old is one of only two South African boxers to win two major world boxing titles in two different divisions – the other being the legendary Dingaan Thobela.
Tete first won the International Boxing Federation (IBF) junior bantamweight crown in enemy territory by besting Japanese Teiru Kinoshita in Kobe, Japan in 2014.
He later vacated the belt over a disagreement on the terms of his mandatory title defence against Puerto Rican MacJoe Arroyo.
Now he is the WBO king, having won the title under bizarre circumstances. His initial fight against Filipino Arthur Villanueva in Leicester, England, was upgraded to an WBO interim championship when Marlon Tapales forfeited the title on the scales the day before his fight against Japanese Shohei Omori.
Tete was elevated to a full champion while on the flight back to South Africa because Tapales beat Omori. The feat capped an incredible story for the Mdantsane boxer, who as a kid was the laughing stock of his peers over his pulsating fontanelle.
The slow closure of the fontanelle was a source of great concern to his parents, with his mother Nomonde concerned that her youngest child would suffer brain damage if he continued with boxing.
Despite this Tete and older brother Makazole, also a boxer, would sneak out to train along with other youngsters in the area at the local hall, where there was a boxing club.
“We used to wear our training kit under our school uniform and immediately after school we would go straight to the boxing gym when our parents thought we were still at school,” Tete recalls.
NU12, the suburb the brothers call home, is famous for the number of boxers it has produced, including former SA super middleweight champion Mbulelo Mxokiswa and the Sinyabi brothers – Sizwe and Macbute – who won the SA junior flyweight and junior featherweight titles respectively.
Growing up, the Tete brothers never thought they would one day not only emulate these boxing champions but surpass them.
Tete was the least confident of the pair due to the taunts he suffered growing up. The teasing still haunts him, so much so that he did not even want to discuss his childhood problem. “It affected me big time my bra,” he said, reluctant to speak about it until his manager, Mla Tengimfene, persuaded him.
“You know [I believed] it made me less of a boy and you know that every boy associates himself with the strongest,” he recalls. “Here I was, with this soft, pulsating tissue [forming part of] my skull.”
While his mother did not want to hear about her son’s boxing, the doctors assured her that the soft tissue would harden as he grew, which was indeed the case.
Not only has Tete defied the odds by becoming the only boxer in the Eastern Cape to become a dual major world champion, but he is also one of only two in Africa to currently hold a legitimate world crown, the other being Namibian Julius Indongo.
Besides his incredible rags to fame story (he has yet to translate the fame into riches), Tete also overcame several mysterious setbacks to climb the boxing pinnacle.
While preparing for a fight in 2002 he suffered what may have been a mild heart attack, which left the right side of his body paralysed.
“I still do not know what happened,” he says. “I only recovered my senses in hospital weeks after the incident.”
Although he fully recovered to continue with his career, six years later, while preparing for his clash against then SA champion Simon Ramoni, he fainted after a training session and was rushed to a local private hospital by Tengimfene.
Tete has set his sights on breaking another record by becoming the first SA boxer to unify major world titles. “That is our goal now,” he said confidently.