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Genteel Giant : South African Ballard Mops Up Light-Heavyweight Division With Proper Dispatch


Another fighter, young and talented, with social habits and a training ethic that drives his handlers crazy.

His promoter tells him to leave the teacups on the table and what does he do? Fidgets, politely excuses himself and scurries off toward the kitchen, pausing only to pick lint off his host's floor.

A neat freak, he just can't help himself.

The fighter's trainer, poor man, shares in the frustration. He urges his protege not to train so hard, to decrease his roadwork.

The fighter grudgingly agrees. He takes the afternoon off--except for a little jog with his dog, just a few miles or so, over the sand near the water's edge a couple of blocks from his home in Huntington Beach.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 11, 1995 Valley Edition Sports Part C Page 11 Zones Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Boxing match--The weight class of boxers Roman Santos and Gary Ballard was incorrectly identified in some of Thursday's editions of Valley Sports. Both are light heavyweights.

A fitness fanatic, he just can't help himself.

These are the vices of one Gary Ballard, a boxer whom Miss Manners would have as her escort and even the most maniacal drill sergeant would embrace.

Ballard, the main attraction of a six-bout boxing card tonight at 7:30 at the Warner Center Marriott, is 28, ruggedly handsome and has the type of physique that causes women's heads to turn at beachfront yogurt stands.

He also has 16 victories by knockout and only one loss in 20 professional fights. The loss came two years ago, against Thulanie (Sugar Boy) Malinga, who is the International Boxing Federation's top light heavyweight contender.

Ballard lost the 12-round bout on points. By some accounts, Malinga almost lost considerably more. His life. The South African champion collapsed in his corner after the fight, shaking and babbling incoherently as he was rushed to a hospital.

Later, surrounded by a large contingent of family and friends at his bedside, Malinga wearily greeted Ballard, slowly shaking his head and saying in broken English, "Hey, man, you almost killed me."

Malinga wasn't the first.

Eppie Pohl, who met Ballard for a South African amateur title in 1986, remains in a coma as the result of the beating he sustained.

"I had the guy on the ropes and I was just pounding him," Ballard recalled of the Pohl fight before a training session at a Westminster gym, "and I stepped back and looked at the referee as if to say, 'Well, are you going to stop the fight?'

"But he just looked at me and looked at the other guy, so I kept on punching."

The bell saved Pohl from even greater punishment, but shortly after weaving his way back to his corner he lost consciousness and collapsed.

Ballard's next fight also was won by knockout and the opponent after that was carried off on a stretcher, hooked up to an oxygen machine.

"I never thought of quitting, but that didn't stop me from being scared of hurting an opponent," said Ballard, who was given the nickname "Boom Boom" for obvious reasons. "As soon as I hurt a guy I was scared to really land a knockout punch."

The passage of time has healed some of the emotional wounds, but Ballard occasionally still has flashbacks when he knows he has hurt an opponent.

The combination of Ballard's punching power, good looks and pleasant demeanor, likely would have resulted in fame and fortune given a slightly different set of circumstances.

Instead, Ballard languishes in relative obscurity outside his native South Africa. His homeland's politics kept him from earning international acclaim as an amateur, which he might already have overcome if not for the anonymity of his weight class.

Promoter Gerrie Coetzee, a former world heavyweight champion from South Africa, would love nothing better than for Ballard to follow in his rather prodigious footsteps. He looks at Ballard's sinewy 6-foot-2 frame and wonders whether a nutritionist might develop a healthy way for his fighter to gain weight.

Jackie McCoy, Ballard's trainer, doubts it. "I think he's stuck being a light heavyweight," he said. "Maybe a cruiserweight."

Can't go up. Can't go down.

Last month, Ballard declined an invitation to meet Nigel Benn for the world super middleweight championship because he couldn't lose 12 pounds.

"I felt bad turning down a title shot, but I don't know if I would have been able to make the weight," Ballard said. "And even if I did, how strong would I have been?"

There has been talk of meeting light heavyweights Virgil Hill and James Toney, but no concrete plans.

Ballard might have inadvertently cost himself a shot at Toney with some sharp sparring against the former International Boxing Federation champion this spring.

Last year, shortly after Ballard moved to the United States, he was pummeled, insulted and embarrassed by a ranting Toney during a sparring session.

"He called me names and taunted me the whole time, which I wasn't used to," Ballard said. "I was very intimidated."

Given a second chance almost a year later, Ballard turned the tables, roundly punishing Toney with jabs and an occasional straight right hand.

"He was smacking Toney around pretty good and all of a sudden Toney starts screaming at him: 'I'm going to kick your . . .' ," McCoy said.

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