LEHLO LEDWABA, a leading super-bantamweight at the turn of the century, has died at the age of just 49. He passed away in his native South Africa after contracting Covid-19. “Hands Of Stone” fought as a professional between 1990 and 2006, retiring with a 36-6-1 (23) record, and is perhaps best known for losing in six rounds to Manny Pacquiao in 2001. His finest victories were over John Michael Johnson, Cruz Carbajal, Ernesto Grey, Vuyani Bungu and Eduardo Enrique Alvarez.

Hardcore UK fans might remember Ledwaba fighting four times in this country. In 1995 he stopped Ricky Beard inside three rounds at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall before two appearances at the Whitchurch Sports Centre in Bristol and one at Maidstone Leisure Centre.

After being rejected for a spot among the televised action, Ledwaba opened a Frank Warren-promoted card in December 1998 with a routine eight-round points win over Peter Buckley. Six months after beating Buckley in Bristol, Ledwaba became the IBF belt-holder at 122lbs when he outpointed Johnson over 12 rounds at the Carousel Casino, in Hammanskraal, South Africa. In April 2000 he returned to Bristol, stopping the decent Grey in eight rounds before notching another eight-round stoppage win over Alvarez in October that year in Maidstone.

Ledwaba was a fierce puncher in his pomp but found life difficult when growing up in a township after being born at his grandparents’ home in Meadowlands, Soweto in 1971. Raised by his mother, Ledwaba was inspired to fight so he could provide for his family. Though a successful amateur in South Africa, he turned professional because international opportunities were limited due to apartheid.

The bout against Pacquiao was initially designed to be a showcase for Ledwaba though the opposite occurred. Scheduled to take on Enrique Sanchez on the undercard of Oscar De La Hoya-Javier Castillejo in Las Vegas, the then-little known Pacquiao was drafted in at two weeks’ notice after the Mexican was forced to withdraw.

“I went to the States to fight a different opponent [who] was orthodox,” Ledwaba told The Ring Magazine three years ago. “I was told he was hurt and they found Manny to replace him. I did not know Manny was a southpaw. Southpaws you need to prepare well for.

“I tried almost everything. I’m a boxer who used to think. I always tried to outwork an opponent, but it was totally different against Manny. Firstly, I was flat-footed, but he was on his toes all the time, so he was hard to hit. I couldn’t nail him. He’d jump in and throw his punches, it was tough.

“Pacquiao wasn’t known in the US until he fought me. At that time, I was at the peak of my career. I was regarded as one of the best [super-bantamweights] around. For Manny to beat me was a breakthrough, so I would say I introduced him as far as America is concerned.”

He considered retirement in the aftermath of the Pacquiao thrashing but would return to outpoint fighters like Bungu (2002) and Choi Tseveenpurev (2004) before losing two hotly contested 12-rounders to his domestic rival, Cassius Baloyi. A stoppage loss to Maxwell Awuku convinced him to walk away for good in 2006.

“I worked hard and managed to reach the level I did,” Ledwaba said of his career. “Buying my mom a house was my goal. I was happy because now I have a place I can call home.”

In retirement, Ledwaba lived in Johannesburg and remained in the sport as a trainer, manager and, alongside Dingaan Thobela and Jan Bergman, as part of a promotional company. He was married with two children.