How tragedy in the ring shaped Africa Boxing referee Pumeza Zinakile's career

Pumeza Zinakile, who will referee the co-main event at ESPN Africa Boxing 20 on August 25, has gathered a following with her expressive, no-nonsense refereeing style, but her personality in the ring was borne out of a traumatic event earlier in her career.

Zinakile, who has become known for shouting mom-like admonishments at misbehaving boxers, refereed a fight in 2014 between Phindile Mwelase and Liz Butler, which saw the former put in a coma with a knockout punch. Two weeks later, she died.

"I was a referee in Pretoria between the late Phindile Mwelase [and Liz Butler]," Zinakile told ESPN.

"Phindile Mwelase [suffered a fatal injury] in the ring while I was a referee. It was not easy for me -- I wanted to quit boxing after that.

"After I went to my doctors and other people that were helping me to go through that process, that is when I said to myself: 'I'm doing this. It's not my mistake.'

"I said to myself: 'I mustn't quit boxing, but I must make sure that I'm very strict in the ring. I must do everything to protect two boxers that are fighting.' That's how I ended up being so strict like I am today."

Her instinct to looks after of people in her care is part of her day job too, as she's a nurse in a Johannesburg hospital.

Sometimes those jobs seem contradictory to others, she says: "When I tell people that I'm doing boxing and I'm also a nurse, people will say, 'Really? How do you do boxing and nursing at the same time?' I tell them that nursing is nursing and boxing is boxing."

Africa Boxing 20, taking place during South Africa's Women's Month, is not only a chance for women's bouts to be thrust into the spotlight, but also for two outstanding women in refereeing -- Zinakile (41) and Namhla Tyuluba (44) -- to show why they deserve to be handed more main bouts.

Zinakile and Tyuluba, both living in Johannesburg after moving from the Eastern Cape, both contended that over the course of their refereeing careers, they had been unfairly overlooked for major bouts.

Both credit ESPN Africa Boxing for changing the trajectory of their careers. Tyuluba is set to take the main bout on Thursday, an ABU Flyweight clash between Simangele Hadebe and Stumai Muki, while Zinakile will referee the co-main event, which will see Ellen Simwaka fight Linah Kasweka for the IBF Africa Bantamweight title.

Zinakile said: "To deal with a boxer is very easy, but boxing is a male-dominated sport, so that means that most of your colleagues will be males. It was not easy for them, I think, to accept the fact that we are also there to be referees and judges.

"Unfortunately, people that are chosen... the supervisors are usually male. If there's a big fight, you will know that you are not the person that is going to be chosen because you are a woman. Maybe they are not trusting you enough to do the bout."

Tyuluba shares these frustrations, telling ESPN: "It's very difficult if you are a female dominating with a men's sport. It's not easy because most of the time, we don't get the opportunity that I'm getting on ESPN, because these guys are undermining us.

"Ever since ESPN started and put the bouts for the females, we get this opportunity on an international level."

Zinakile concurred that the winds of change have reached the South African refereeing scene, adding: "Things are changing. At least now, they are trying to take us very seriously or maybe we are trying our best -- that is why they can trust us with the big fights at times."

Both women have officiated men's fights during Africa Boxing this year, and Zinakile says attitudes have changed towards her, and she sometimes prefers reffing men's bouts.

She said: "At one stage, it was not easy for the boxers -- more specifically the male boxers -- to trust us as referees. You would go into the dressing room and say: 'Hi, I'm Pumeza. I'm going to be your referee.' They would look at you like, 'Oh! Ok.' It was like a joke.

"Believe me, when I go to the dressing rooms now and give the rules and tell them that I'm going to be the referee, they trust me -- I can safely say it.

"The thing with me is that I am very energetic, so men are giving me that energy that I want, so I like to be a referee for male bouts."

On Boxing South Africa's efforts to level the playing field, Mandla Ntlanganiso, who has been the organisation's director of operations since January, said: "We are having a Women In Boxing Session this weekend in Durban as part of strengthening women involvement. This is one of the initiatives to promote WIB across all categories in SA.

"As the new administration, we are deliberate on treating women ring officials the same as their male counterparts as long they are properly trained and developed."

Zinakile, who hails from Mdantsane, a township she describes as South Africa's "boxing Mecca", never boxed herself and her two children are not fans of the sport. But since she took up refereeing in 2010 they have helped her every step of the way.

"Sometimes, I will go to my day job. Then, I will come back around 5pm and prepare to go to a boxing match. I will find my things prepared for me and they will run after me and make sure that I am not late to a boxing tournament. They don't like boxing, but they will make sure that they are supporting me because I like boxing," the referee for the looming ABU Flyweight bout said.

Tyuluba, a mother and grandmother herself, works as a cleaner at a medical diagnostics company. She hails from the village of Cofimvaba and was a boxer herself between the ages of 28 and 35.

"2010 was my first time working for Boxing South Africa as a referee and judge," she said. "I love it, because as a referee, you are supposed to be confident about your job. If you are a third lady or third man in the ring, you are supposed to be confident.

"If you are the main bout -- especially in a fight on ESPN -- I know that everybody in the world is watching this bout. Before I come to the fight, I make sure everything is on normal. I don't need to be stressed. I focus on my bout and do my best, because with the chance I've got, I'm supposed to expose who Namhla is."

ESPN Africa Boxing will air on DStv channel 218 and SABC Sport from 7pm SAST on Thursday August 25, as well as on ESPN in Latin America.