Burt Watson recalls meeting Nelson Mandela

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Every serious UFC fan eventually gets to know who Burt Watson is. But the fighters revere him.

“Without Burt, it would fall apart,” explained Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone.

Watson, 65, has been the UFC site coordinator since UFC 31 in May 2001.

it is a little less well known that from the early 1980s until the late 1990s, Watson managed former world heavyweight boxing champion ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier.

Not long after Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years, he toured the USA. A lifelong boxer, Mandela wanted to meet Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Mandela’s representatives reached out to Frazier, via Watson.

“When I mentioned to Joe that they wanted him and Nelson Mandela personally requested to meet him, he was in awe,” Watson said. “Joe wasn’t in awe of a lot of things, but he was of that. He said he wouldn’t miss it. He was honored. He knew of Mandela, knew of the struggles, knew what was going on.”

Frazier was humbled, and had to find the right symbolic gift to present to Mandela.

No autographed picture, no robe, no gloves would do. Instead, Frazier picked the WBC heavyweight championship belt he was awarded after defeating Muhammad Ali in 1971.

“I said, ‘Are you talking about THAT belt,'” said Burt Watson. “He wouldn’t let anyone touch that belt. It was his pride and joy.”

Frazier and Watson were ushered into a room to convene with Mandela. The only other people there was a Mandela associate and two members of the NYPD.

“Joe Frazier’s face lit up,” recalled Watson. “They hugged and spoke to each other. He told Joe how much he respected him, how much he appreciated what he did to the world. Joe presented him with the belt and said, ‘I want you to have this.'”

Watson took the belt and snapped it around Mandela’s waist.

“It was a little awkward, because I didn’t know to put it on him so it would stay,” said Watson, laughing. “It was heavy.”

Watson saw Mandela again about 10 years after their 1990 meeting and mentioned he was there with Frazier at the United Nations.

“When I mentioned the belt, he lit up like a Christmas tree,” said Watson.

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