JAN Bergman could handle himself when the thugs were armed with knives.

Growing up on the tough streets of Toekomsrus, a township on Gauteng’s West Rand, the young Bergman learned to outmanoeuvre tsotsis using only his fists.

Two hands versus a blade wielded by a gangster with scant respect for life sounds like an unfair fight — and it probably was. The odds were stacked Bergman’s way.

His skills were partly honed against those thugs.

By the time Bergman stepped into the ring to face fellow fighters armed only with two gloves, he must have almost felt sorry for them.

That’s how it seemed when he fought Grant Messias in 1992, destroying him by knockout in the third round.

This wasn’t your average stoppage; it was the type of demolition demanded by the hardcore fans of boxing, and Bergman delivered it with his greatest weapon, the left hook.

He landed that punch twice in the final combination, the first one digging into the liver and the second crashing into the chin. Messias keeled over unconscious, twitching on the canvas.

Orlando Pirates boss Irvin Khoza, a boxing aficionado, knows what Bergman went through.

I chatted to the Iron Duke briefly in London during the 2012 Olympics, having bumped into him at Team South Africa’s administrative headquarters, where I asked him for his thoughts on the decline of boxing in South Africa.

“The boxers are soft today,” he admitted, stating his theory that, in days gone by, gangsters had helped to harden the boxers of old.

He landed that punch twice in the final combination, the first one digging into the liver and the second crashing into the chin. Messias keeled over unconscious, twitching on the canvas.

Once a boxer had proven his abilities with his fists, he earned respect and was allowed to walk freely. But you needed skill to attain that status.  

Bergman was one of the last of these “old-school” fighters.

“Eighty percent of the guys used knives,” said Bergman, now 45.

The minority had guns, and they were treated differently.

“I was told back then: ‘Never look a guy in the eyes when he’s got a gun — he’ll get nervous and shoot’.”

Bergman heeded that advice when he was hijacked recently.

He noticed a beggar as he pulled up at a traffic light close to his home in Primrose, Germiston.

“I opened the window to ask him how I can help [him]. Next thing there is a gun aimed at my head,” said Bergman.

“He was pretending to be a beggar. He was a tiny bastard — I could have knocked him out.”

But he didn’t even try. With two other gunmen appearing on the left side of the car, Bergman and his friend did what they were told.

Bergman may have earned a fortune in the course of his career, during which he was beaten by top world champions Kostya Tszyu and Zab Judah, but he lost it all a long time ago.

He lost his car, phone and wallet in the hijacking, but not his life.

Bergman was lucky — luckier than his former world champion stablemates, Corrie Sanders and Mzukisi Sikali, who were murdered in 2012 and 2005 respectively.

He was luckier than Cassius Baloyi, a world boxing champion who was shot and injured in a hijacking more than a decade ago.

Bergman was luckier than Bafana Bafana captain Senzo Meyiwa, although the details of this murder are still emerging.

Bergman admitted he’s experiencing the after-effects of the hijacking — every time he pulls up at a traffic light a cold cloud of fear descends upon him.

That’s to be expected, even for a former boxing star and conqueror of thugs.

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