It could become one of the biggest fights in African history – another Rumble in the Jungle before thousands in a stadium. Bad news is government first has to cover the $25-million purse. At the center of it all is an African boxer licking his wounds.
American boxing manager, Peter Kahn, has been busy trying to find a big-name opponent for his South African boxer to fight on home soil. On July 2, the Miami-based promoter will be in Brisbane, Australia, to solicit a fight with the winner of the bout between Manny Pacquiao and Jeff Horn.
His boxer, Chris van Heerden, born in Johannesburg and fighting out of Santa Monica, California, was convinced the fight against the Filipino Pacquiao, planned for November, was on the cards after his camp approached the office of the former minister of sports, Fikile Mbalula, late last year. But since Mbalula is no longer sports minister, things have been sketchy.
Boxing South Africa (BSA), the sport’s national body, says it is open to the fight but needs Kahn to make the first step.
“My advice will be for contact to be made with the [sport] department so that they can advise with authority on this issue,” says BSA Chief Executive Officer, Tsholofelo Lejaka. “Boxing SA remains open and willing to discuss with any role-player who seek to develop or promote our sport of boxing. From a Boxing Regulations point of view, one needs a minimum of 31 days to host a boxing tournament.”
In a telephone interview, Kahn, says he is still determined to bring one of the biggest fights in the African history to the FNB stadium in Johannesburg. He says a big fight can be organized provided the government can cover the estimated $25 million purse. The country had last hosted big names 17 years ago in the Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman bout. Lewis lost his world heavyweight title in a shock in Brakpan, Johannesburg.
“Unless South Africa is willing to work with Chris, like other countries do with their boxers, it is not going to happen, but we would like to bring Chris home,” says Kahn.
“It’s not an idea anymore; it’s been thrown to us by the world boxing promoter Bob Arum. It can be like the old days when Muhammad Ali fought in the Rumble in the Jungle. All we need is the South African government to support us. You’ve gotta put in money to make money,” says Van Heerden, popularly known as The Heat.
FORBES AFRICA met Van Heerden, the former IBO welterweight title holder and current WBA Pan-African champion, in May when he returned to Johannesburg for the funeral of the colorful boxing promoter Nick Durandt who died in a freak motorbike accident at the age of 53.
“I met Nick when I was 14 years old, I turned pro with Nick when I was 18, he guided me to South African and Africa titles (16 unbeaten). He was part of my life, I would talk to him on a few occasions, he was a big supporter of mine. That’s the reason I came, to give my last respect to the icon in boxing,” says Van Heerden.
“I was a scared little boy, I didn’t wanna fight my brother, but my dad was a former professional fighter, he forced me to do it and ever since then I fell in love with it,” he says.
At the age of 18, in June 2011, Van Heerden won the International Boxing Organization (IBO) welterweight title eliminator against Bongani Mwelase, a 2006 Commonwealth Games champion, by unanimous decision at Emperors Palace. In 2012, he fought Kaizer Mabuza for the IBO world title and defended it against Argentinian Sebastian Andres Lujan in the same year.
At 27, Van Heerden realized he was nowhere near where he wanted to be, hence he set-off for the country where he knew no one. He lamented the lack of support and his dream of becoming something in the world of boxing was dying.
“I told my dad I need to go. The sport was dying in South Africa because the support wasn’t good enough. And at the same time I asked myself ‘who are the kids going to look up to?’ I said they had no one. I didn’t have kids and wasn’t married, I had nothing to hold me back here, my dreams are bigger. I want to represent my country,” says Van Heerden.
On Christmas Day 2013, Van Heerden was on a flight bound for Los Angeles to meet the late promoter Michael King. This was after a few telephone conversations with the media magnate who co-owned King World Productions and founded Michael King Worldwide. King died in 2015.
“They only told me ‘come to the States, we will look after you’. I went to the States knowing no one there but I focused on training and seven months later the legendary Freddie Roach gave me a phone call to come to his gym to assist Miguel Cotto as he prepared to fight against Sergio Martinez (in June 2014),” he says.
Van Heerden had to impress Roach, the famous trainer who once coached Pacqiuoa, to earn his American debut.
“I knew I had to shine. It was the best three minutes that I ever invested. Freddie saw something and said ‘kid, I want you’. The sparrings I have received against the likes of Cotto and Canelo Alvarez boosted my self-confidence,” he says.
One thing led to another for Van Heerden. He moved around American gyms training with renowned boxers.
“At the last sparring of Miguel Cotto, Oscar De La Hoya walked into the gym and saw me working with Cotto, so he asked me if he could fly me to San Diego and work with Alvarez,” he says.
A few days later Van Heerden landed in San Diego where he was a sparring partner to Alvarez for six weeks.
In September 2015, Roach guided Van Heerden to a win against Cecil McCalla in Madison Square Garden. He became the first South African to fight for a title in the venue since 1959, when Willie Toweel, from Johannesburg, took to the ring. In that fight, Toweel was knocked down twice in the eighth round, but he managed to fight back and beat the American Len Matthews on points.
“I won a title in Madison Square Garden but South Africa didn’t back me, it wasn’t broadcast back home. But I was there to make my country proud,” says Van Heerden.
It wasn’t all easy going for Van Heerden in America. He is still licking his wounds after losing to American sensation Errol Spence Jr, in what he considers the biggest fight of his career, in 2015.
“I should have never taken that fight because I was not mentally prepared for it. Family, management, Freddie Roach never showed up because he was sick. I should have never fought in that fight, I should have pulled out but I was never gonna pull out because of pride. I wanted to make my country proud. For the first times in 10 years, I lost. (Spence Jr) is now guided by Floyd Mayweather and he’s probably the best fighter in the world,” he says.
Despite managing to pull off two wins, after losing to Spence Jr, Van Heerden is still hurting inside and can’t stop expressing disappointment in himself.
“People wrote me off in boxing. That’s a sad thing about boxing. When you win people love you, but you lose once, they write you off. They are like ‘he is done’. But I lost to a superstar,” he says.
Last year, he pulled off two wins – the last opponent was Namibian Sacky Shikukutu in front of his home crowd at Emperors Palace in Johannesburg. Van Heerden walked away with the WBA Pan-African title and is currently ranked number 10 in the world.
The 29-year-old believes he deserves a shot against the 38-year-old Pacquiao. But, the same money problems that forced Van Heerden out South African could knock out his dream.