Boxing: Buffalo soldiering on

By Anendra Singh

With just $1200 in his pocket, Francois Botha boarded a flight from the shores of South Africa for Texas with his wife, Elsje, leaving behind their then 2-year-old son, Marcel.

He wasn't the "The White Buffalo" then, just a budding professional boxer who had had a "bad fight" at home and was keen to eke out a living in The Land of Opportunity which was arguably staging some of the biggest fights on the planet.

"I had hopes and dreams of making between $3000 to $5000 a fight but all I got was $1000," said the 44-year-old after visiting Hawke's Bay yesterday to promote his 8 x 3-minute rounds fight against Kiwi professional Joseph Parker in Auckland on Thursday, June 13, in the Hydr8 Zero Explosion promotion.

Things didn't go to plan for the heavyweight pugilist whose wife became pregnant with their second child, daughter Cecelia, now 20 and working at a wildlife park in Durban.

"I had to pay hospital bills. Luckily I could fish otherwise we would have gone hungry," said Botha, leaning back into his chair as he adjusted the white bandanna and sunglasses that made him look almost like WWE professional wrestler Hulk Hogan.

Desperately needing another source of income, the 1.88m orthodox fighter picked up an axe to split logs at a Texan firewood yard for a basic wage of $5 an hour.

His big break came in the cruiserweight division in Reno, Nevada, in November 22, 1992, against Mike "The Bounty" Hunter, a fighter everyone told him to steer clear of.

"I rang my parents the night before the fight to tell them I might lose but then I beat the Hunter," said the son of retired newspaper chief executive Jan Botha, 74, and Celia Botha, who live in Pretoria.

The late Hunter, who defeated Jimmy Thunder (Peau) before LAPD undercover officers shot him dead in a sting at a hotel on February 8, 2006, had dropped Botha in the first round but controversially went on to lose on a points decision to the South African.

Botha, who collected a $10,000 purse against Hunter, was now flirting with $500,000 propositions against big names such as George Foreman in the heavyweight division.

"My manager messed up trying to arrange fights with someone bigger," he said, adding promoters such as Don King and Bob Arum had expressed interest in him.

When Arum failed to call him back as promised, Botha went along with King who jacked up a fight with a $50,000 bonus and a minimum purse of $150,000.

"While Don made me, he also broke me," he said, revealing he was in the process of writing a book where all will be revealed.

The man who fought world champions such as Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson, Michael Moorer, Shannon Briggs, Evander Holyfield and Wladimir Klitschko will be the first to admit that while he made some good choices in life, he also made some poor ones.

"It cost me titles and millions of dollars," said the man who won the IBF world title from German Axel Schulz in 1995 but was stripped of it when he tested positive for the steroid, nandrolone - becoming "the first professional boxer to test positive".

Again, he readily admits taking nandrolone but not knowingly.

"I didn't even know what steroids were at the time so it was given to me in such a way ... you'll read about it in the book I'm publishing."

His father, an amateur rugby player, wanted him to take up a sport outside the school curriculum of rugby and cricket. Boxing started off as a hobby for a 6-year-old who initially opted to be a wrestler.

"When the guys started grabbing me I didn't like the feeling. It was a bit like when Sonny Bill Williams started holding me," he said with a laugh after controversially losing in Brisbane recently to the former All Black who lost in every department except the scorecard.

Botha, the bloodied-nose youngster, lost his first four fights but when he won his first trophy he slept with it in his bed.

"As a kid growing up I didn't think of turning pro," says the man who chalked up about 300 amateur fights, claimed more than 30 titles and won the "South African colours" twice as the top sportsperson in his country.

But he became a fireman in his teens, avoiding the two-year compulsory army draft, and at the age of 16 picked up an injury scaling a wall with his mates, damaging the nerves on the underside of his right elbow which has left his three fingers devoid of feeling to this day.

"The doctors said I'd never fight again but my dad said only God can decide these things," says the Christian who prays twice daily with his wife.

He told promoters in South Africa he could never be the boxer he was but a car sponsorship and a salary that paid more than his fireman's White Buffalo not getting younger stint followed and the rest is history.

The man, who the Americans dubbed the "White Buffalo" and who found traction with the lyrics of Bob Marley's Buffalo Soldier in the US, found immense pressure every time he stepped into the ring, which he considered "a black man's domain".

Journeyman Botha doesn't feel old although fighting "Baby Joseph", 21, makes him feel old. Even his son, Marcel Botha, 23, who will make his debut in the middleweight division as an undercard, is older then Parker.

"The Buffalo's not getting any younger," says the veteran who hopes to eclipse Foreman's record age of 45 before retiring sometime next year but he has no intentions of catching up with Bernard Hopkins' 48.

He feels too many rugby and rugby league types want to be boxers these days but he predicts SBW will not front up for a rematch in South Africa in December.

"Sonny Bill was drowning so he'll pull a rugby league injury of some sort and disappear from boxing eventually," Botha said, adding he was willing to take a lie detector test to prove any allegations of drug taking against him.

Australia, he said, was a tough country to play silly buggers and anyone intending to take the dodgy path had to be stupid.

He wouldn't have brought up the alleged offer of $150,000 from the SBW camp had they not attempted to tarnish his image.

"I didn't want to walk down the street with that sort of thing because I am giving back to boxing these days as an ambassador in Africa."

He toyed with the idea of becoming a wrestling pro in Hulk Hogan fashion in Japan but a kick or two there and in MMA was a sobering reminder size didn't matter in other rings.

In "dog shape" thanks to his son, Botha predicted he'd beat Parker - although the Kiwi could get lucky - because of his camp's mistake in giving the veteran too long to prepare.

"Baby Joseph is much stronger and has more class than Sonny but he'll go back to the drawing board after the fight and come back a better fighter someday," the Buffalo barked before hitting the road again.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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