Michele Hewitson Interview: Francois Botha

By Michele Hewitson

The White Buffalo likes red meat, a good prank ... Sonny Bill not so much

Heavyweight boxer Francois Botha is meant to be having a rematch with Sonny Bill Williams in South Africa. Photo / Greg Bowker
Heavyweight boxer Francois Botha is meant to be having a rematch with Sonny Bill Williams in South Africa. Photo / Greg Bowker

On Monday, I had lunch with a South African boxer who is known as the White Buffalo and what he had for lunch was buffalo.

This sounds like some surrealist joke and our lunch at times felt like being inside some surrealist joke. I don't think the White Buffalo would disagree.

He said: "The Buffalo is eating buffalo in New Zealand! Ha, ha, ha!"

Later, his friend Howard - who told me he was the president of the World Boxing Federation (ha, ha, ha) and that the Buffalo was his younger brother (ha, ha, ha, again) - popped in to see if we were done.

The Buffalo said, to Howard: "Howard, you're not going to believe it! I had buffalo!" I was beginning to wonder whether I believed it, or whether the whole thing was an enormous prank.

The White Buffalo, whose name is really Francois Botha, has a liking for pranks. That he was having buffalo for lunch in the first place was a result of one of his jokes. This involved walking into Sean Connolly's The Grill at Sky City which is a steakhouse, but a flash one, and sticking his head into the kitchen and asking if they had buffalo on the menu.

This was a joke but it might merely have been regarded as a rather odd request.

Perhaps they are used to odd requests. But nobody batted an eye either when he walked in - although I assume it is not every day that the staff are greeted by the sight of a very large tattooed man wearing very tight jeans and what appeared to be an old tea towel tied around his head who then asks for buffalo for his lunch. The chef said that as it happened, he did have buffalo.

I said: "That's very funny. This is the White Buffalo!" And the chef said: "I know!"

Later, various members of the staff wanted to have their photos taken with him, oh, and could they take a picture of him with his plate of buffalo for the restaurant's Facebook page and could he please sign a menu for their Wall of Fame?

Another diner came up and shook his hand and wished him: "All the best with that Sonny Bill".

I had no idea he was so famous in New Zealand, but he is apparently and this has no doubt a little something to do with Sonny Bill and that fiasco of a fight in February.

How often does he get recognised? "All the time."

Since the Sonny Bill fight? "Even before that. Because of Mike Tyson. My Mike Tyson thing
was big." He lost to Tyson in 1999. He told me a funny story about that fight which involved Tyson's trainer after the fight: "He said, 'Francois, that wasn't nice what you did.' I said, 'what?' He said, 'you tried to bite Mike!' I said, 'nah, mate, I wasn't biting him! I was talking to him during the fight.' And it looked like I was trying to bite him! Ha, ha."

Tyson, of course, famously bit Evander Holyfield's ear in their 1997 fight. "Aah! Ja! I should have bitten him!" he said, taking another large bite of rather bloody buffalo, which he had smothered in chopped chillies.

He is mad keen on chillies and puts them on everything he eats and grows them in his garden in Durban. "It's an addiction! Pretty soon you can't do without them. It's crazy!"

His life is crazy; the life of a boxer often is. He had flown to New Zealand to promote his next, and possibly last fight: Billed, in typically hyperbolic boxing fashion, as the Hydr8 Zero Explosion, in Auckland on June 13 he will fight the 21-year-old Joseph Parker who he calls "Baby Parker". (There is supposed to be a rematch with Sonny Bill, some time, in South Africa although the Buffalo is not holding his breath.)

While he was here doing the promo rounds he carried around a bottle of the sponsor's drink, drank some beer, had lunch with me, where he drank some red wine and almost managed to eat 1.4kg of red meat (time defeated him; not appetite) and talked a load of nonsense - which is what boxers do.

But what is he doing here, talking up a fight with a baby fighter? He is 44 and should be very rich and really famous and retired. His has been a funny sort of boxing story but in many ways it's the same old boxing story; the one which promises glory and riches and ends in fiasco and in rip-offs and court rooms. When I asked if he ever thought he could have been as good as Tyson, I meant that "good" as in as a boxer, obviously, not in the moral sense. He had his moments, but they were fairly innocent moments. He used to do "too much partying" and hang out with "high rollers" who would take him to Vegas for gambling weekends in their Gulf Stream jets and order up hookers by the hotel roomful and "these girls are coming into our room and doing ... I don't want to say what they're doing!" He has been married to Elsje, for nearly 23 years, a partnership he says he has been "blessed" to have.

He says she, and boxing, saved him from prison. At 14 he was causing mayhem in bars, playing pool for money and getting in fights. Was he a pool shark? "I can't remember! All I know is that we drank, played pool and always fights broke out and boom, boom, boom!"

He never fights outside a ring now because he's "not allowed to". What did he mean? "As a professional fighter you're not allowed to fight" because his hands are classified as weapons. Can that be true? "In California if the cops pulled me over, three or four cars would follow because when they called in my licence plate, it would say: "Armed and dangerous." Really? "Yeah! Crazy!" I'll say. I'd have loved to have met his wife who I was thinking must be long-suffering but I'd have been completely wrong. She never minded about the hookers in the hotel rooms because he never played up. "I don't want to screw around. I don't want nothing to do with it. I never did and that's why my wife trusts me." Still, you'd think the temptation might have been difficult to resist. He looked aghast. "I'm a big Christian!"

Yes, well, I thought I'd read that he'd said he hit Sonny Bill after the bell and that he gave him the double punch around the ears he once gave Tyson. "Where did you get all this from?" The internet, of course! Did he? "That famous punch that I threw? Yeah! Ha, ha, ha, ha. I'm known for that."

But isn't it dirty fighting? "No, no. I do it in a way that is legal." How can it be legal? "There's legal and there is legal! Ha, ha, ha! The main thing is that you do in such a way that you don't get penalised." But doesn't that make him a dirty fighter? "It all depends on how you do it!" I was on a hiding to nothing, and anyway what ridiculous questions. The Sonny Bill fight was much madder and murkier than a double punch around the ears.

The Buffalo does seem to attract fiascos the way he attracts recognition.

He claimed he was offered $150,000 to throw the fight. He told me a long, hard-to-follow story about this involving a clandestine car ride and a confiscated cellphone and shadowy characters walking in a park. He says he made about 100 grand for the fight. He'd have been better off taking the money to throw the fight. He couldn't do that! That would be cheating! God would punish him!

Then there were the headlines about him having tested positive for a banned substance. This was absolute rubbish because he has tested positive before, early in his career, in 1995, after, he said, he was injected by a trusted doctor and he subsequently lost his title and millions of dollars. "So why would I do the same shit again?"

He showed me the contents of his bum bag: The handbook from the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport (waving this about is a stunt he has used before), sleeping pills, heartburn pills, a natural calming remedy for use on planes, and a packet of chewing gum. Why was he showing me all of this stuff? To prove that the Buffalo was clean.

He said: "I'm taping you." On what? His enormous watch, which is also a cell phone and a computer and God knows what else. Was he taping me? God may know; I don't.

He was given another watch (I think I have this right; the narrative had got rather complicated), a $70,000 Rolex, with "a face full of diamonds" by some Italian guys after his Tyson fight. Why would they give him a $70,000 watch? "Well, they cost me a lot of money. I invested over $200,000 with them. It was like a music business." Like a music business? Were they mafia? "Yeah." Didn't he know that? "Ha, ha, ha. The Buffalo was stupid!"

He is very candid about the stupid things he has done over the years, and there are a few. Perhaps the very dumbest was taking Don King to court. That cost him about a million. He lost a lot more on the stockmarket but that was just bad luck. I had long ago lost track of exactly how much he'd lost. "Too much! Too much!"

I have no idea why he took King to court, except that it is beyond complicated. He was one of King's fighters for six years and he says that tea-towelly thing he wears on his head was all King's idea. It is called a durag and "it's my image". But what is the image? "I don't know!" He only wears it "for the press. I've actually got quite good hair!" He took off the durag, with relief, for both of us, and showed off his quite good hair.

His wife, by the way, says he could have been as good as Muhammad Ali, if he hadn't been too lazy to take boxing seriously enough to train hard enough to be the best. Was he lazy? I asked Howard who more than likely was not really the president of the World Boxing Federation. He said he certainly was, so maybe he really is.

You have to wonder then why he's still boxing, at 44, when he's so lazy. He likes the fame. It's like his chillies. "Remember, we are all human and to be recognised is a good feeling. It's addictive."

He said: "You know more about the Buffalo now than anybody! Don't tell anybody! Thanks and God bless you!"

And he put his durag back on and went off with the remains of his buffalo in a polystyrene box to have his picture taken. And I stood there in the flash steakhouse and thought: Did I really just have a completely bonkers lunch with a man called the White Buffalo who had buffalo for lunch? Or was it all a prank? I'm not entirely sure, but either way, it was fantastically good fun.

- NZ Herald

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