To his fans he’s still a figure of folklore with many tattoos, bony fists and a stout enough heart to pull South African boxing out of the doldrums. But last week it took just 87 seconds to humble super middleweight boxer Mikey Schultz.
It happened at Wembley Arena, Johannesburg, at the World Boxing Organisation (WBO) Africa interim championship fight. They were there in force: leather-clad bikers, hostel-dwellers wielding knobkerries, trailer-park housewives. Steve Hofmeyr and former footballer Marc Batchelor were sitting in the VIP section and Satan’s Saints — a motorcycle gang of note — provided the guard of honour as Schultz entered the ring. The crowd was celebrating before the fight had even begun.
But little-known Zimbabwean pugilist Tineyi Maridzo had other ideas. One punch and Schultz was sent reeling back to the dressing room.
There were some who said he shouldn’t have been in the ring in the first place. Mikey Schultz isn’t just a boxer: he’s also the man accused of killing mining mogul Brett Kebble. Reason enough, according to some pundits, to bar him for life.
Trainer Nick Durandt doesn’t agree. ‘He’s not a convicted killer,â€ Durandt told the Mail & Guardian.
It’s one week before the fight and the M&G has come to Durandt’s Norwood gym to watch Schultz train. We are greeted by an oil painting of a youthful Madiba in his boxing days. Beneath it are pictures of Durandt’s champions, past and current.
Schultz describes his return to the ring as ‘a matter of clearing unfinished businessâ€. The 34-year-old father of four says that he didn’t get a chance to win a title during his first stint as a boxer.
Schultz was just 12 when he made his debut in 1987. He fought as an amateur until 1995 before turning professional under the guidance of Boxing Hall of Fame’s Brian Mitchell. As a professional boxer Schultz had 14 fights and ‘reigned undefeatedâ€ until he retired in 1998. He had seven knockouts and registered two draws.
In September this year he returned to the sweet science of bruising, quickly adding two knockout wins to his record.
Schultz says boxing has helped him to ‘find his familyâ€ and recover ‘what’s been missingâ€ in his life. His voice trembles when he explains this.
It seems the former nightclub bouncer is determined to cast himself as a good guy. ‘I’m not a bully. I’ve never fought or hit anyone for no reason,â€ he says, adding that a lot of people who do not know the ‘real meâ€ paint him as a ‘big monsterâ€.
But his monster appeal carries real currency on the streets — and he knows it. There are small-time thieves out there using his name. One of them was recently arrested and told the police that he’d chosen to impersonate the boxer because ‘people are afraid of Mikey Schultzâ€. Now Schultz keeps a picture of the imposter on his cellphone.
Corroborating this story, Durandt says he regularly gets phone calls from ‘distressed husbandsâ€ complaining that ‘Mikey Schultz stole somethingâ€ from them or their wives. Some people even claim ‘they’ve been threatened with a visit from Mikey Schultzâ€.
It’s easy to understand why such threats would be powerful. The real Schultz stands at about 2m, sports a military-style haircut and has colourful tattoos on every limb. A coiled dragon climbs up his back, flanked by Chinese writing. His body also carries Maori designs and the names of departed friends and family, inked into memorial tattoos. One of them honours his late brother, Donald, who committed suicide in 1999. It was after this family tragedy that Schultz says he went ‘astrayâ€.
He describes how the allure of the underground seduced him, how he joined the Elite security group, a notorious Johannesburg bouncer outfit, allegedly connected to the Kebble killing. Durandt jokes that Schultz was ‘more attracted to the bright, colourful lights of the nightclubs than the white light of the boxing ringâ€. Indeed, agrees Schultz, that kind of life was ‘easier than boxingâ€.
So is his recent return to the ring an attempt to find redemption?
Perhaps. He’s certainly aware of the debt he owes his supporters: the fans who remained loyal in spite of — or maybe because of — the criminal cloud that still hangs above his head.
‘There is a certain amount of gratitude he must show the people who have put their weight behind him,â€ Durandt says. It makes sense: in the gory game of fisticuffs nothing less than winning will do. And a one-off victory can never be enough. As American author Joyce Carol Oates wrote: ‘For what possible atonement is the fight waged, if it must shortly be waged again … and again?â€
For Schultz, it’s probably less complicated. ‘I must keep the fans happy,â€ he says.
A rematch between Mikey Schultz and Tineyi Maridzo is scheduled for February 26 2010