A sense of guilt often interrupts his thoughts about his charmed life in California, but Chris van Heerden has to remind himself that his success was paid for by the sweat of his brow and the work of his hands. Ockert de Villiers reports.
Speaking from his home in Santa Monica, the transplanted South African boxer juxtaposes his past with his present. The gritty grind in pursuit of a dream versus the attainment thereof and searching for a higher purpose.
When van Heerden, then 26 years old, left for the United States on Christmas Day in 2013, he had already been an accomplished boxer with the IBO welterweight title behind his name. The leap into the unknown plunged van Heerden into depression, coming to grips with a new culture and lifestyle in the United States.
Van Heerden had to fight his way from the bottom, earning a fraction of what he did at home, using public transport and fighting off hunger pains.
A year into his new life, van Heerden contemplated taking his own life, growing tired of putting up a façade about his successful move to the United States. The failed attempt on a late-night run ultimately served as a turning point in his life and career.
“I started crying and shouting, looking up at the heavens, asking God why he had abandoned me. And it was like He was there, and I could hear his voice saying, ‘I did not abandon you. I am right here next to you. When was the last time you asked me for help?’” van Heerden says.
“I realised where I had gone wrong, and I went down on my knees, asking Him for another chance. That was the turning point from taking my life to changing my life.”
The dreams that ultimately led van Heerden to Los Angeles started to fall into place, sparked by a phone call from legendary trainer Freddie Roach to spar with multiple-time world champion Miguel Cotto.
“When I close my eyes, I can visualise what I want for my life. I was in South Africa, and I closed my eyes, and I told my dad, ‘one day I want to train with Freddie Roach, one day I will be fighting at Madison Square Garden, one day I’ll be headlining Las Vegas, I will headline a fight as the main event on national TV,” van Heerden says.
Van Heerden’s dreams came to pass, including having Roach in his corner at his Madison Square Garden win over Cecil McCalla in 2015. Recently, in his first bout since 2020, van Heerden suffered only the third defeat of his career (of 33 fights) with a second-round stoppage against Conor Benn at the AO Arena in Manchester.
“Everything that I dreamed and visualised came to light. People write me off, saying I lost, yes I lost, but I don’t fight bums,” he said.
“I am still waving the South African flag. I am a South African, and I want to inspire young guys. And I’ve done that. My career is not over, but it is time to be true and start thinking about what is next.”
Van Heerden speaks fondly of the life he has etched out interacting and befriending Hollywood directors, actors and famous South Africans such as Charlize Theron and Trevor Noah. When the 34-year-old is not honing his skills in the gym, he trains some of the big names on the silver screen. He rattles off the names of the famous people in his orbit, including action hero Frank Grillo, who started as one of his clients but ‘is like a father’ to the South African.
Van Heerden was still reeling from the death of his father, Daniel, who was shot in the back by a security guard during an argument at the end of 2019. The close bond with his father is one of the main thrusts of a screenplay about van Heerden’s life that he hopes will be made into a film.
“I’ve been in America for eight years, and I am rubbing shoulders with some of the people in the movie industry, meeting directors and movie stars. They are becoming friends, and they’ve been following my journey,” van Heerden says.
“They know I am a man of faith, and I have a story about my dad being murdered three years ago. My passion is to speak to people, motivate them and share my story. We are busy with my movie script, and hopefully, it will open doors where I will have a platform to share my story.” Van Heerden says he will be eligible to apply for US citizenship in two years and plans on building a new life in his adopted country.
Although he has finally found his feet in America, van Heerden says a ‘boere meisie’ at his side would complete the picture. Van Heerden will return to South Africa in June – the first time since before the global pandemic – where he will be visiting family and friends in Pretoria and Cape Town.
He hopes to make the best of his trip, taking in the sights and sounds of the African bush, the picturesque Western Cape and, if there is time, a visit to his favourite spot in Gauteng – the Kloofzicht Lodge in the Cradle of Humankind.