Boxes like a sinner. Acts like a saint
It’s a tough city for the homeless, for the addicted, for disadvantaged kids. Who better to help the outcasts of Joburg than the tough people who’ve been forged in a tough sport, asks David Isaacson
Gert Strydom looks and sounds like your typical boxing man, and his back story is as you’d expect. He grew up tough on the streets of Brixton on the west side of Johannesburg, where fighting wasn’t a choice but a necessity. He happened to enjoy fisticuffs and followed his elder brother Lucas into the sport. He ground out a pretty impressive amateur career, winning provincial medals as well as a defence force title.
Now 50 and a trainer, Strydom, who wears a cap over his highlighted hair, still has that tough veneer; those who don’t know him could mistakenly think that a word out of place would earn a quick klap.
But in truth he has a heart that pumps rivers of compassion.
He is one of the angels of boxing who try to uplift those in danger of falling by the wayside.
Strydom is skilled at instructing people how to feint and jab, but his bigger passion is to help teens and young men conquer drug addiction.
He also takes in disadvantaged kids, and his clients at the TapOut gym in Randburg include people looking to lose weight, or kids lacking in confidence.
Strydom boasts some impressive results as a cornerman, like when Malcolm Klassen dethroned superstar Cassius Baloyi in 2009. The referee stopped the fight — for the International Boxing Federation (IBF) super featherweight title — in the seventh round, marking the first stoppage in Baloyi’s career.
Strydom was with Takalani Ndlovu in Mexico when he defended his IBF world title against Giovanni Caro in 2011.
But the elation that came with those triumphs does not trump the joy he gets from helping troubled souls reclaim their lives.
“Seeing these boys coming right gives me satisfaction. If I can fix a boy up and give him a future, that’s a feeling that money can’t buy,” Strydom says.
A future is what his brother Lucas never had, shot dead in his car in Hillbrow during a fight some 20 years ago.
“He could have been a champion, he was a very good fighter. He had heart,” says Strydom.
“He also had a drug problem. When I think of him I’m motivated to help boys before it’s too late.”
Strydom runs his Boys To Men programme from the gym, with a dormitory upstairs that can accommodate up to 12 people, although he’s eager to expand. The programme has also helped one woman, who stayed in separate quarters. Some of the participants are still at school, and he helps the older ones find jobs.
They all eat like a family, with Strydom, his fiancée, Cisca van der Merwe, and their two daughters.
Some of the kids are funded by their parents, but there are times Strydom digs into his own pocket. “I can’t buy the boys Nike shoes, but I can give them a plate of food three times a day.”
Punching above their weight
Strydom says he has a 100% success rate, if you don’t count the two kids who were forced to join and didn’t want to be there.
Boxing is key to his rehabilitation strategy. “I think it’s because of the discipline. Boxing revolves around discipline,” he says.
“Boxing is basically something every boy would like to do. Every boy has that dream to be a fighter, to be known as a fighter. It doesn’t matter what your problem is in life, boxing fixes you up.”
Strydom says the kids staying with him never have issues between themselves.
Seeing these boys coming right gives me satisfaction.
If I can fix a boy up and give him a future, that’s a feeling that money can’t buy GERT STRYDOM
“You can’t believe the bond between them. I’ve never had two boys fighting here. If there’s aggro, they take it out in sparring.”
For roadwork he sends them up to the water tower on top of nearby Northcliff hill, carrying burdens of some kind, perhaps sandbags or tyres; it’s only 3.5km away, but the gradient makes it feel like Mount
“The fit boys motivate and help the boys who aren’t as fit.”
Strydom says he relates well to the kids, having dabbled in drugs himself.
“I was a naughty boy. I was lucky because I had good people around me. My mother had to fetch me from hell’s doors a couple of times.
“That’s why I say, everybody deserves a second chance, or a third chance, or a fourth chance.
“People make mistakes in life. It’s a mistake, it’s not a life sentence. If we give up on people after one mistake, there’ll be a whole lot less people.”
His star boxer, Alfonso Tissen, 26, a super middleweight, was also stuck on the streets, but Coach G, as Strydom is called, helped him out. Now Tissen joins in motivating the kids.
Fighting the scourge of drugs among the youth nearly cost Strydom his life more than 10 years ago.
He was at a club in Roodepoort and noticed members of a biking gang selling drugs to youngsters. “I went up to them and said: ‘If you want to sell drugs, sell drugs, but don’t sell it to youngsters.’”
They didn’t like that. About 20 of them waited for him outside when he left, surrounding him. “I had to fight.”
He fought well, Strydom says, better than they did. “They didn’t know how to fight, so they pulled knives.”
They stabbed him 18 times and slit his throat. The scar that once ran almost from ear to ear has shrunk to a few centimetres.
“I survived that, I believe I’m here for a reason,” says Strydom, then laughs about the bikers’ fighting abilities: “They even stabbed like girls.”
Strydom is hoping to expand his reach by working with another of the sport’s angels, former junior featherweight Anton Gilmore.
Gilmore fought in the first all-South African world title match, against Baloyi, for the World Boxing Union belt at Wembley indoor arena in 1997.
Long retired, the 48-year-old and his partners, Luke Lamprecht and Sheri Errington, use boxing to rescue disadvantaged kids, most of whom are foreigners.
Their Fight With Insight programme, which they started in 2006 with a budget of R300,000 a year, has grown into a project with a budget six times that size thanks to financial backing from the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and Comic Relief, among others.
Initially they worked with children who had been convicted of sexual offences. One sexual offender can affect 364 people in a lifetime, Gilmore says, adding that 40% of victims become abusers.
“We rehabilitated 130 kids. There were no repeat offenders,” says Gilmore.
His project is based at the Children’s Memorial Institute in Parktown, which used to be a children’s hospital.
“Boxing has the power to change many people,” says Gilmore, citing himself as an example.
Both his parents were alcoholics, and by the time he was in grade 8 he was in his third foster home.
He lacked confidence and his marks at school were poor. Then he started boxing and his confidence and marks improved.
Gilmore himself slipped into alcoholism and then drugs. “You can’t drive when you’re drunk, so you do a line of cocaine and it clears your head.”
He decided to quit after a conversation with his daughter. “When I was four I asked my dad ‘Why don’t you stop drinking?’ and he said: ‘It’s not that easy.’
“In 2011 my daughter asked me why I don’t stop smoking. She didn’t ask about my drinking, but it took me back to that conversation with my father. I drove myself to rehab,” says Gilmore.
He is divorced from the mother of his two children. His other child, a son, suffers from the debilitating disease tuberous sclerosis.
Fight With Insight is in the former dental wing of the old hospital, and some of the defunct equipment remains. There’s a kitchen, library and some training rooms with punching bags. Most of those in the programme can’t fight in championship tournaments because they’re not South African citizens.
Gilmore knows the kids and their backgrounds. “They all live in hijacked buildings,” he says.
Fellow residents of the building where one boy was living had been planning to kill him because he was so unruly. Boxing helped straighten him out.
Another kid, aged 17, was arrested and put in a cell with adults after he beat up a man who had tried to attack his mother. Fight With Insight got him out.
The stories are harrowing, but the results are heart-warming.
Stairway to success
Jesdel Kayembe, 19, arrived in SA from the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was six. He’s one of Gilmore’s star boxers, and he broke the record for running up the more than 900 steps to the top of Ponte City in Berea, clocking 5min 18sec.
Gilmore, who also trains professional boxers, works alongside another angel of boxing, Jeff Ellis.
As a fighter, Ellis was best known for getting knocked out by heavyweight stars Kallie Knoetze and Jimmy Abbott in the 1970s. He’s worked every angle in the sport, as a trainer, manager, promoter and even a commission board member.
These days, Ellis, 66, and others from the Walking Tall charity feed the needy at the Southern Suburbs Sports and Recreation Centre in Rosettenville every Wednesday.
The project was started early last year by Ellis, his wife, Marie, Gilmore and others.
It began by helping about 35 people, most of them homeless. “Anton rode to every corner, inviting hobos,” says Ellis, currently the right-hand man of Golden Gloves promoter Rodney Berman.
These days they feed about 150 people a week.
Ellis also spends time helping the children.
“There were some kids who weren’t in school for years. We got the education department and social workers involved.”
Most were foreigners and didn’t have papers, but these were sorted out.
The project also arranges clothing for its beneficiaries.
On the day I visit 170 people turn up, but everybody gets a meal, and there is still enough for some to get seconds. Walking Tall clocks up its 10,000th meal that day.
Chantell, 32, arrives with her four-yearold son, Louis. Her diabetic husband stayed home because of a foot problem.
“This helps us out,” says the former cashier, who lives in a cottage paid for by her mother. For cash she collects tins and sells them as scrap metal.
The charity survives mostly with the help of volunteers.
“The only money that doesn’t go into the meals is what we pay the cooks,” says Ellis. “Every cent goes to food and somebody to cook.”
He greets several of the people as if they were close relatives.
“These people, their stories are all hardship,” says Ellis. “But we do what we can.”
Boxing has the power to change many people Anton Gilmore
Trainer Gert Strydom at the TapOut Academy in Randburg, where he uses the discipline inherent in boxing to help young people get their lives back on track.
Former boxer Anton Gilmore, below, gives youngsters some tips during a training session at the Fight With Insight gym in Parktown, Johannesburg. Among the NGO’s aims is to provide a safe place for children like those above who might need help channelling aggression and frustration into harmless outlets.