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

Sunday Times - - Stinsight -

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.”

Fight ther­apy

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

Pic­ture: Alon Skuy

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.

Pic­tures: Alais­ter Rus­sell

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.

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