Dubbed the “White Buffalo” by American boxing promoter Don King, the once-famous Francois Botha has opened a boxing and fitness centre in uMhlanga and is ready to revive the boxing industry in South Africa, writes Greg Ardé.
At the end of Zenith Drive in uMhlanga Rocks, you might bump into a dude with white hair and steely blue eyes. But, unless you are a sports buff, you won’t know the once-famous Francois Botha who nearly kicked Mike Tyson’s ass. The man dubbed the “White Buffalo” by famed American boxing promoter Don King, was probably better known outside of South Africa than back home. Now aged 53, the former fireman from Witbank has opened a gym in Durban and has set his sights on a goal more fascinating than his already astounding backstory.
If you aren’t among the 10 million who have watched the 21-minute fist fury with Mike Tyson on YouTube, here’s a quick recap. Botha got into boxing as a boy and after a few bloody noses developed such a knack for it he got 300 amateur bouts under his belt before he fell in a ditch and broke his arm in his late teens.
Doctors swore he’d never box again. Botha said “only God” got to make that call and so the son of a factory manager and a housewife pounded on.
He turned pro in 1990 and won two fights in South Africa before leaving for the US with fewer restrictions on fights and more prize money. “I arrived in Texas and built a record quick. I fought three fights in one night, driving across state lines.”
Botha has eyes like the spaghetti Western star Terence Hill. He has a heavily accented, husky Afrikaner rumble with an occasional American twang after living in the US for 15 years, so words like “boxing” come out as “baaaxing”.
In the boxing world, showbusiness is everything and Botha had a chance encounter with Don King, the marketing maestro who branded him the “White Buffalo”. It resonated in the US market especially because of the significance of the buffalo in Native American culture. Long story short, Botha was a hit. In all, he fought 63 fights, winning 48, 29 by knockout.
In his 40s, he took up kickboxing and at 44 fought 27-year-old All Black Sonny Bill Williams in a match described by the Daily Mail as having “taken a farcical turn” after the Kiwi claimed a controversial victory when Botha “had him on the ropes before the bout was cut short”.
Botha’s career saw him take on the world’s greats, including Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, and the titanic clash with Mike Tyson. Films of the fight show up the showmanship of the sport. In-person more than 30 years after the bout, Botha is quiet and unassuming. On TV in the ring, he was a mountain man taunting Tyson.
“You are out there alone,” Botha drawls, “you have to be prepared. You have to know your opponent’s tactics and you have to train. When I fought Tyson I couldn’t wait to get into the ring. Other guys just run away.” Commentators on the night described the fight as “bedlam in the ring”. Botha and Tyson smack one another with gusto, grunting with each shot. They had to be ripped apart at times, scrapping after the bell rang. In one of a number of vicious clinches, Tyson elbows Botha who rears up and boxes both Tyson’s ears.
Commentators called it an alley fight, which Botha mostly won. “Tyson is being out-thought … out stymied … Botha is toying with Tyson … he looks exhausted. Botha has a lot of confidence,” commentators said. It promised to be a huge upset until the 5th round when Tyson unleashed a monster shot that knocked Botha down.
“Tyson had a killer punch. He generated tremendous power.”
After the Tyson duel, Botha did another 20 professional bouts, half of which he lost.
He returned to South Africa and for the most part has lived in KZN where he met Lionel Daniels, his business partner. White Buffalo Boxing & Fitness will train professionals, amateurs and people who just fancy getting fit. Among Botha’s pro projects is his son, Marcel, 33. Botha and his wife Elsje have two children. Their daughter Cecelia lives in the US where Botha hopes to rematch a few of his old foes. “Yeah, I’m still strong,” he says softly.
“I know I’ve got it in me. I train hard. I fight hard. It’s mostly mental though. When I lost I never thought my opponent was better than me. I just wasn’t at my best on that night. You got to believe in yourself. Tyson has some killer punches but I heard an interview with Holyfield and he said the person who hit him the hardest was the White Buffalo.”
The White Buffalo’s top tip for staying in shape
I work out different diets and training regimes for different people to achieve different results. The one I use most to lose weight and prepare for fights is: eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and supper like a soldier. You need the energy when you are awake and active, so if you want chocolate, eat it early in the day.
Botha’s mantra in life
Respect life. My best friend in the US is a Native American. I used to hunt with him, but I couldn’t do the killing. I only kill my opponents in the ring. I am a staunch Christian. I am nothing without God and I believe you don’t know someone until you’ve walked in their shoes.
FOR MORE INFO:
White Buffalo Boxing & Fitness: 45 Zenith Drive – follow the alleyway next to Apogee Coffee Shop; whitebuffalo.co.za.