Hottie: Bad boy, good fighter
There would have been a party this weekend if Hottie van Heerden were still alive.
His mates and admirers would have arranged something for his 76th birthday and many stories would have been told and retold.
Sadly, Hottie died of a heart attack at the age of 64. But many old-timers still remember him as the “bad boy” of SA boxing, and an outstanding fighter who could have been world champion in two divisions, middleweight and light-heavyweight.
Chris Greyvenstein called him “the prodigal son of South African boxing”. In his book The Fighters Greyvenstein wrote: “The only difference between the Biblical parable and the tragic life of this most talented fighter is that for him there was no happy ending; he never did find his way home after the wasted years”.
Gert van Heerden was born in Bloemfontein on January 26 1937. The family moved to Potgietersrus in what was then the Northern Transvaal when he was still a boy. His father worked in the printing trade.
The family regularly went to church but Hottie, as he was later nicknamed, was a quick-tempered lad who was involved in many fights at school and in the streets. It often landed him in trouble.
Hottie received his first boxing lessons from his father and two policemen who lived nearby.
After arriving at Potgietersrus, he took boxing more seriously. He was trained by Paul Essakow, the older brother of Hubert Essakow who died after a fight with Willie Toweel in March 1956.
Hottie played scrumhalf for his school but spent more time in the boxing gym than on the rugby field. He lost only a few of his estimated 70 amateur fights before moving to Johannesburg at the age of 18 to work on the mines.
Paul Essakow had told Tony Lombard, who had been fighting as a professional since 1945 and was near the end of his distinguished career, about the exciting young boxer from up north.
SPARRING WITH WILLIE TOWEEL
Lombard realised Van Heerden had potential and arranged for him to spar with Willie Toweel, who was then at the peak of his career. Van Heerden arrived for the sparring session with a black eye and a cut lip, the result of a pub brawl in the suburb of Jeppe the night before.
The young Van Heerden put up a creditable performance against Toweel, who came close to winning a world title as his brother Vic had done.
But shortly afterwards Van Heerden landed up in jail. In a magazine article he was quoted as saying: “One evening, two immigrants we knew, a Hollander and a German, who came to be my best friend, and I were invited to a party in the city. Everything went well until the small hours of the morning when all the guests except us had already left.
“One of the immigrants got into an argument with the host, who was a well-built and strong-looking man. When the immigrant got knocked down I, as the big-shot street fighter, jumped in.
“A terrific fight followed, with tables and chairs flying in all directions. When I finally overpowered my opponent I noticed we were alone in the flat. I dashed out of the door and tumbled down the stairs. To my relief my friends were waiting at the car. When I got into the back I found the whole thing packed with articles taken from the flat.
“Let’s face it; after the stuff was sold I took my share of the spoils. A few days later we were arrested.
“We were found guilty and I was sentenced to three years. I had to serve my sentence at the Baviaanspoort Prison near Pretoria. Later I was transferred to the Zonderwater prison”.
In prison, he exercised and worked out on the punch bag. He came out in good condition; some said the only time he was ever in good fighting condition. He received one year off his sentence for good behaviour and found a job in butchery.
LOST IN HIS PRO DEBUT
On December 2 1956 Hottie van Heerden made his professional debut, losing on a first-round disqualification to Norman Johnstone.
Tony Lombard took charge again and taught Van Heerden some of the tricks of tactical boxing.
It was Lombard who gave him the name Hottie, derived from the Afrikaans word “hotklou,” meaning southpaw.
Van Heerden also lost his next two fights – to the cagey southpaw welterweight Billy Lotter, who later won the SA heavyweight title. But his career took off when he beat Paul Karam and Ronnie Steel in 1957.
In his first fight after being released from jail, in Februarie 1960, he fought under the name Vince Marcus and outpointed Chris van Rooyen.
After victories over Leon Nel, Tony Clements, Buster Perry and Hannes Wiese, Van Heerden won the vacant SA middleweight title when he beat Billy Lotter on September 17 1960.
Piet Lourens from Pretoria took over his contract and, to keep the young fighter out of trouble, arranged for him to fight in England. Van Heerden drew attention when he stopped Ron Redrup in the eighth round at Canning Town, London.
He then stopped Ronnie Vale and Sandy Luke in the fourth round and beat Orlando Paso on points over eight before returning to South Africa.
FIGHTING A STILL DANGEROUS MIKE HOLT
After defeating Hannes Wiese, Ivan Kruger and Josh Clements, Van Heerden went in against an American, Del Flanagan, who had a record of 98-17-2. They fought at the Olympia Ice Rink in Johannesburg.
Van Heerden, in only his 21st fight, knocked Flanagan down three times in the first round but was disqualified by referee Wilf Lubbe in the eighth round for hitting low.
In his next fight, Van Heerden outpointed the experienced and still dangerous Mike Holt over ten rounds and then beat Sias Hattingh before stopping Mike Robertson in Caledon to retain the SA middleweight title.
He finished 1961 by beating Ivan Kruger twice, Gerry McNally from Liverpool, Flash Mofokeng and Holt in another ten-rounder.
In 1962 he knocked out McNally in the third round in Salisbury and retained the SA middleweight title with a sixth-round stoppage of Robertson.
But because of his escapades, his licence was suspended for a while. So Lourens sent him to New Zealand and Australia for a short campaign.
The critics were impressed when he beat Earl Nikora, Don Jones, Reg Hayes and Sipa Fine.
After his SA licence was reinstated, he retained the SA middleweight title by stopping Ivan Kruger in the seventh round in April 1963. He then beat Louis Thompson, Zaka Madziw, Teddy Haynes from England, Flash Mofokeng, Yven Preberg of Yugoslavia and Piet Ferreira, all inside the distance.
JOINING THE TOWEEL STABLE
But he failed to stay out of trouble and his licence was again withdrawn. And when Lourens withdrew as his manager, Van Heerden joined the Toweel stable.
Major William C Hoffman, chairman of the Cape Board of Control, then indicated that the board would give him a licence to box in the province. That led to the Transvaal Board reinstating him.
Maurice Toweel took over his contract and Alan Toweel agreed to train him. With the help of adv Chris Lessing, the Toweels sorted out some of Van Heerden’s legal problems.
Fighting at the Hartleyvale Football Ground in Cape Town on January 17 1964, Van Heerden beat Holt for the third time to win the SA light-heavyweight title.
Much fitter than in earlier years, Van Heerden beat Chris van Rooyen and Dawid Hamman. But in May 1964 he was stripped of his SA light-heavyweight title. In September that year, he beat British middleweight Harry Scott and then won against a tough Nicaraguan, Lou Guttierez.
READY TO CHALLENGE WILLIE PASTRANO
By then, Van Heerden was a challenger for Willie Pastrano’s world light-heavyweight title but negotiations between Maurice Toweel and Angelo Dundee, who managed Guttierez, brokle down.
In 1965 Van Heerden had only two fights in which he beat French opponents, Michel Vinot and Paul Roux, both on points.
But a couple of serious car accidents and years of wild living caught up with Van Heerden. On December 10 1966, in his only fight of the year, he was knocked out in the eighth round of a fight at the Ellis Park tennis stadium in Johannesburg. De Bruyn retained the SA heavyweight title.
On February 1 the next year, Van Heerden regained the SA light-heavyweight title when he stopped Willie Jansen in the fourth round in a clash for the vacant title. But in his first defence he was knocked out in the tenth round by Jan “Happy” Pieterse at the Johannesburg City Hall.
In his last fight, on December 11 1967, Van Heerden lost on points over four rounds to Nick Dekker. He finished with a record of 46-7, including 24 knockouts.
After retiring, Van Heerden trained a few fighters and became involved in religion. He died in Johannesburg on November 28 2001.