I'll never forget what he said.
Towards the end of our interview back in 2015, South African native boxer, Chris Van Heerden, told me about the genesis of his journey.
"A lot of people missed opportunities in life because they were afraid of taking risks. So I'm taking the risks," Van Heerden said. The words have empowered me to this day in all facets of life, work or personal.
For Van Heerden, who fights Mahonry Montes in a ten round fight on ESPN Saturday night, this mantra has become his own personal fight song. It has carried him through highs and lows.
This past December, he needed it more than ever.
If you follow Van Heerden, nicknamed "The Heat," on social media, it'd be hard to miss the devotion and connection he shared with his late father, Daniel. While they were 10,000+ miles apart, the two shared a bond, one that the boxer was never shy to display on Instagram. One that any father and son can relate to. In late December, Daniel was killed in South African, shot in the back by a police officer.
The video, unfortunately, made headlines across the world, with people chiming in on what caused the murder. After a heated argument, Daniel Van Heerden turned his back and walked towards a vehicle and was shot in the back. If you don't think that's the epitome of injustice, please hit yourself in the head with a metal spatula and think again.
If you know how violent crime is on white males in South Africa, you'll know this was no accident or nowhere near right. As a fictional cop once said in a Joe Carnahan film (a close friend of Van Heerden's), "this has nothing to do with rules and regulations, and everything to do with right and wrong." One man was taken away too soon, and his son will never forget.
In an interview this week with Ring Magazine, Van Heerden was asked why he's fighting so soon after his father's death.
The answer came quick and made the man emotional, but the authenticity never wavered. "When I'm in the gym, I feel closest to him. When I'm fighting, I feel closest to him. That's why I'm fighting. That's what my dad would have wanted," he said.
By fighting, Van Heerden is paying tribute to his father. He's also jump starting a career that has become stagnant in recent years due to problematic promotions and management, something Van Heerden is moving past in a new contract with Top Rank Boxing and new trainer, and former fighter and U.S. Olympian, Brian Viloria.
Van Heerden is 26-2-1, with his first loss coming to the undefeated Errol Spence Jr., who just handed Mikey Garcia his first defeat last weekend. A loving student of the sweet science and ring tactician, Van Heerden likes to use the ring to his advantage, getting inside his opponent's guard, hammering away at the body and using pinpoint accuracy to fire shots up top. The fight with Montes is merely the beginning.
A powerfully devout and passionate man, Van Heerden takes all of that into the ring with him this weekend in Costa Mesa, California. If I was Montes, I'd be worried. Nothing fuels a fighter more than personal loss. Taking something extra into the ring doesn't hamper a boxer's ability like it would in other sports. Rage can do wonders for someone taking and inflicting punishment. When combined with skill and veteran craftsmanship, it's a winning formula.
Van Heerden is one of the few South African fighters to make the trip over to the states and fight, and be successful. You don't need more than a few fingers to count the number of boxers from that country, which makes Van Heerden a rare success story. An easy one to root for and hope for good things.
Outside the ring, Van Heerden doesn't let his knowledge waver.
He has trained Hollywood action star, Frank Grillo, for several years, and become best friends. Recently, he started training Grillo's son, Remy. Two years ago, he spent time in the ring with UFC star, Conor McGregor. He's also showed other Hollywood stars such as Charlize Theron and Jennifer Garner a few boxing tips. All Van Heerden does is open up his heart and mind to others. That's something you learn from your parents.
What Van Heerden has learned is to never give up or stop working hard. While his dad may be gone, leaving a well of sadness and despair, Van Heerden isn't slowing down at all. He's packing all that love, sorrow, and anger into a combination that could wobble the knees of anyone brave enough to step in the ring with him.
At the age of 31, the welterweight is fighting for his country, his father, and for boxing supremacy. If you didn't know about Chris Van Heerden yesterday, you will this weekend. If you don't care about his story, you need to recharge it.
They say boxing takes heart, diligence, and effort. I say it takes someone willing to take the risks. Chris Van Heerden has taken the risks, and now he's ready for his moment in the spotlight.