There’s a new Tank in town.
The late heavyweight Mike Schutte’s son, Mike jnr, is on the verge of turning pro, a remarkable move considering the journey he has travelled to get this far.
Given the tough life he has endured, the boxing ring may well appear to be a sanctuary for the local protégé.
The one-time drug addict and hoodlum has cast off his dark past in pursuit of a new life given greater purpose by boxing. He still lives in a drug rehabilitation centre, but as a manager rather than a patient, and he sees daily reminders of the crazy life he left behind.
Schutte’s life changed when he walked into Pastor Dave Barber’s life in Benoni in 2013. Barber himself was a former nightclub bouncer and drug addict. He spent six years at a rehabilitation facility in the Karoo, so there wasn’t much Schutte could tell him that he hadn’t heard before.
“I had been down the road of destruction, was arrested, that sort of nonsense,” recalled Schutte’s mentor on Monday. “Finally, I had a super-natural experience and that led young men to my door at rehab in Benoni, ‘Walking With Winners’, the biggest such facility of its kind for men in South Africa.”
When Schutte walked in three year ago, he was a mess. He had just finished up in Thailand where he engaged in a dangerous mix of K1 fighting and drug-dealing. Trouble was, he couldn’t keep it together.
“He wasn’t ready for the commitment to recovery. Mike lived here for a while, absconded and relapsed. He was arrested on old charges . . . stupid things like assault and drunken driving, rubbish from his old life,” said Barber.
Schutte then called the pastor from jail. “I’m ready to go straight,” he vowed. And he was.
He demonstrated an “urgency to become a man”, committed himself to Christianity and resolved to pursue his late father’s boxing legacy.
Schutte snr, of course, was one of the hard men of heavyweight boxing in the 1970s and his rivalries with Gerrie Coetzee and Kallie Knoetze grew him into a local legend. He even became a figure in popular culture, starring in a number of films, and “Mike Schutte” jokes were wildly popular.
“We’ll be putting those jokes to rest now,” quipped Barber.
In 1977, in arguably the dirtiest fight ever seen in a South African ring, Schutte lost his SA title to a young Coetzee when he was disqualified in the sixth round. He was no mug, though, and “The Tank” beat world class fighters like Duane Bobick, Chuck Wepner and Jimmy Richards in a fascinating eight-year career. He died in 2008.
Asked how confident he was that Schutte would stay on the straight and narrow, Barber said he couldn’t be sure of anything, “but he’s been at the bottom and couldn’t fall further”.[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]’If Tommy Oosthuizen wants, we have a place for him in rehab'[/pullquote]
“He was living in a shack in Hillbrow. Life doesn’t get much worse. The difference between Mike and someone like Tommy Oosthuizen is that Tommy doesn’t have the resolve to recover. If he wants, we have a place for him.”
Now based near Vereeniging, where he manages the hostel at the rehabilitation centre, Schutte regularly travels with Barber to the north of Johannesburg where the boxer trains under Sean Smith.
The 28-year-old had a fraught relationship with his late father and the pair only reconciled when he was in his late teens. At one point they were able to sit down and discuss the situation. Mike snr felt strongly that his son shouldn’t fight – “get a real job and make real money, like a lawyer” – but encouraged him nonetheless.
Sadly, the family home was broken and Mike jnr by his own admission went off the rails. “It was chaotic. I was drug-dealing, partying. Home was dysfunctional. I made some horrible choices. But here I am. I’m choosing to be better. [Recovery] is the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I have no problem talking about it, especially if my story can help others.”
Boxing offers him a chance at redemption, a crack at righting some of the wrongs he has done in a wild and crazy life.
“I never boxed amateur, I was always a kick-boxer. I always wanted to transition to boxing, but opportunities were limited. Now I have the chance and I’ve grabbed it.
His improvement since signing with the Smiths in February has been so significant that he now rates as Kevin Lerena’s top sparring partner. Lerena is in training for his rematch with Johnny Muller in three weeks and pushes hard.
“I’d like to think I give him good work,” says Schutte, a beefy cruiserweight. “All credit to the Smiths. You think you know it all until you walk in. They’re amazing. The whole team shares their knowledge. I’m learning all the time.”
The focus will soon switch to the aspirant cruiserweight who will make his pro debut on a Golden Gloves card on June 11.
He doesn’t see boxing as giving his life meaning. “I have a wife and kids, I have meaning enough. This gives me a purpose, to be a better man.”
Barber fervently believes he will become a world champion, but even if he doesn’t, getting this far is a triumph in itself.
Schutte may have many big fights, but he’s won arguably the biggest of all by getting his life back together.