It wasn’t easy, but Chris Van Heerden finally came to the conclusion, like so many did, that 2020 was going to be a wash for his career, a lost year that hopefully led to something bigger and better in 2021. Even normal would be all right for the South Africa native, who gave up so much to chase a dream in the United States back in 2013.
That’s not to say he wasn’t on the right track. A five-fight win streak since a 2015 loss to Errol Spence Jr. had him thinking big when the year started. Then everything changed, and nothing got better.
“I was supposed to fight Antonio DeMarco on a Top Rank show in April and then COVID happened and there were no sports and nothing happening, and we weren't sure when it was coming back,” said Van Heerden, whose last bout was an eight-round decision win over Aslanbek Kozaev in August 2019. “And then I was scheduled to step in and fight Sergey Lipinets October 10th, so I started getting ready for that. And then that doesn't happen. So I was like, I guess this year's done.”
At 33, Van Heerden wasn’t young enough to give up a year of fighting, and not old enough to have that year off be a deal breaker for a career that began in 2006. And if he needed to prove his mental and physical fitness to anyone, he ran a marathon in May.
On a treadmill.
In three hours and 48 minutes.
“I had no gameplan,” laughed Van Heerden, who ran the 26.2-mile distance for the first time at home in Los Angeles. And it went well for a while, like so many marathons do.
“By the time I hit mile 20, I was at my fastest mile and I checked my body, and I was like, you know what, I feel good, like I haven't hit a wall,” he said. “And then I got to mile 21 and I got a spasm in my neck and my knee started hurting. This is the wall. So between mile 21 and 25, that was so challenging. By mile 25 to mile 26.2, for the first time I put the clock on to see how far I am, and I was at three hours 42 minutes. My last mile, I came in at just over 6:30.”
That’s not easy. It’s not even fathomable for most humans. And if that was going to be the extent of Van Heerden’s athletic output for 2020, it was impressive.
But then the phone rang less than a month ago with an offer. It was a fight. On Showtime. Against 26-0 Jaron Ennis, a young man on practically everyone’s “most likely to succeed list.”
Van Heerden was in.
“Luckily, I'm never out of shape and I'm always in good form,” he said. “And then out of nowhere, this came up three weeks out. And I looked at myself and I said, you know what, it's a very dangerous fight, I know, but I'm a fighter, I want to fight. I'm not getting younger, I'm getting older. It's a tough year financially for everyone and we're all just going through so much. I was offered the fight by PBC, we negotiated a few things and it made sense to me that I'm a fighter, I never shied away, I want to fight, and this is the level I want to fight at. It's the top level. Showtime, PBC, it's a high level and I said yes.”
“The Heat” got to work, then received a pleasant surprise when he was told the bout would be for the IBO welterweight title, a crown he once wore in 2011-13 before vacating it and heading to America. What had just been a good opportunity to get a fight in before the end of the year and possibly upset one of the sport’s top prospects now was something more.
“All of a sudden, this whole fight has got a whole different meaning to me,” said Van Heerden, who will fight Ennis one year, 11 months and 19 days removed from the day his father Daniel was murdered in Meyerton, Gauteng. He was 61.
“I lost my dad two years ago, we all know that,” said Van Heerden, the emotion still evident in his voice. “I came here with a dream and a vision and telling everyone that I will go to America, the Mecca of boxing, as a South African from a small town, and I will work my way up and I will find myself in a world title fight again. People laughed at me and said, ‘Good luck, you don't know how hard it is,’ this and that. And the one person that believed in me was my father. My father said, ‘with your work ethic, your drive, you can do it. But that cost was that I needed to say goodbye to my dad. And I had to say goodbye to my dad for five years.
“I missed out on a father-son relationship,” he continues. “If you could only understand the level of relationship I had with my dad. My dad wasn't just my father; he was really my best friend. He was my role model, he was my hero, he was larger than life for me. So I missed out on five years of life with him, chasing this crazy dream of fighting for a world title, something only I saw for myself and my dad believed in me.”
In 2018, Van Heerden lost his best friend, and he admits that he had his doubts whether the promise he made to his father and himself was going to be fulfilled. It certainly wasn’t going to happen as the world turned upside down in 2020. But here he is.
“The last two years have been tough,” said Van Heerden. “I asked myself, was it worth it? Was it worth leaving dad for this crazy dream? Was it worth missing out? Did I do it for nothing. Then I found out I'm fighting for the world title. And I'm like, finally. Dad, I wish you were here to see that it wasn't for nothing. Everything I believed in, everything he believed in, missing five years of a father-son relationship, it wasn't for nothing. And I can finally make peace. I have a sense of calm over me in going, okay, I forgive myself for letting my best friend out there. That's what this fight means to me. It fires me. I'm excited. And that's a whole other level of meaning.”
If you believe in things like fate, a fight many believes is clearly going in Ennis’ direction all of a sudden got a lot more interesting. Twenty-three days before he fought the seemingly invincible Mike Tyson in 1990, Buster Douglas’ mother Lula Pearl died suddenly at the age of 46. Douglas then shocked the world. A Van Heerden victory in Connecticut this weekend wouldn’t be on that level of upset, but it would surprise a few.
It wouldn’t surprise the South African.
“I've already won,” he said. “If people could only understand that. Now I just need to put the cherry on the cake and go win a world title. And I know I can. Yes, Ennis, I respect him and he's dangerous. 26-0, 24 KOs, he's young, people say he's probably better than Errol Spence or the next Errol Spence - great stuff. But remember me for the guy that took those fights and fought those guys. Give me credit for that. And this is the thing - yes, I know I'm in the fight of my life, I know I've got a big task ahead, but so does he. He's fighting someone on a level above the levels he's fought. I truly believe that if we execute the game plan and I can catch my rhythm and do what I have to do, he's in for a long night. I can win this fight. I believe it. And I'm going in to win.”
“I just wish my dad was still...” Van Heerden begins before pausing to gather his words. “I know he's with me spiritually, I know he's watching me and I know he's proud, but I can finally end that chapter and say, I've done it. I've done it in South Africa and I came to a country like America knowing no one and I found myself fighting for a world title again. I've had a tough road, man, and I'm excited.”