Chris van Heerden is well aware of the perception heading into this weekend.

The next assignment for the 33-year old southpaw comes on short notice against one of the hottest rising contenders in Jaron ‘Boots’ Ennis (26-0, 24KOs). The two meet this Saturday as part of a Showtime-televised tripleheader, live from Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Even when Philadelphia’s Ennis was due to face former title challenger Thomas Dulorme, the expectation was for the unbeaten welterweight to rise to the occasion and plead his case as a top contender heading into the New Year. Dulorme dropped out due to testing positive for COVID-19, leaving van Heerden to come in on three weeks’ notice and having not fought in 16 months.

“His record speaks for itself, and I have my work cut out for me,” van Heerden acknowledged to “For me… look, a lot of us went through a bad 2020. There are a lot of fighters who didn’t even get to fight this year and many more who didn’t get the opportunity to fight on a stage like this.

“I’ve worked hard for everything in my life. When this opportunity came for me to fight, I knew I had to take it.”

The fight comes months after van Heerden (28-2-1, 12KOs) ended a promotional agreement with Top Rank which lasted just more than a year. The South African welterweight—who left home seven years ago to relocate to Los Angeles—fought just two times under the Top Rank banner and not at all since last August.

Upon declaring free agent status, van Heerden has since seen his name attached to several significant fights though none of which managed to materialize. When the call came to face Ennis, van Heerden and his team—including manager Peter Kahn—didn’t hesitate, nor was it accepted merely for the sake of grabbing a payday.

“I just want to show what I’m capable of by working my way back to this position,” notes van Heerden, who has won five straight since a stoppage loss to then-unbeaten rising prospect Errol Spence in September 2015. “It feels good. I find joy out of inspiring people and sharing my story. I’m just happy to fight and be able to say that you can achieve anything if you work hard and take risks in life.”

A fight versus Ennis—who has knocked out his last 16 opponents—is as big of a risk as you can take in this division without their being a massive reward in the end. Van Heerden views the opportunities that lie ahead—a title fight with Terence Crawford, Manny Pacquiao or even in a rematch with Spence—as the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

Getting there will require his doing something that no other welterweight has been able to accomplish—exploit any weakness in Ennis’ game.

“He’s a counterpuncher but he’s strong,” admits van Heerden, though with a disclaimer. “I will find out once I get hit how strong he is. He has speed, he punches from nice angles. I’ve also seen that most of the guys who have fought him just stand in front of him or are just flat-footed. They don’t give him any angles or movement. I bring experience. I bring speed and good movement. 

“His record is spectacular, but then I look at who he’s fought. Has he ever fought anyone on my level? No. So it’s a good test for him as well. I’ve fought four world champions. Other than Errol Spence, I’ve always handled myself well. Just know that I am coming in with fire. I am not coming to test him. I am coming to be the first to beat him and finish the dream I left South Africa for seven years ago.”

Jake Donovan is a senior writer for Twitter: @JakeNDaBox