Granted immunity by prosecutors for his testimony in the murder of a South African mining magnate, Mikey Schultz says he is on the road to redemption.
Boxer finds peace in the ring
For an alleged contract killer and a man with one of the most fearsome reputations in an unusually violent country, Mikey Schultz is remarkably soft-spoken. With his cropped hair and heavily tattooed frame, the South African, who was once better known for his boxing career, gained renown as a street-fighting, hard-drinking ruffian who stands accused of murder.
And he does not look like a man you would want to meet down an alley, dark or otherwise. "If we can get in there and I can hurt him, I'm going to hurt him early," he said quietly but enthusiastically in an interview at his coach's gym last week, on the morning of his first boxing match since he retired 11 years ago. His coming out of retirement has been billed as his personal rehabilitation and a return to normal life after years of controversy.
Schultz, 34, has confessed to being the gunman in the assassination of Brett Kebble, a mining magnate with links to the ruling African National Congress who was shot dead in his car in 2005. The case has had far-reaching repercussions that have yet to fully play out, which include a former national police commissioner standing trial for corruption. Schultz and at least four others accused of involvement in the murder, say the killing was an "assisted suicide", arranged at Kebble's own request as his business empire collapsed.
Schultz himself has controversially been granted immunity by prosecutors in exchange for his "frank and honest" testimony against others - a "section 204" agreement in South African legal parlance. Since then he has been seeking redemption, returning to his roots as a professional boxer. In his first go in the ring, he retired undefeated in 1998 after 14 fights, then formed a nightclub security business that is reputed to have been particularly violent. Still, Schultz has never been convicted of an offence.
His descent plumbed its greatest depths on the night Kebble was shot. He cannot talk about the case itself, but said: "It was like winning the lottery when we got the 204. It's been a life-changing experience. I've had to change and it's to the better." After an 11-year absence he went back to boxing, joining up with Nick Durandt, a long-haired, heavily bejewelled trainer who has coached 32 world champions - among them Hasim Rahman, who took the world heavyweight crown by knocking out Lennox Lewis - and prepared the actor Will Smith for the film Ali.
"Once I started again in the boxing gym, I felt back at home," Schultz said. "It was a turnaround for me. I've become like a family man now. "I've seen another side to life. There's more to life than going out and getting [drunk] with your mates and fighting in the streets and stuff like that - Boxing's a clean life. Boxing's a dedicated life, a disciplined life." Mr Durandt said: "This business has taken him away from the past. I'm not trying to say this is a little daisy. This guy has done some stuff in his life. He's not proud of it. He's a reborn person and today he'll walk away from a fight rather than have it unless it's in the ring.
The fight in question was for a WBO African super-middleweight title, at an arena on the south side of Johannesburg. In a sparkling jacket and white gloves, Schultz was cheered to the ring by hundreds of fans. But only 77 seconds into the first round, his Zimbabwean opponent, Tineyi Maridzo, threw a right cross that connected with Schultz's temple, and he crashed to the canvas. He struggled to his feet on "10", but remained disoriented and bewildered, and less than a minute and a half after the opening bell, the bout was over.
The reaction to Schultz's comeback has been mixed. On one newspaper website a supporter wrote: "He is a wonderful humble loyal person with a heart of gold - If he is your friend you have a friend for life." But one of his mostly anonymous critics retorted: "Where was his heart of gold when he shot and killed innocent people or beat up youngsters? This is not about him being a good boxer but rather what he has done and not paid for."