A South African Heavyweight Fights Charges of Racism Even Before He Enters the Ring
Knoetze, 25, is indeed no angel. A former constable in the capital city of Pretoria, he admits shooting a black teenager in both legs during a political demonstration. He claims the boy had hit him with a stone. "He was lucky because I'm a good shot," says Knoetze. "A very good shot. If I had wanted to I could have killed him on the spot. I don't like shooting anyone, but I did what any other policeman would have done." The boy, however, was later acquitted of wrongdoing. Knoetze, after a conviction for attempting to intimidate a witness in a police brutality case ("I was trying to help a pal, that's all"), quit the department in 1977 (before anyone could decide whether to fire him). Early last year he was fined $90 for his part in a barroom brawl.
Boxing, of course, has traditionally been populated by dubious characters, including Ron Lyle, the ex-con heavyweight, and imprisoned armed robber James Scott (PEOPLE, Dec. 11). "If we checked out the record of every guy who wants to box," says Knoetze-Shar-key matchmaker Gil Clancy, "we'd need an army of investigators." Critics of the fight, however, insist that Knoetze's case is a special one. "How, in good conscience," asks fight promoter Don King, "can one be in favor of the promotion of a South African whose sworn duty it was to oppress black people?" Though King was reportedly interested in signing Knoetze at one point—and himself served four years in prison for manslaughter—he now says, "It would be an unpardonable sin for Knoetze to have an opportunity to become world champion." Jesse Jackson echoes the argument: "The boxing ring is always a platform from which people can propagate their beliefs. We have to resist Knoetze's being allowed to propagate the worst of South Africa's philosophy."
The fight's promoters, and CBS, which paid $100,000 for the rights to televise the match, argue that boxing should not be politicized. For his part, Knoetze, now a cattle farmer and furniture dealer who named his 2-year-old son Kalliematt after his store, says, "I'm a boxer, not a politician. But I'll never denounce my country, not at any price. If they expect me to, they can shove it. Demos don't bother me. I can take anything they want to dish out—they're just naughty children, and in this business you have to stand up like a man."
In the ring, with a 16-2 record in just two years as a professional fighter, Knoetze has done just that. The World Boxing Association has ranked him the No. 2 challenger, behind Ken Norton, ever since he knocked out faint white hope Duane Bobick in the third round last year. He will be the odds-on favorite in his bout with Sharkey, a white saloon bouncer from Baltimore. "It's not a question of whether I'll beat him," says Knoetze, "but of how quickly I'll beat him." If such brash self-confidence is reminiscent of another outspoken heavyweight, it is meant to be. Knoetze says that 37-year-old Muhammad Ali is one of his two idols. "One thing I want to do in the States," he says, "is meet the greatest boxer in the world. I want to reach out and shake his hand and tell him he's the greatest. I'm 25 and he's an 'oom'—an uncle—to me. I want to make friends."
In that amiable context, invidious comparisons with the Nazi Schmeling (demolished by Joe Louis in a 1938 heavyweight title fight) might seem a disservice to Knoetze. Promoters, of course, would be delighted to reap the profits from any title match dramatized as a Battle of the Races. Despite the political clamor attending his first appearance in the U.S., however, Knoetze seems determined to approach the fight calmly, taking a lesson from his other idol, countryman Gary Player, the golfer. "He can go where no other South African can go," says Knoetze, "and I've learned a lot from him. If people come up to him, whether they're friend or foe, he takes them by the hand and looks them right in the eyes. I used to resent strangers greeting me like that, but now I do the same. I'm going to be like Gary—no security, no cops to guard me. The only enemies I have are in the ring. Like Bill Sharkey. Outside, he's my friend. Inside, I'll knock his blerry head off."