Ruben Groenewald: Fighting Froch whilst homeless in London
Exclusive Livefight.com interview: Ruben ďThe HammerĒ Groenewald, the dark side of Prize-fighting
By Michael J Jones
I RECENTLY had the pleasure of speaking with South Africaís former WBU middleweight champion Ruben Groenewald about the highís and lowís of his boxing career. Groenewald, nicknamed ďThe HammerĒ, was a stylish, neat boxer in a prime which saw him fight with good success in the UK. Ruben, now 34-years-old, appeared to disappear off the radar following two titanic battles with Manchester favourite Anthony Farnell plus subsequent losses to Danilo Haussler and Carl Froch. The tough South African still wants to fight to this day, despite being largely inactive and suffering stoppage defeats in three of his last four contests to move to a still-respectable 23-9-3 (10).
The former WBU champion has suffered his share of misfortune in his fistic career; Ruben pulled no punches about how he has been treated. The sport we all love can be hard to understand sometimes, boxers rarely get out of the game physically, financially and mentally unscathed.
Despite the extremity of his dreadful luck, Ruben remains upbeat. He is ready to make a comeback in the cruiserweight division or turn his hand to MMA. Now with his own business in hometown of Gauteng, hereís what Ruben had to say.
LF) So, Ruben, how did you first become involved with boxing and who were your earliest influences?
RG) My brother Lionel was a top amateur boxer; everyone said he was going to be a world champion. My other brother Kenneth and Lionel always sparred together but Lionel was far too good for Kenneth. This was all before I was born. Unfortunately, Lionel died in a car accident at age twelve. When I was born, my dad believed that God took away his son and gave him a new son and it was destiny that the new son be a world champion.
I joined the Herculine Park amateur club at age six or seven. I won a few and lost a few, didn't really train properly. I had my first fight when I was eight-years-old. When I was fifteen, I said to myself 'no more'. I canít do this if I'm going to win a few and lose a few; I want to be the best. My dad took me to his old friend Shorty Smook; he was a former South African middleweight champion-turned-pro trainer. My mom and dad took me there twice a week to train. Amateurs weren't allowed to train with pros so I couldn't tell anybody. Shorty showed me a few good moves but there was a guy there called Anton Van Zyl. He was about in his early 30's. He took a lot of time out, trained me and showed me good, valuable stuff. His training techniques paid off because when I turned 16, I didn't lose anymore fights (as an amateur). Together with Anton's techniques, my dad bought me a big axe and I had to chop down massive trees. He also put a 30 meter steel pole up in our garden with a thick rope hanging from the top. I had to climb out the rope every afternoon after school. I also did weights.
LF) Can you talk a little about some of your achievements as an amateur fighter?
RG) At 16-years-old, I entered championships. Then it was called Transvaal, now its Gauteng. I won three fights at Eastern Gauteng champsí. Four fights at Gauteng championships which consisted of everybody in Gauteng, and Gauteng is f***ing massive. I won two on TKO and two on points. I then went through to the South African championships. You guys might know it as the ABA's. I had three fights there. I won two by stoppage and in the final I beat a kid called Virgil Kalakoda. He went on later to a good professional. I knocked him out clean in the first round with a short over-hand right. So at 16 I was South African amateur champion.
That was as a junior. The next year as a senior at 17 years-of-age, I entered the championships and did exactly the same. I won the Eastern Gauteng's, Gauteng's and South African titles or ABA's. I then went to Mauritius to take part in the All African games and I won a gold medal. The following year I turned pro.
As an amateur I also boxed a few times in the townships. Townships in South Africa, for those who donít know, are like a city on their own but only black people live there. When I was 13, I boxed there during the apartheid years. Back then white people would not go into townships as its too dangerous but the black boxers loved my style and accepted me as one of their own. They respected me and my boxing skill.
They called me the ďBlack boxer in the white skinĒ. As a professional I boxed in townships three or four times. Every time I was the only white boxer on the card and my family were the only white people in the crowd of about 1500 people in a small hall. I did not feel threatened, neither did my family. The black boxers in South Africa accepted me as their brother. My father when he was alive spoke Zulu fluently. I can speak a little but next year I want to really learn to speak Zulu.
LF) After going 8-2-3 as a young pro you came over to the UK to fight a good fighter called Delroy Leslie. You were edged in a great fight and were to be based in the UK soon after?
RG) After two years as a pro, I fought for my first title. I was a late replacement for Giovanni Pretorius who was due to fight Cornelius Carr for the WBF world middle weight title. Giovanni couldn't make the weight so I received the fight on two weeks notice. Take into consideration that I'd only gone eight rounds once previously, so my first twelve rounder and a world title fight and in England. For me it was a dream come true, I was 22-years-old. To say I was excited is an understatement. Anyway, when I accepted the fight, Cornelius Carr pulled out of it. Then they got another experienced boxer called Delroy Leslie.
You can look at the fight and judge it yourself. Considering that Delroy had about twice as many fights as me, I gave him hell for twelve rounds. I really thought I won the fight but they gave it to Delroy. Promoter Jess Harding told me much later that it was such a good fight that they showed it eleven times on BBC. Also consider I was only a light-middle yet this was at middleweight.
I went back to South Africa where I took part in two twelve-round fights. Shortly after that I decided to relocate to England because I was not happy with the way things went in South Africa. I was being taken for a ride in many ways by my coach. He treated me very badly and at the time a lot of things went on behind the scenes.
I arrived in England with big hopes. For the first five months, I slept on the lounge floor in a house in Beckton, East London that I shared with eight other strangers.
What happened during the next eight or nine years has changed my life completely. I went from being a world champion to ending up homeless, all because there are dishonest people in boxing, corrupt people who will do anything for money.
LF) After that fine performance against Delroy Leslie you went 9-0 over the next few years, beating good fighters like Elvis Adonisi (coming off two great wins over Darren Dorrington) and 11-0-1 Paul Bowen in his backyard of London. It is especially impressive as you gave a lot of natural weight away in a lot of these fights?
RG) I saw the fight with Elvis against Darren Dorrington. I thought Elvis did very well to beat Darren in his hometown. He boxed beautifully but I was very confident. It ended the way I expected it. Those fights you talked about in England were interesting. I did not sign a single contract for any of those fights. Only time I started signing contracts were the Farnell fights.
They brought Paul Bowen to the gym where I trained to spar. Nigel Benn (then Bowenís trainer) was with him. We sparred but I didn't think much of him. He was due to box next week.
A day before the fight, my manager phoned me up and said Bowen's opponent pulled out, and do I want to fight him? I thought ďwell my sparring partner Thulane "SugarBoy" Malinga proper beat Benn and I handled Malinga with easeĒ, so I accepted the fight, even though Bowen was heavier than me and an unbeaten prospect. I boxed well in that fight, put a lot of pressure on Bowen. Against me he was out of his comfort zone in every single way possible. The Bowen fight was a surprise for many people but for me it was what I expected. I could see in sparring against Paul that he did not have heart and it was proved when I beat him. He retired for a long time, his career was not the same after that. I had dreams to fight guys like Felix Trinidad and Oscar De la Hoya. Paul Bowen was just another win. I hear that he's upset about that loss, well this is my offer to him; we can box again, but this time at cruiser weight.
The highlight for me in that fight, was meeting Nigel Benn.
LF) You are probably best remembered for those two hard fights with Anthony Farnell. You won the first fight in an upset but were edged out in the rematch. What are your memories of both those fights?
RG) During the first fight, I fought with diarrhoea. I was so weak for that fight but I still out-boxed Arnie with my left jab. After the first fight, my manager told me that if I didnít fight Farnell again that I would be stripped of the WBU belt. I was only young back then, I had nobody who I could trust. He offered me peanuts; I didn't want to take it. I wanted to fight him in London or even South Africa but my manager was telling me I'd get stripped etc. I look back now and I know he lied to me, because he made a lot more money than I did. I didn't even sign a contract for the second fight!
In the rematch three months later, I beat Farnell easier, but I know it was all a set up by my manager, ex-trainer and everybody else involved. I canít believe out of all the judges, the South African judge gave it to Farnell by four points. After the first fight, as I walked from the ring to the dressing room, people booed me and spat on me and threw me with whatever. But in the rematch, the very same people as I walked back to the dressing room, they stood up to salute me. They started clasping hands and many of them told me 'you won Ruben, you were robbed'. They were all Farnell's supporters but they knew I won.
When I lost the rematch, that was that, I was out of boxing; finished. I fought with that manager of mine whose name I shan't mention. He was a f***ing dishonest b***ard. I was phoned me up and told they donít want to work with me again and that I should come collect my contract at the gym. I had a three year contract with him and still had more than two years left on it. I went to the gym expecting to just get my contract so I can move on but this f***ing guy told me that he will not hand back my contract and that if I have a new manager, they should contact him as he wants £20,000 for it.
For that fight, my manager robbed me of a lot of money. And I am not scared to say it. They can bring Simon Block back into the picture. I heard he's resigned; I wonder why? I have a lot of letters from him that he wrote to me. My manager should have got me a rematch clause should Farnell beat me in the rematch but he didn't. He looked after himself and I find it very weird Farnell received a much bigger purse than me during the rematch, seeing as I was the champion going into his back yard. I've got a lot of written documents and I'm also in possession of a contract containing my false signature. Yes, a contract with my signature yet I didn't sign it!
I really had no bad feelings towards Farnell before our two fights. For me it was purely business, I think he's very nice man. When I lost to him I was very upset.
I was upset with the ref who I donít think was fair, the judges were definitely not fair. It was out of order what they all did. Farnell knows in his heart he did not beat me. He's a man and I know he'll admit it. I think Farnell was lucky to have a trainer like Billy Graham and it helps to train with other champions. After the first fight Billy Graham said to me from his side he respects me; I will never forget that. It was an honour for me to fight on the same card as Ricky Hatton in front of 22,000 people even though the crowd hated me (laughs).
LF) Did you receive any assistance in that time over your contract problems?
RG) I approached a union called the GMB for help. They are a boxersí union representing boxers, I thought they might help me but I was wrong. I managed to get a meeting with a well-known former British boxer who worked for them.
He read my documents in front of me and Iíll never forget his words. He said "F***ing hell Ruben, you've been ripped off big time". He said "Leave it to me, I'll sort everything out". Well he never phoned me back, after about a month I phoned him to find out whatís going on. He said "Ruben, I spoke to (another famed former UK fighter) who also works for the GMB, and he reckons you donít have a case. Our lawyers looked at your paperwork and they also said you donít have a case. So sorry Ruben, we canít help you, goodbye". And that was that. When I came back to South Africa, I phoned up the GMB and asked if their lawyers ever received any info or documentation on my case, they said no, we've never received anything about you Mr Groenewald. So there you go, I hope those two aren't still working for the GMB because they donít deserve that job. Itís a job for honest people who want to help their fellow boxers.
LF) I believe times got hard in your time away from the ring following that loss?
RG) From that day on, my whole life changed. I wrote many letters to the British boxing board of control, I told of the illegal activities that my manager had committed. Simon Block had a lot of nice things to say about the manager, he told me 'Ruben, heís not such bad person. My advice to you would be to phone him up and go see him. Make things right and go back to him. He can get you a lot of good fights. I didn't go back. Instead I wandered the streets of London on my own.
I worked as a sparring partner for guys like Mikkel Kessler and Markus Beyer. The Danish and the Germans were very good to me, they kept inviting me back to help their boxers. You can ask them about me, yet my ex-manager was slagging me off all over Britain. He made sure nobody wanted to touch me. The sparring was good for me. I could've easily beaten both Kessler and Beyer in real fights; I was in my prime yet not allowed to box. The sparring eventually dried up and the bit of money didn't last long. I ended up homeless in the streets of London. Nobody around to help me. All the people who were part of my team when I was fighting and winning were all gone.
LF) You werenít seen in a ring again for a full two years, was it the politics that kept you from fighting in that time?
RG) I had a sports visa so I was not allowed to work. I ended up in a bed-sit, which was just a room, shared toilet and shower. I had to share it with fifteen other strangers. All of them were without work and getting benefits from the government. Basically, I thought these people were proper scum for choosing not to work. I wanted to work but was not allowed to. I could not get any benefits of course due to my South African passport which, at the time, I thought was wrong because South Africa helped Britain in the war and my grandfather was Scottish.
Anyway, days and weeks went buy when I had tinned food day after day. It was the cheapest I could afford. There was no money coming in whatsoever. I trained at a boxing gym in East London even though I didn't have a coach or a boxing license. None of the coaches wanted to work with me, they didn't know me yet they tried to avoid me. I knew it was because of my former manager. He and his team were connected all over Britain and they told me that last day I saw them, he said 'Ruben, I will make sure you never box again in Britain'. Thatís how powerful they were. I mean they stole money from me, I have and still have the evidence yet the BBB of C refuses to get involved.
Anyway, not eating proper food and having tinned food everyday is not good for you, so I couldnít train anymore. My body was weak. I'd been living in the bed sit for several weeks but the last three weeks I did not pay the rent, I'd been avoiding the landlord. One night when I came back to the bed-sit, I found my stuff nicely packed outside my room and they'd put a big lock on there so I could not enter. I honestly had nobody to phone.
LF) So you were homeless just weeks after being a world champion?
RG) Yeah, my whole world crashed down. I didn't know which way to go. I found myself homeless on the streets of London. I did not know why my life turned out this way. I come from a good family. My mother and father always made sure we had enough.
I was not a bad kid, boxing was my life. I'd come to England to further my boxing career. I thought a lot of England but England obviously did not think a lot of me. I honestly do not know how I survived being homeless for almost four months. Miracles do happen. A South African friend of mine who had a pub in Walthamstow "The Lorn Arms'. His name was Stanley. I met him before I was world champ. I saw him in town one day and I told him everything. He gave me some money for food etc and told me to come by his pub that night. I went there and met a South African girl. She told me she had a job interview in Essex as a care worker and I should come with her. It was opposite Epping Forest. I went with her and met the owner of the house. A woman called Vivienne McCardy who was in a wheelchair. She was paralyzed from the neck down from a car accident. She was just a good friend with a good heart. She gave me food and accommodation in turn for work I did for her. Work in the garden and maintenance work in and around the hour as well as being her main driver of her van and car. She's a very good person and she still keeps in contact.
LF) So eventually you returned to South Africa?
RG) I'm so glad I came back to South Africa. My father was ill and had phoned me almost every week. I was able to spend two years with my father before God took him away from us. My dad's time was up but he really lived a proper life. I was there the night he died, just him and myself in the house. My dear mother was also there. My dad died in my arms.
When I came back from England my dad had told me not to box again. But I wanted to continue as I thought the boxing politics and corruption had robbed me of my prime years in England. So I wanted to continue to make up for lost time. But when my father passed away, the family chain consisting of my father David, my mother Tina, my brothers Kurt and Kenneth, my two sisters Pamela and Charmaine and myself was broken. I'm just glad I was able to spent two years with my dad, who was a great man before he left this earth
LF) You eventually came back to fight Danilo Haussler and Carl Froch, do you regret taking such tough comeback opponents, both were world rated at the time?
RG) Of course I was not ready for Froch or Haussler but I could not say no to the money. After I served my two years I'd started to phone around to get fights. But I'd noticed that nobody in Britain wanted to work with me. Somebody then told me that it was because my former managers had made my name bad all over Britain. I didn't have a manager, I had to do things myself. I phoned all the well known promoters in Britain, but they all had a lot of answers. I kept training by myself; even the coaches didn't want to touch me. I was on my own, a foreigner in England, even though my grandfather was born and raised in Scotland. Cornelius Frederick Wilson came over during the war and married a South African woman.
Anyway, one morning in 2005, I woke up, and decided I'd had enough of going to the gym everyday and training all by myself as if I've got a fight lined up. I was going to call it a day with the boxing and get myself a job. On my way to the job centre, I got a call from Mick Hennessy. He offered me a fight with Carl Froch. Even though on that day I was so emotional and negative, what could I say to Mick? I couldn't say no could I? So I agreed to take the fight but I was in no condition to fight Froch. My heart was out of boxing. I think Froch is proper quality but on my day, nobody will beat me. Ask Kessler and Markus Beyer too. I took the Froch fight, and it didn't go my way. I take nothing from Froch. I'm happy his career turned out that good. He's a good boxer and a very intelligent person. He's good for boxing. I wish him all the best.
LF) What are you up to these days and what do you hope for in the future?
RG) I really donít know what the future holds for me. I do not have a boxing license. It was taken away from me without the boxing board following rules and regulations. So itís hard to say. But I'm boxing as a cruiser weight now. I would love to fight the best cruisers in Britain. I've been stopped unfairly a few times but nobody has ever knocked me out (cleanly).
But itís not all doom and gloom. I managed to pick myself up and met some great people who have helped me so much. I have always kept my faith in God in good times and bad. A lot of people donít believe in God but I guarantee after they listen to my life story, they'll become believers. I am back in South Africa now and I've opened a business. I repair all appliances like fridges, microwaves, TVís etc. I plan to do MMA next year. I've been training Muay Thai and Brazilian Jujitsu for three months. Boxing South Africa has told me I canít box due to my asthma. I have appealed and, trust me, I shall win the case. I'm looking forward to the MMA though. I think I'll do very well. I'm a superb boxer but I now have more weapons. I'll be hard to beat.
For further information about Rubenís career, please call +27 762263221(mobile). If you reside in South Africa, Rubenís repair business can be found online at www.applianceworx.co.uk. Any fans of Ruben can also find him on Facebook.
Ruben in his final fight at top flight: