The ultimate fighter

Three years ago, Gerhard Vosloo’s troubled life simply couldn’t get any worse. SA Rugby magazine visited the Castres flanker to find out how a move to France helped him turn things around.

‘You know what I love about this?’ Gerhard Vosloo asks, pointing to his 50-inch flat screen playing a rerun of an Ultimate Fighting Championships pay-per-view event in Las Vegas. ‘I love the fact that the guys can take a beating, but the ones with skill and heart always manage to come out on top.’

Vosloo is completely taken with the sport that pits two men, usually with varying fighting styles, in a brutal battle. There are no blood stoppages, as I’d find out when one of his favourites struggles through two rounds with blood flowing from a deep cut on his forehead and into his eyes, blinding him.

‘He’ll still win, though. He’s fuckin’ tough and always bounces back,’ Vosloo predicts confidently. Two rounds later, he does. By the end of our chat at his home in Castres, it’s clear that the fight is a metaphor for his life.

US senator John McCain dubbed ultimate fighting ‘human cockfighting’. This is perhaps an apt description, although over the years strict rules have been enforced, barring sadistic manoeuvres such as ‘fish hooking’ (the act of inserting fingers into the mouth, nostrils or other orifices of the opponent with the intention of pulling and tearing the surrounding tissue) and ‘rabbit punching’ (a punch to the neck or to the base of the skull that is intended to damage the cervical vertebrae and subsequently the spinal cord, and may lead to serious spinal-cord injury and even death).

Vosloo knows all the fighters in meticulous detail – their strengths and weaknesses, their history. It’s the latter that is most appealing to him. The majority of the men have fascinating life stories, marked by personal turmoil and desperately rotten luck. Vosloo can relate to this. A carefree child became a troubled man-child who teetered perilously close to falling off the edge. Life’s dealt him its fair share of fish hooks and rabbit punches.

He was raised in a middle-class family by Gerhard senior – an entrepreneur who made his bread from owning a furniture-manufacturing company – and mother Engela, a housewife.

The family lived quite comfortably, but Vosloo was never one for handouts. With an uncompromising work ethic and self-sufficiency, values he inherited from his father, Vosloo made his own way after high school, with rugby a secondary interest to bouncing at nightclubs. At night he would eject overzealous partygoers from clubs around Hatfield in Pretoria. His days were spent at the gym, torturing his body until he eventually reached his genetic ceiling at 130kg.

Bouncing syndicates have a reputation for being owned by some of society’s less amiable characters, as well as for providing the platform for overly aggressive men to physically express their frustrations with little fear of sanction. The combination was a deadly cocktail for Vosloo, who quickly morphed into a man he hardly recognised.

‘I don’t know how I became that guy. He was someone I really didn’t like but somehow couldn’t get rid of,’ he says.

Vosloo refuses to get into details about his past – ‘Let’s not go there’ – but concedes he caused his father immense heartache and stress at the time.
Vosloo and his father enjoyed a close bond until his teenage years. Gerhard enrolled his five-year-old son in a wrestling school, and for 11 years they trained together. Five o’clock wake-up calls were commonplace for Gerhard, who would drive from the family home in Ballito to competitions around the country, where he’d watch his son win more than he’d lose. But that relationship took a battering as Gerhard junior’s demeanour became more fractious. Their relationship degenerated progressively until all that remained was a disillusioned father and a prodigal son.

‘My lifestyle drove a wedge between me and my dad,’ Vosloo says remorsefully. ‘I never wanted that to happen, but I understand why it did. But my dad never gave up on me when it would have been easier to. I always knew he was there if I needed him. So one day I called him and said, “Can you help me?” He never hesitated.’

Vosloo was shipped off to Wales to visit a friend in the hope that his magnetic attraction to trouble would wane. It didn’t.

‘Feeling bit ill,’ read the text message from 22-year-old Landi Muller, a graceful brunette with an endearing nature who Vosloo had met on matric holiday. A day later, a 21-year-old Vosloo found out he was to be a father. Rabbit punch.

‘It felt like my world had fallen apart,’ he recalls. ‘We were both young with no money and, I thought, no future. I couldn’t even call Landi back because the £10 I had in my pocket was for food for the week. I always knew I could play rugby, though, even though I hadn’t played seriously since high school. So that became my banker. I started to play more out of desperation than anything else.’

Welsh third-division side Harlequins gave Vosloo an opportunity to make some cash for nappies and milk formula. And the club would also provide the opportunity for him to earn what he thought was a respite from his troubles.

Harlequins played Swansea who were coached by John Plumtree, the current Sharks forwards mentor. The New Zealander was so impressed by the all-action blond openside flanker that he drafted him into his 30-man squad. Vosloo saw it as his chance to pick up the pieces, but the blows just kept coming. He couldn’t get a work visa, so he was forced to return to South Africa.

‘That was heartbreaking because I thought it would be a way to get my life back on track. I’d be able to provide for my family. When they told me my visa application had been denied it, was like someone had stabbed me in the heart.’ Fish hook.

A human being’s ability to cope with mental anguish depends largely on the individual’s personality type. Vosloo is as tough as they come, although he was fast reaching his threshold.

Landi’s mom’s converted wine cellar became home. It was hardly squalor, with mismatched furniture and basic appliances cramped into a 4m x 5m space, but it was certainly no place to raise their newborn daughter, Lara.

‘We had nothing, but I didn’t want to work for my father. That would have been the easy way out,’ he says. ‘So I did a computer course and started a little company afterwards that kept us alive.’

Rugby was still an option for Vosloo, but nothing suggested that he could make the grade as a professional. He had played second-team rugby at an average school, never smelt a Craven Week side and had turned out only sporadically since school. But he had a natural affinity for the game and needed very little match time before he was operating at full tilt.

Vosloo joined up with Pretoria Harlequins, where he’d regularly spend hours after practice doing hill runs and skill drills, often getting home only at 10pm. ‘I just needed a foot in the door, someone to give me a chance.’

The Blue Bulls Merit A squad was a good start, but their Super 12 side had no use for a specialist fetcher, and the Mpumalanga Pumas bagged him. Outstanding performances there put Vosloo on the Golden Lions’ radar, and his desperation made the move a no-brainer.

‘I really enjoyed my time at the Lions, but I don’t think I was given a fair crack there,’ he says, reflecting on his short career in Johannesburg. ‘The best guys didn’t always play, and I felt like a second-class citizen most of the time. I wasn’t just happy to have a good contract after all the stuff I went through. I wanted to make a big contribution, which I was never given a real opportunity to do. I completely lost my desire to train and play. At that stage I’d often say to Landi, “Look, I’m packing it in and going to get a normal day job.”’

Then it all changed. French and English clubs who had been tracking his progress for some time made their approaches. But only Castres coach Laurent Seigne made a lasting impression on Vosloo. ‘I definitely needed a change, and the fact that they seemed desperate for me to move to Castres was flattering. I felt more needed and appreciated than I ever did at home, and still do.’

A year and a half into his Castres contract, Vosloo’s life has undergone a dramatic reconstruction, both on and off the field.‘Vosloo!’ a group of teenage boys cry out as we stroll through the cobbled streets of Castres.

He greets the group in rapidly improving French. Their reaction suggests God has just whispered his divine plan for their lives in their ear. Later that evening the manager of a local pizzeria gives him the friendly ‘your money’s no good here’ brushoff. When Vosloo takes Lara and their son Gerhard III to school, parents and teachers keen for a chat results in his taking at least 45 minutes to get from the school’s front door back to his car.

Vosloo is revered in Castres, and his fame can largely be attributed to his injury-time turnover in the last match of the 2006-07 season that kept Castres in the Top 14.

His home is chic and boasts a scaled-down cinema on the third floor. African masks decorate the lounge walls and oversized couches provide the scene for Vosloo to laze around in his free time, which is often spent trying to master Assassin’s Creed and Fifa 08 on his PlayStation 3. But if you were looking for a clear, albeit material, indication of how far Vosloo has progressed since his wine-cellar days, it’s found in his garage. A silver Porsche Cayenne S. It’s impossibly impractical, given the labyrinth of narrow streets in Castres. But, good Lord, is it exquisite.

‘In South Africa you have to be a brain surgeon to afford this car,’ he says. ‘Here, I saw it and bought it. Simple as that. It’s not a huge issue for me because I can afford it.

‘That’s not arrogance,’ he counters when I suggest that some would perceive him to be windgat. ‘I’ve been through a hell of a lot and I’m proud of the fact that I can provide for my family and still treat myself. I’m not going to make excuses for being able to do that. I’ve worked damn hard for what I’ve got.’

Vosloo is slumped back in the couch, relaxed and speaking openly about life in France. The velvety red fabric of the couch provides great camouflage for his flash red sneakers. His Armani watch reads 10.30pm. It’s time to get down to the business end of our chat.

Talk of Vosloo playing for France is not a tabloid construct. It’s a reality.

The French press have lauded his performances, and most journalists believe he is the finest openside flank in the Top 14. Last year he held informal talks with then France coach Bernard Laporte, who enquired about his interest in playing for France. Journalists have called to ask if he has any French ancestry, or whether he’d consider applying for residency, which would allow him to bypass the three-year waiting period for qualification.

‘If you can’t be a pilot because of circumstances, then go for the next best option, maybe an aeronautical engineer,’ Vosloo says. The question was begging to be asked: ‘So, do you want to be a pilot?’

‘Look, if in a year and a half I’m sitting in the Stade de France dressing room about to pull a France shirt over my head, there’s obviously going to be sadness,’ he says. ‘I want to play for the Boks, but I’m realistic enough to know that there are some really good players ahead in the queue back home.

‘That said, I won’t see France as a consolation prize at all. It would be an honour to play for them. I want success in my career, and to play Test rugby would be the pinnacle. If that goal has to be achieved with a blue shirt on instead of a green and gold one, then that’s the way it has to be.’

Vosloo recently signed a multimillion-euro deal with Brive, who beat off the challenges of Perpignan, Biarritz and Clermont among others. The deal is said to rival what Toulon are paying their elite players, which speaks volumes about the high regard in which Vosloo is held.

His journey thus far has been a remarkable one. Brive is a far cry from bouncing in Hatfield or from Wales’ third division. He wouldn’t have envisaged ending up there when he lay awake in the converted wine cellar, wondering where his next rabbit punch or fish hook was coming from. The man who was on the canvas more times than he’d care to remember has defied the odds. Where most would have stayed down after just one of the debilitating blows he’s received, Vosloo stood up time and time again. Ladies and gentleman, introducing the ultimate fighter …

By Ryan Vrede

This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine. The June issue is on sale Wednesday, 14 May.