Meet the boxing DJ who would be world champ
He's hit the big-time- and now living in the US, but this Joburg-grown boxing star still remembers where he came from, including getting mugged at school, seeing ghosts as a small child and close encounters with the law
Interviewing Dee-Jay Kriel at his parents' home turned out to be a family affair.
The conversation drifted freestyle from topic to topic amid interjections from whoever was in the lounge, as wife Denica, mom Teresa and dad Ernie walked around the Kempton Park house they'd recently moved into.
At one point Kriel, the new International Boxing Federation world strawweight champion, lost his train of thought.
"What was I saying?" he asked.
"That's what happens when you get punched so many times," Ernie quipped.
Twenty-three-year-old Dee-Jay became SA's fourth-youngest world champion last month when he orchestrated a stunning come-from-behind knockout victory over Carlos Licona in the 12th and final round in Los Angeles.
It's the type of victory you'd regularly expect from Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa character, but in reality only one other of SA's more than 70 world champions has won a world title with such drama.
Dingaan Thobela pulled his rabbit out the hat when he claimed his third world title, the World Boxing Council super-middleweight crown, in 2000. When he took his first belt in 1990, he was 23, two days before his 24th birthday.
Kriel, four months younger, insists he's going to win more titles, like Thobela did, not just at strawweight, boxing's lightest division, but in the next three weight categories as well.
The kid has dreamt about boxing since he was at school - he dropped out to pursue his passion. Well, actually, he left to study for an N1 certificate, but he recalled with a laugh that he'd dropped out of that too.
"I wanted him to finish school," said Ernie, a tow-truck driver who started in the business at 14 as a co-pilot. "I got my matric in a tow truck."
For Kriel, boxing was his calling and he's always been prepared to do everything necessary to reach the top.
School was another story, however. He was expelled from his first high school for not working. "They asked me to leave," he recalled with a laugh.
An easy-going character, Kriel laughed frequently as he recounted the stories of his youth.
At the next institution, Primrose High, the good memories more than made up for the lack of marks. There were unusual memories too.
"We got robbed at school by two guys at gunpoint who came into the grounds through the holes that we'd cut in the fence," Kriel said.
He and his friends had sliced through the wire fence so they could bunk classes. Sometimes it was to go to boxing training; on other occasions it was to escape to a nearby shebeen, where Kriel would play pool. He doesn't drink.
The day they were robbed, Kriel was sitting with friends in the shade of a tree on the edge of the school fields when two men dressed in civvies approached.
"I was chilling with friends. Two of them were smoking weed."
On school property?
Yes, he replied, dismissing my surprise with a you-ain't-heard-nothing-yet tale.
One acquaintance actually lit a joint in class while the maths teacher had popped out, spraying deodorant to disguise the smell. "I will never forget that because that was balls," said Kriel.
"And the police used to raid our school."
Kriel recognised one of the two guys who approached them. "His name was Kobus, he had braces. I was 'Howzit, Kobus, how you doing?' and he was shaking."
His friend then asked if they had nyaope, and when they said no, he asked for dagga. They told him they didn't have any.
Then Kobus's accomplice pulled out a gun - Kriel recognised it as a .32 special - and took their phones. The thieves were later arrested and were handed a two-year suspended sentence.
"I was in court sitting behind them," Kriel said, adding that he hadn't been shy to offer them the occasional choice comment.
Growing up, Kriel had plenty of opportunities to drink and smoke dope, but he avoided the vices that lured some of his friends over the years.
He tried each of them once and decided he didn't like them. "Those things were never for me."
Even his mates won't try to pressure him into a sip or a puff. "They don't want me to drink. I think if I had to order a drink or something they'd kick my butt."
Boxers must live clean.
Kriel first started boxing as a "chubby" eight-year-old, being trained by an uncle, but he fell in love with it around the age of 12.
He had three amateur fights and lost them all. "I didn't have more fights because, at the time, my parents didn't have a car to take me to competitions," he said.
"My mom and dad struggled at times, but they made sure we had great lives," said Kriel, the eldest of three siblings - the others being Tristan, 20, and nine-year-old Nicole.
"I once heard, when I was younger, my mom saying she was worried about what we were going to eat, but I'll never say I had a tough life. I'm grateful for my family."
Teresa was the one who came up with Dee-Jay's name.
She and a friend had decided to go through her collection of CDs looking for an unusual name, and realised many of them were DJ compilations. Her father had also been a DJ.
"I was going to call him DJ," she said, but decided in the end that he should be able to write his name out.
Kriel, driving a sponsored Mercedes-Benz, took me along as he visited his old haunts in Malvern, where he'd spent most of his childhood. Each time he got out of the car, Denica had to remind him to lock it.
In one former family house, he recalled getting his first Sony PlayStation. Another held memories of boyhood mischief.
There was a nearby park where he and a friend had ridden a motorbike borrowed from a cousin - motorbikes were forbidden on the grassy plot.
The police arrived and gave chase, but the boys hot-tailed it out of there, safely getting home without being caught.
On Sunday evenings, they'd walk down to the Pure & Cool roadhouse - the site of the original Doll House and now the oldest roadhouse in the country - to watch illegal drag racing on Stanhope Road.
It was a popular pastime for many spectators, who'd park the neighbouring residents in. "The cops would get here and it was just like the movies - everyone scattered and took off," Kriel recalled.
He went back there to show the staff his belt; they all remembered him.
"He's so good with people," commented Denica. "That's his best quality."
Kriel was too young to remember one home of his childhood, but his parents can't forget.
"Every night Dee-Jay would wake us up at 1am and tell us 'a little girl is waking me up and she wants to play'," said Ernie. "This went on for three or four months."
Tristan, an infant at the time, developed a weird mark, the shape of the ohm electrical symbol, under his skin.
Ernie said they eventually approached their church, and subsequently found out that the place had previously been occupied by a man who had killed his wife and daughter.
"Ag, I don't believe you," said Kriel.
"It's true," Teresa added from the adjacent kitchen.
Kriel's visitations stopped and Tristan's mark faded after the house had been blessed, Ernie said.
Kriel and Denica got married in December, but they've spent much time apart, with him being based in Las Vegas.
The boxer moved there to further his career in August last year, but so far his wife has been unable to secure a visa to join him. She quit her job as an assistant book-keeper without realising the hassles that lay ahead.
Kriel came home in December for the wedding, but still went to his old Hot Box Gym to spar with former stablemates Hekkie Budler and Moruti Mthalane, who were both preparing for world-title defences.
There was no honeymoon after the marriage, with Kriel returning to the US soon afterwards to prepare for his challenge. Denica says they'll have one when she finally gets to the US. "We'll go to Disneyland."
Kriel will fly back alone this week.
"It was hard, me being there in Vegas," Kriel admitted. "The first month was amazing. The second and third months were tough. People say I was depressed - I don't know about depression, what it is."
He frequently called home. "We speak to him more when he's there than when he's here," said Ernie, joking again.
The Kriels will soon be chatting a lot then.
SA'S YOUNGEST WORLD CHAMPIONS
• Zolani Petelo: 22 years, three months and six days; IBF strawweight title
• Vic Toweel: 22 years, four months and 19 days; undisputed world bantamweight title
• Mbulelo Botile: 22 years, nine months and six days; IBF bantamweight title
• Dee-Jay Kriel: 23 years, seven months and 27 days; IBF strawweight title
• Dingaan Thobela: 23 years, 11 months and 29 days, WBO lightweight title
• If one were to include peripheral world titles, then Zolani Tete would be the youngest after winning the WBF flyweight title at 19 years, six months and 15 days
• SA's oldest world champion is Sugarboy Malinga, who won the WBC super-middleweight title for a second time eight days after turning 42, and the marginal WBF super-middleweight title nearly six months later