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‘They were about to kill me’ — wrestling sensation Michael Mhlanga says his skills saved him

‘They were about to kill me’ — wrestling sensation Michael Mhlanga says his skills saved him
Team SA wrestlers Bea Meiring (24) and Michael Mhlangu (18) train at the University of Ghana for the 13th African Games hosted in Accra on 6 March 2024. (Photo: Roger Sedres, Team SA)

Rising wrestling star Michael Mhlanga, who survived a mugging in 2023, might not be ready to compete for medals at the 2024 Games in Paris, but his Olympic future still looks bright.

Wrestling saved Michael Mhlanga’s life. That’s no exaggeration, it really did. Last year, in fact, at 6am one day in Boksburg. This is the 18-year-old’s story, so let him tell it like it is. If it sounds dramatic it’s because it is.

It follows on from what Team SA’s coach at the African Games in Accra, Rudi Botha, says. “Wrestling teaches life skills and a holistic approach to life. Michael has been wrestling since a young age, and while wrestlers only tend to peak between the ages of 28 and 32, he’s someone who has a bright future. We are hoping for him to excel at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.”

He has the same smile, confidence and self-belief as the boxer who later became known as Muhammad Ali.

Even then, Mhlanga will still only be 22, which means that should he continue with the sport, he’d only be at his peak at the 2032 Olympics in Brisbane, or beyond.

“Wrestling teaches kids from an early age how to defend themselves. Michael is a prime example,” Botha said.

“He’s a role model for the sport. He was mugged last year, not just by two or three guys, but a lot of them. Two of them went to hospital. The only injury he sustained was a few cuts. Wrestlers will never go looking for trouble, but if trouble comes to them they can sort things out.”

Confident and energetic

Sort things out is exactly what the teenager did. He is a confident, energetic young man with an infectious, bubbly personality. We’re sitting in a room at the University of Ghana, the aircon straining to keep us cool from the 35°C heat outside.

He stands up to tell his tale. All 1.7m, 65kg of him. To put that into context, Springbok scrumhalf Faf de Klerk is the same height but 20kg heavier than Mhlanga.

I don’t know why, but I tell him that he looks like a young Cassius Clay. I doubt he knew who I was talking about. But he has the same smile, confidence and self-belief as the boxer who later became known as Muhammad Ali.

I could feel a knife piercing my skin. Then I could feel a knife here, and here, and here.

“I was on my way to the training club, around 6am,” he says. “Next thing… a couple of guys appeared out of nowhere.” To be sure, that “couple” was actually four. “One guy pulled up with a knife in front of me, one behind me and one on each side of me.

“I said, ‘hey, what’s happening here?’ Next thing another group of four arrived on the scene. They all had knives. They tried to do some stuff on me.

“I could feel a knife piercing my skin. Then I could feel a knife here, and here, and here,” Mhlanga says, and lifts his shirt to show where. Somewhere between the bottom rib and the hip, in the front, the back and on both sides.

“They were about to kill me,” he adds, matter-of-factly.

“They then asked me to take out everything that I had in the small bag that I was carrying. All I had was the wrestling shoes that I train in – and they look really bad.” And he laughs, describing them as old and worn from the countless hours he has spent training in them.

“I didn’t have my phone on me because I was going to training. Who takes a phone to training? I took the shoes out of my bag. ‘Nah, you’re giving us rubbish,’ they said. ‘I don’t have anything else to give you,’ I told them. I’ll give you the clothes I am wearing. That’s all I have.”

Close call

It’s at this point we must be reminded that this was last year, when he was 17.

“One said, ‘Nah, bra’, and next thing I was hit on the head with a bottle. I was like, ‘why are you doing this to me?’ They hit me again. One tried to stab me in my neck, so I pulled a wrestling move. I ducked, bent over and I gave him one.

“He goes down. Another one moves in, and I knock him out. While he’s on his way down the one guy on the side of me tries to swing at me with the knife. I pull out a wrestling move on him and he goes lights out. He hits his head on the street and looks like he’s in some sort of trauma.

If Michael didn’t have the wrestling experience and background, he would have been dead.

“Then, I could feel a knife go through my jacket. I could feel it starting to pierce my skin and it cuts through my jacket. I then manage to move away and while I’m moving away, I hit this one with an elbow and pull a wrestling move on another one.

“The guys seem surprised. Four guys stayed while four were out on the ground. The one guy on the ground looked like he was having a seizure; he was bleeding from the head. Another was lying in the street because I threw him with a suplex and he was out, bleeding too.

“I then went to the guy who seemed to be having a seizure and said, ‘Are you okay? Are you okay?’ And that was another problem I had. I had gone over and I wanted to help the guy.

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“While I was trying to help him, some other guys came forward and they still tried to stab me. I managed to fight them off.”

This is where coach Botha says: “If Michael didn’t have the wrestling experience and background, he would have been dead.”

Mhlanga went on to compete in the men’s 65kg freestyle division in Accra and beat his Algerian opponent in his first match, before losing to Nigeria’s Simon Izolo, who went on to win the silver medal.

However, it’s not always the colour of a medal that defines you as a winner. And Michael Mhlanga has shown that learning skills and discipline, and staying on the straight and narrow, win him a gold medal in something far more important than a sporting competition. And that is life itself. DM

Gary Lemke was in Accra as part of Team SA at the 2024 African Games.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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