Mike Barnardo, a superstar in Japan, seeks to relaunch career
Mike Barnardo, the 33-year-old former World Boxing Federation (WBF) heavyweight champion, has emigrated to Croatia.
Easy Pickings: Mike Barnardo, right, against Peter McNeeley, whom he knocked out. Picture: Ruvan Boshoff
The boxer and kickboxer, who has started to make a name for himself as a movie star, left South Africa last week to accept an offer of Croatian citizenship.
Nine months ago Barnardo spent six weeks on location in Croatia where the movie Milost Mora was shot.
Barnardo made headlines when he was initially cast opposite film star Brooke Shields. However, the film's director subsequently decided Shields was not suitable for the role.
The cast included recent Emmy award winner Martin Sheen and RenT?e Estevez and the film, retitled Mercy of the Sea, will be shown on the SA circuit in April.
Barnardo leaves this country a disappointed man because he has never been accorded the respect, even honour, that he experienced in Japan in particular.
After winning the WBF heavyweight title in Hungary in April 2000 Barnardo knocked out a washed up Peter McNeeley at the Grand West Casino a year later in a title defence. McNeeley's claim to fame at the time was that he had fought Mike Tyson. In that fight, Tyson disposed of McNeeley in 89 seconds in Las Vegas.
There were many unsuccessful attempts to match Barnardo against some leading heavyweights, among them SA' s Fransie "White Buffalo" Botha.
But it was Barnardo's kickboxing exploits that made him famous in Asia. In 2000 he won the World K1 Grand Prix title in Fukuoka, Japan, and in 1996, 1998 and 2001 he finished in the top three in the same tournament.
That made him one of Japan's more high-profile sportsmen.
His photograph can still be seen on billboards around the country and he appears regularly in television advertisements and as a guest on television shows.
During his movie safari in Croatia, Barnardo worked out at a gymnasium in the capital, Zagreb, where he made a profound impression on the local trainers.
"I made the decision [to emigrate] because I don't have many years left to pursue competitive martial arts," he said.
"Opportunities in South Africa are limited and facilities far from what they should be.
"Both kickboxing and boxing thrive in Croatia. I spent most of my life kickboxing but, in Croatia, I'll pursue boxing more than I have done previously.
"I still believe I can make an impact as a world-class boxer and Croatia will give me that chance. The fact that Croatia has offered me citizenship shows how much they rate my worth.
"In South Africa I have never been given the recognition which I enjoyed abroad. That really hurts but I have to move on.
"I now have a good idea of what I can expect in Croatia in terms of training and facilities and I am determined to work harder at the sport than ever before."
Cape Town martial arts expert JP Naude said Barnardo's frustration was understandable.
"Kickboxing does not have the appeal in South Africa and, as a result, people don't know what Mike has done over the years. Fans in Japan worship him and that's why he is in demand for TV commercials and adverts."
A few months ago Barnardo parted ways with well-known Cape Town martial arts trainer Steve Kalakoda, who was instrumental in introducing him to the fight game and was in Barnardo's corner for all his fights - kickboxing and boxing.
Barnardo's former stablemate, Jan Nortjt?, has started wrestling in Japan. He is currently the African Boxing Union heavyweight champion. Nortjt?, also trained by Kalakoda, has featured in several K1 bouts in Japan.
Barnardo will keep his home in Wynberg, Cape Town.
Formated for CROWN by Marko Puljic