AFTER all this time the imitation gold still gleams in the searing African sun. Twenty-five years have passed since a modest prize was first placed into teenage hands. Grander accolades have certainly followed, yet the crown that takes pride of place on the mantlepiece of Moruti Mthalane’s home in KwaZulu-Natal remains his first.
“It’s my history,” the two-time flyweight sanctioning body world titlist tells Boxing News.
“When I’m at home I take a cloth and I shine it, because that was the first thing I ever got from boxing. I was 13 years old. I was doing boxing just for fun until one day my uncle took all of the boys he was training to an amateur tournament. This is where I fell in love with boxing because afterwards we got some trophies. I was so excited, it was the first time such a thing happened to me. I couldn’t wait to go back to the gym and get another fight in the amateurs. I was over the moon.”
Mthalane’s fixation with revisiting this sense of pride is at the heart of a storied career, and on Friday (April 30) he brings his most treasured of titles, his IBF flyweight championship, to London when he takes on Britain’s Sunny Edwards. His reputation as one of the sport’s most genial fighters belies an ice cool competitiveness and a drive to stamp his legacy into the history books.
“I’m excited, it’s going to be a big fight for me and a big fight for him. It’s a big step up for him challenging for a world title for the first time. He’s a very good boxer. I’ve watched his fights and a lot of his tapes. He’s very good but I’m training hard to defeat him. The way he fights he deserves to get a shot at the world title. We know him as a boxer, he boxes and moves very well but we’ve got a plan to defeat him. I respect him very well, he’s my friend. We spent two weeks [together] in the Ukraine in 2018 sparring with Artem Dalakian. He’s such a nice young man. But now he comes to challenge me I have no choice but to defeat him to keep my title.”
Like many in the fight game challenges became second nature from an early age. Growing up as a black boy under the bigoted boot heel of South Africa’s apartheid is a trial few of us can imagine, and when personal tragedy then struck Mthalane and his seven siblings were even more reliant upon the herculean efforts of their mother to steer them in the right direction.
“Unfortunately I lost my father when I was seven years old. I was too young, I can’t even remember properly what he looks like. So my mum was responsible for everything. I have four brothers and three sisters, a big family. Things were not good at all but I was able to survive. My mother did everything to protect us. I thank god that I chose boxing because it took us away from the roads. Some other boys were growing up, they used to stay by the roads. They started smoking, drinking, all this stuff. They did some robberies and then they end up in jail. Luckily I was so busy with boxing, I knew that that was what I was doing after school. I knew I had to pack my bag and go to the gym. It saved me, and still now it stays with me,” he said
Mthalane’s unwavering commitment to the noble art remains to this day, and it’s one of the reasons he believes he’s still dominating at an elite level at thirty eight, a rare age for world champions in the lower weights.
“It’s my hard work. My hard work has kept me undefeated for so long. Anything can happen in boxing. That’s why I’m always well prepared, because you never know what you might have to face from your opponent. I never take anyone for granted, like this one. I’m taking it very serious,” he said. “I know that Sunny Edwards is a good boxer, up-and-coming and he wants to be a world champion. Now this is his chance. But I’m the world champion, I won’t allow him to take my title away from me.”
Indeed, nearly thirteen years now have passed since the South African last tasted defeat, when a doctor at ringside ended Mthalane’s attempts to dethrone the great Nonito Donaire in Las Vegas. Even now it remains a bitter pill for the champion to swallow, his genteel intonation barbed with annoyance as he recalls the fight swaying in his direction before being waved off.
“I was very close to winning it. If I didn’t have that cut I do believe that I was going to stop him in the later rounds. But the doctor decided to stop the fight. My heart was so broken, it was my first shot at the world title.”
Despite this disappointment Mthalane was not to be deterred, and in his second attempt at a world title he outpointed the talented Julio Cesar Miranda to capture the IBF strap for the first time. Two outstanding victories soon followed, with back-to-back wins over Zolani Tete and John Riel Casimero. A thrilling tear up with Ricardo Nunez out in Panama set pulses racing, and it was beginning to look like the smaller weight classes had a real star on their hands.
“That was the toughest fight of my career,” recalls Mthalane.
Then in 2014 the ugly side of the boxing business reared its head. A mandatory defence against Amnat Ruenroeng led to a winning purse bid so measly that the fight became entirely unworkable. Mthalane accepted the advice of his team and vacated his title, leaving him in a prize fighting wilderness that’s historically reserved for the avoided and commercially less appealing men of the sport. With his career in limbo, and news that his trainer, Nick Durandt, was leaving boxing for good, Mthalane turned to Colin Nathan to help rejuvenate his trajectory back to the top.
“We understand each other very well. Remember, when I joined him everyone was writing me off. They were saying that my career was over because of inactivity. When I was still with Durant and he decided to retire that’s when I joined Coin Nathan. But many people were telling him, ‘No, you’re wasting your time, this guy is finished now.’ But he changed things around,” he said. “It’s not like I was finished, I was just short of fights and I was inactive for a very long time. So he trained me, got me some fights. That’s where I am today. He did a great job with his connections to get me quality fights and to keep me very busy. Because you know boxers become much better when they don’t fight now and then. When I joined him he promised me he was going to make me a world champion.”
And that he did. Four years after relinquishing his belt Mthalane was the IBF champion once again, this time edging past Muhammad Waseem over twelve hard fought rounds. In recounting these accomplishments the South African beams with pride, a youthful joy indistinguishable from that with which he remembers those old trophies from his school days.
“I do feel I’m very underrated in boxing, because I’ve achieved a lot. Few boxers achieve what I’ve achieved. But it’s OK, I’ll continue doing what I’m doing best. For me it’s a good achievement if even if others don’t recognise it. But in myself, I’m happy,” says Mthalane.
“When you see me training you will think, ‘I’ll beat this guy easily!’ My style looks simple when you watch me but it makes me win all my fights. People can think it looks easy but once they’re in the ring with me it’s a different story.”
With the Sunny Edwards fight now just around the corner Mthalane remains relaxed as he put the finishing touches to his preparation before flying into the UK. His twenty years in professional boxing have seen him become one of the sport’s road warriors, with fights in America, Japan, Macao, Kuala Lumpur, Panama, and Italy all racking up invaluable experience.
“I’ve boxed in so many countries. As long as I’m in the ring with my opponent, whether it’s Africa or Asia or Europe or America, I’m comfortable. I don’t mind where I fight, as long as I’m treated properly before my fight.” Intrigue throughout the build-up to this contest has continued to grow, with Edwards’ elusive technical skills and Mthalane’s breathless pressure seemingly guaranteed to gel. So, what can we expect from the affable African who many believe is one of boxing’s hidden gems? True to his ‘Babyface’ moniker, Mthalane flashes a boyish smile before exclaiming, “Fire! Fire! I will bring fire!”