Boxing / 21 December 2019, 10:30am / matshelane mamabolo
Like many before him, Japanese boxing legend Akira Yaegeshi is about to step into the ring with an immovable object. Revered as he is, the three weight divisions former champion is going to find that even the best of his punches might not be enough to put his opponent out.
He would have seen this from watching the tape of his compatriot Masayuki Kuroda trying in vain back in May to depose Moruti Mthalane as the IBF flyweight champion of the world.
To say Kuroda got his face panel-beaten would be putting it mildly as Mthalane outpointed him and left the ring true to his nickname Babyface.
Not that the 37-year-old South African is as good at evading punches and avoiding a beating like the incomparable Flloyd Mayweather Junior was. Far from it.
But Mthalane can take a punch alright!
Sure, his defence is great and he has a fantastic ring craft that has seen many an opponent’s punches punish thin air. But he also has an incredible ability to absorb punishment and then dish it out to great effect.
It is just before noon on Wednesday morning and the Hot Box Gym on Grenville Avenue in Savoy Estate, Johannesburg is uncharacteristically quiet.
Mthalane has just completed an intensive workout as he finalises his preparations for the fight against Yaegeshi taking place on Monday in Yokohama, Japan.
Well, at least I thought he had completed the session that saw him go three rounds with the punching bag, four with trainer Colin Nathan allowing him to be the aggressor and four more with assistant Vusi Mtolo who roughed him up a bit and got him to fight on the back foot.
He then punched the hardball for another round while the strength exercises that followed afterwards also lasted the three minutes’ duration of a boxing round and included short sprints for the legs as well as sit-ups, crunches and push-ups.
Mtolo though was not done with Mthalane and brought a hard ball the size of a baseball which he used to hit the boxer, who was half-lying on his back, on the body.
It looked painful, Mthalane wincing with every hit and even blocking the blows. At one stage he begged Mtolo to stop but the assistant would have none of it.
“You’ve got to be able to take it baba,” Mtolo told him as if to say that is what you are going to be hit with on fight night.
Mthalane took it alright and as we sat down for the interview afterwards he exuded the air of a man ready for whatever his adversary will throw at him.
“I am going to beat him,” Mthalane says matter-of-factly. “Sure he is a great boxer and I respect him. But I am in great shape. Our preparations have gone very well. Nothing has disturbed my training this time around.”
For his last fight, Mthalane had to cope with the loss of his five-month-old daughter who died in March following a short illness.
That he overcame that to make a successful second defence of his title speaks to the mental strength of the man from Pietermaritzburg for whom adversity was like a friend growing up.
Nathan describes it as discipline: “Moruti’s discipline is second to none. He is consistently training and hardly ever gains weight. I think he is one of a few boxers who really understands that this is his job. He respects everything about it.”
That respect is in evidence throughout the session as he follows both Nathan’s and Mtolo’s instruction and hardly slackens up - exhausting as the workout appears to be.
He later explains: “I cannot live like a normal man. As a sportsman, I have to behave completely different from the other guys. Focus is key. I have to live a straight life if I am to be successful as a sportsman.”
It was this attitude that helped him deal with the loss of his daughter and still be able to focus on his training to then beat Kuroda.
“She had been ill and she passed away. It was really a tough time and we decided to keep it a secret because I was busy with training.
“There was nothing I could do about it. I believe that if you cannot change something, you must just live with it. It was hard for me to lose my daughter. But I had support from everyone around me, especially from my mother. She helped my wife and I stay strong.”
This relationship with his mom was key to Mthalane’s upbringing as his father died when he was only six.
“I never really knew my father because I was very young when he died. But my mother was everything for me because she had to fend for us alone. It was hard growing up with little so much that after high school there was no chance of going to study further.”
Boxing, which he had started in his early teens by following his cousins to the gym, provided the much-needed refuge and the late realisation he could make a living out of it saw him take the sport more seriously.
“I loved to box but I only knew about the pay when I turned pro. Earlier on I just enjoyed the thrill if winning.”
Now the only South African world champion in possession of a belt by a highly respected sanctioning body following Zolani Tete’s recent dethroning, does Mthalane feel pressure going into Monday’s fight to keep the country’s name up in lights?
Of course, there is always pressure. But for me it is not brought about by outside factors. I love being a world champion. I worked hard to become champion and the pressure I feel is from within, to ensure that I don’t return to being just an ordinary boxer but to stay as a world champion. I have to pay the bills, hey.”
The smart man that he is, Mthalane also works as a personal trainer in a gym to supplement his boxing income.
He goes into the ring on Monday confident he has done everything necessary to defend his title.
In the sparring sessions with Nathan and Mtolo, the last 10 seconds of each round were wound down with Mthalane delivering a flurry of punches.
“The nature of boxing is such that the judges put down their score after the bell. And we know that a lot of them are often swayed by what they witness late on, instead of what transpires throughout the two minutes and 50 seconds. So we want to make sure that Moruti steals the rounds if he has to, although our main plan is to obviously win every round from the onset,” Mtolo explained.
It was those hard blows with the hard ball though that left me believing that Yaegeshi will come unstuck and that the ring announcer will boom ‘And still the IBF flyweight champion of the world Moruti Mthalane’ come the end of the fight on Monday.