JOHANNESBURG – Despite being given the welcome from hell, Youri Kalenga has settled into South Africa and is confident of beating Kevin Lerena at Emperors Palace on September 9.
The DRC-born Kalenga was met at OR Tambo airport on Friday by a panga-wielding crowd of Congolese, who were divided into two factions. To the shock of his team, a fight broke out and one of the mob was hacked across his chest before police moved in and subdued the bedlam with teargas. A furious Rodney Berman condemned the violence and promised to bolster security throughout Kalenga’s visit.
The muscled cruiserweight hit the road early on Saturday for a training run, admitting that the altitude was a struggle. Having trained at Big Bear for his fight against Denis Lebedev, he knows that the pressure on his chest will ease after a few days.
“It’s exactly why we came in early,” explained Irish manager Gary Hyde. “Two weeks will allow Youri all the time he needs.”
Being based at Emperors Palace suits them, especially as the casino is in close proximity to Harold Volbrecht’s gym, where he will work out. He will have his first sparring session today with the fast and resilient southpaw Tommy Oosthuizen on hand.
"I’ve seen Lerena. No problem, I’m ready. Lerena is easy for me," Kalenga said.
The South African’s southpaw stance holds no fears for the France-based fighter: two of his last four opponents were southpaws – Roberto Bolonti and Denis Lebedev.
Having twice fallen short in championship fights, he is adamant that he’ll be third time lucky as he chases down the IBO crown. At 29, ambition still runs through him and he knows this is a shortcut to a ranking across the various organisations.
“We know Lerena’s style,” said Hyde. “He’s very good technically. But Youri will be too ferocious for him, too explosive. Lerena has never fought anyone of his ilk.”
Hyde, who promoted former two-time Olympic champion Guillermo Rigondeaux in eight bouts, praised Kalenga as the fighter he most enjoyed working with.
“If I called him up and said he was fighting King Kong, he’d say, ‘okay, get me good sparring’. He’s just a pleasure to deal with.”
Although Kalenga lost his two world championship bouts, both rank among the best cruiserweight fights of the past decade.
The most recent, against Yunier Dorticos, was a brutal affair and an instant classic. Kalenga was leading before ultimately being stopped late and on his feet.
Kalenga’s trainer is Romain Jacob held the European super-featherweight title until he lost it recently (24-1) and is the son of former WBC super-bantamweight champion Thierry Jacob.
He’s had Kalenga working with a variety of sparring partners - among them Bob Ajisafe, the Commonwealth and British light-heavyweight champion who, importantly, is left-handed.
There’s a lot riding on this fight with Kalenga promised a return visit in February – if he wins.
“No-one wants to fight Youri unless he has to, so to get this opportunity is special,” said Hyde.
Both Kalenga and Lerena will engage in public workouts at Emperors Palace on Tuesday evening.