South African Hekkie Budler, left, and Japan's Ryoichi Taguchi exchange punches in the eighth round of their IBF-WBA unified light flyweight title match in Tokyo. Photo: Tsuyoshi Ueda/Kyodo News via AP
Seventeen years ago, on the eve of Lennox Lewis’ heavyweight title defence against Hasim Rahman, I got friendly with the challenger, a big, genial man who was given little hope of beating the brutish champion.

Putting aside the likelihood of an explosive win by Lewis, I went with my heart and put money on the friendly 20-1 underdog. He was a good man.

Bam! In the fifth round, Rahman had Lewis on the ropes and caught him with a sickening right hand that put his lights out.

For a week or two, I was rich.

Last week, I put it to top local trainer Colin Nathan that Hekkie Budler, his fighter, had little chance of winning in Japan. Not only was Ryoichi Taguchi a great champion who hadn’t been beaten in five years, but the fight was in his Tokyo backyard where few visiting fighters have received favours down the years. There, you must knock your opponent out to earn a draw.

That’s what my head said, but my heart was with Budler. He was a savage operator on the boxing canvas, but the nicest, most generous bloke outside the ring; a small man, just 49kg, with a huge heart. He had the ability, but the odds were stacked against him.

Unlike in 2001, I never backed my heart. I thought I’d be wasting my cash.

I was wrong.

Budler tore into the Japanese from the start, bust open his nose by the fourth round and pounded on his bloodied opponent for large chunks of the remainder of the fight.

Things got wobbly in the 12th when Budler suffered a flash knockdown, but he had built enough of a lead that all three judges gave him the fight by the narrowest of margins - a single point each.

The triumph earned Budler the IBF and WBA belts, a rare feat notwithstanding the proliferation of organisations, but the real gold came in the form of The Ring belt, awarded by the venerable magazine to the best boxer in the division. The last time a South African held The Ring belt aloft was in 1950 when Vic Toweel claimed the bantamweight world championship.

The link is more than historical for Budler’s win now elevates him into any discussion around South Africa’s greatest boxer.

The prevailing consensus is that the three greatest are Toweel, Brian Mitchell and Vuyani Bungu, each of them titans. Mitchell is the only one who cracked induction in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, but the absence of Bungu and Toweel from the walls in Canastota is a glaring omission. They deserve to be there.

Toweel was SA’s first boxing world champion in an age when there was a single champion. Nowadays, there are several titles in each division with few boxers being universally recognised, making Toweel’s achievement more heroic.

Mitchell’s reign was incredible as it was achieved at the height of apartheid, necessitating much politicking behind the scenes by his promoter to secure the opportunity to fight for the WBA belt.

He famously won it at Sun City in 1986 but SA’s racist policies meant that he could never defend his championship at home.

Twelve times he hit the road to defend his belt, earning him the nickname “The Road Warrior”.

He also won the IBF belt in a war with Tony Lopez and finally concluded his career in 1995 with a single defeat in 49 bouts.

Bungu won the IBF belt in 1994 with a shock upset of Kennedy McKinney, a former Olympic champion. He defended his championship 13 times, but what made his reign special is that it was built on impoverished beginnings. It truly was rags to riches, a story underpinned by Bungu’s relentless drive and determination to better himself.

Others have claims to be considered among SA’s greatest, not least Dingaan Thobela, who remarkably won two world championships at lightweight and then unfathomably jumped four weight divisions to win the WBC super-middleweight belt. Then there’s Sugarboy Malinga and Corrie Sanders, who had nights when they touched the boxing heavens.

It’s difficult to conclusively pin the tag of greatest to any single one of these fighters, but Budler has entered the realm. After what he did in Japan, against supreme odds, he belongs.

I wish I’d backed him.

Sunday Tribune

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