South Africa

BOXING

Undefeated for more than a decade, Moruti Mthalane chases greatness in the final stage of his storied career

South African professional boxer Moruti Mthalane trains for his upcoming fight. Photo supplied by Colin Nathan

Moruti Mthalane has been a professional boxer for nearly half his life and is a two-time flyweight world champion. He’s fought everywhere from Soweto to Las Vegas to Panama City. And yet the best moments of his career still may lie ahead as he looks for title unification showdowns in his career’s final chapters.

It’s safe to say that no one really cared when Moruti Mthalane turned pro as a 19-year-old kid in 2000. Even the people who follow amateur boxing closely, who are always looking for future world champions, well, they probably didn’t even know his name.

And you can’t really blame them. Mthalane, by his own estimation, finished his amateur career with a record of about 35 wins and 35 losses. Not exactly the kind of pedigree that would inspire success in his future career prospects.

And yet, nearly two decades later, Mthalane is in his second reign as the International Boxing Federation flyweight world champion. He’s set to make his second defence when he takes on mandatory challenger Masayuki Kuroda of Japan in Kuroda’s home country on Monday 13 May.

So how did Mthalane go from a kid who competed in local amateur boxing tournaments for fun to one of the best fighters in the world?

He started boxing when he was 13, tagging along with his brothers and cousins to train with his uncle in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. He soon joined them at amateur tournaments, not to build towards a future career, but simply because he enjoyed it.

Then his aunt died and his other brothers and cousins all turned professional. Suddenly there was no one to drive him to amateur tournaments, so he decided to join them and turn pro.

Mthalane had never really focused on boxing. He’d sometimes go into amateur fights having not trained at all and didn’t spend much time trying to perfect his craft. When he turned pro, he applied himself to a degree he never had before, realising success in boxing could be a path to monetary security.

I didn’t even know when I started boxing that you fight for money when you turn professional,” Mthalane told Daily Maverick. “I was happy at amateurs, maybe you go to tournaments, then you get some medals, some trophies, some certificates. I was happy with that. So then when I turned professional, I knew that in boxing you fight for money.”

Mthalane’s natural talent is obvious, and his pro career was nothing like his amateur one. He won his first 14 fights — eight coming by way of knockout — and earned a chance to challenge Nkqubela Gwazela for the South African flyweight title.

South African professional boxer Moruti Mthalane. Mthalane smiles after a training session. The International Boxing Federation world titleholder will defend his belt Monday against Masayuki Kuroda. Photo supplied by Colin Nathan

Mthalane — in the first 12-round fight of his career — was on his way to another victory when Gwazela mounted a late charge and stopped him in the late rounds. Mthalane said he didn’t agree with the stoppage, but when Gwazela tested positive for a banned substance and was stripped of the title, Mthalane soon earned another shot at it.

This time the story was different. Mthalane knocked out Akhona Aliva to win the title and then rattled off five more wins. His unexpected rise earned him a shot at IBF world champion Nonito Donaire, one of boxing’s brightest rising stars. It was also Mthalane’s first fight outside South Africa, and it wasn’t just anywhere: The fight took place in Las Vegas, long regarded as the epicentre of the fighting world.

It was a make-or-break moment for Mthalane and his career. Fighters often get only one chance like this, to shine on the sport’s biggest stage and announce themselves to the world. Mthalane was ready and he was happy with his preparations leading up to the fight.

On fight night, Donaire started fast — his nickname, after all, is “Filipino Flash”. After the first couple rounds, though, Mthalane started to find his footing and technique against the Filipino champion, and the action started to pick up.

Then in the sixth, a punch from Donaire opened up a cut under Mthalane’s eyelid. Because of the placement of the cut, the ringside doctor had no choice and instructed the referee to call a stop to the contest. Donaire was awarded the victory via technical knockout. Mthalane was devastated.

My heart was broken when I lost the fight,” Mthalane said. “I think it was a good fight for me, I was starting to get my rhythm in the fight. And I do believe if I didn’t get that cut, I would’ve won.”

Donaire, the current World Boxing Association bantamweight champion, would go on to win world titles in four weight classes and is a future Hall of Famer. After the fight, he walked over to Mthalane, who was in tears in his corner.

You will be a champion,” Donaire told him. “I assure you that.”

Because of the sudden ending to the fight, the IBF eventually ordered Donaire and Mthalane to meet in a rematch. But Donaire was moving up the 115-pound super flyweight division, so Mthalane earned a shot at the vacant title, meeting Julio Cesar Miranda, of Mexico, in Johannesburg. This time, there would be no controversy, and on 20 November 2009, the boxer who’d only won half of his amateur fights won a world title. And, even better, he did it in his home country.

His first title defence carried plenty of intriguing storylines. There was Mthalane, the newly crowned champion, facing off with his countryman, the undefeated prospect Zolani Tete. Many expected Tete — with a far more complete amateur pedigree than Mthalane — to win his first world title fight and stay undefeated.

Tete was destined for great things in boxing — just not on that night in Johannesburg. After a quick start, Mthalane systematically broke down the younger challenger and stopped him in the fifth round. Almost nine years later, Tete is a two-division world champion and currently holds the WBO bantamweight world title.

That is what has made me the person that I am today,” Tete told Daily Maverick in April.

It helped jumpstart Mthalane’s rise, too, and he next knocked out Johnriel Casimero — also a future world champion — en route to a streak of four title defences. Then, unhappy with his pay for a mandatory fight, he decided to vacate the title.

Inactivity plagued his career. He didn’t fight at all in 2013 or in 2016, but picked up a minor world title in the process. His trainer, the late Nick Durandt, decided to retire. Mthalane’s career was stagnating.

Enter trainer and manager Colin Nathan. Mthalane and Nathan had known each other for years, and Mthalane asked the Johannesburg-based trainer to join him. Nathan accepted, and on 15 July 2018, Mthalane again challenged for the now-vacant IBF title.

On the undercard of a Manny Pacquiao card in Malaysia, Mthalane won a decision over Muhammad Wasseem to win back the world title he’d never lost in the ring.

So many people had written me off; they thought it was the end of my career,” Mthalane said. “They didn’t know that I would still be a world champion. That’s the best moment I’ve ever had in my boxing career.”

Now, he’s in Tokyo, preparing to make his second defence of his second reign as IBF titleholder.

Kuroda (30-7-3, 16 KOs) lost his only world title fight in 2013, but has won his last six fights to become the IBF’s No. 1 ranked contender. Nathan told Daily Maverick he’s expecting a tough challenge from the Japanese challenger, who he said finishes strong and stacks up as a big fighter in the 112-pound division.

Mthalane already knows who he’ll call out if he gets past Kuroda — World Boxing Council flyweight champion Charlie Edwards. The Englishman won his piece of the title with an upset unanimous decision over Cristofer Rosales in December and is a rising star in the division. It’s a fight that could excite boxing fans who don’t know much about the flyweight division.

Nathan would also like to see a unification fight next, either against Edwards (15-1, 6 KOs) or WBO titleholder Kosei Tanaka. A fight between Tanaka (13-0, 7 KOs) and Mthalane (37-2, 25 KOs) would pit the top-two-ranked Ring Magazine fighters in the division against each other and would mean the winner would win a Ring Magazine title, something only one South African boxer — the Nathan-trained former IBF strawweight champion Hekkie Budler — has done in the past 60 years.

Now, though, Nathan is still working on telling people just how impressive Mthalane’s career has been to this point. He hasn’t lost a fight in more than a decade, and he’s poised for huge fights in the coming months and years if he gets past Kuroda on Monday.

I think he’s possibly one of the greatest fighters to come out of South Africa and African boxing. What makes him so good is the longevity, the fact that he’s hard-working, he takes his career very seriously and his body very seriously,” Nathan said.

The fact that he’s been able to sustain his career and perform at such a high level at this advanced stage of his career just shows how disciplined and dedicated the guy is.” DM

Mthalane vs Kuroda will headline a card on Monday night in Tokyo, and will air live on Supersport in South Africa.

Gallery