Hekkie Budler: A ‘very good’ champion who dares to be great
In no division is the term “fighting for respect” more appropriate than at strawweight. Hekkie Budler, the top-rated boxer in the sport’s lightest division, is not only fighting for it. He’s earning it.
The 27-year-old South African has ruled over the 105-pound division in his corner of the world for the past several years, earning the WBA title and a No. 1 ranking in THE RING along the way. He’ll put his belt and place in the division on the line this Saturday when he faces Nicaraguan Byron Rojas at Emperors Palace Casino in Kempton Park, Gauteng, South Africa.
Budler (29-1, 9 knockouts) will be making the fifth defense of the WBA title he won in 2014 while Rojas (16-2-3, 8 KOs) will be fighting outside of his country for the first time as a professional. Despite his edge in experience, Budler calls Rojas “a very strong, capable fighter.”
Colin Nathan, who has trained Budler since the year before he turned pro in 2007, simplifies the fight this way: “I think this guy is good. I think Hekkie is very good.”
Nathan thinks his fighter has the potential to be more than very good. He just needs the right fights to prove it. “I want people to remember him as a South African fighter who was great. Right now, he’s very good and we’re nearly there,” says Nathan.
The rest of the division’s top fighters are on the other side of the world, with THE RING’s No. 2-rated Wanheng Menayothin – holder of the WBC title – in Thailand, which is also where No. 3-rated fighter, and Budler’s mandatory, Knockout CP Freshmart is based. WBO titleholder Kosei Tanaka of Japan is just below them at No. 4 while newly-crowned IBF titleholder Jose Argumedo checks in at No. 5.
Title unifications would bring clarity and prestige to the division, though that’s easier to dream for than to accomplish at 105 pounds.
“It’s very hard to get the other bodies together to make unification, especially in this division,” says Nathan.
“What does he have to do? Obviously he has to fight a guy like Menayothin or just keep racking up the defenses until people say, ‘You know what? This guy’s done everything and more in this division.’ That’s when I think people will classify him as a great fighter.”
‘I hated losing’
Winning and being the best have been obsessions for Budler since he was a young child. He started out playing football and rugby as a boy but would get frustrated and blame teammates when the team would lose.
“I hated losing,” Budler remembers.
Advised to try an individual sport in which he couldn’t blame losing on someone else, he took up boxing at age 7. For the first two years, he practiced footwork and punching form before he was allowed to hit a bag or spar.
Budler excelled as an amateur and says only “politics” kept him from representing South Africa at the 2008 Olympics. Instead Budler turned pro and, aside from a 2011 split decision defeat to Gideon Buthelezi at 108 pounds, he hasn’t lost.
Big fights await
Budler has been training for 10 weeks at Nathan’s Hot Box Gym in Glenhazel, South Africa to prepare for the bout at hand this weekend. Should he emerge victorious, there is no shortage of attractive opponents with whom to make fights.
Budler acknowledged that a fight against Menayothin (41-0, 16 KOs) would be the kind of summit meeting that scarcely takes place at 105 pounds. It’d also enable him to achieve one of his career goals, which is to fight for THE RING championship.
“The one big fight I want is Wanheng Menayothin,” says Budler.
“I think he’s actually a brilliant fighter. I think the two of us in the ring together would make a brilliant type of fight because I’d say he’s very technical and he boxes well and I’m more of a come-forward guy who stands and trades.”
Before that business is settled, Budler will have to settle business with his mandatory challenger.
Budler’s promoter, Rodney Berman of Golden Gloves Promotions, says he has already begun negotiations with Freshmart’s handlers for a June 11 fight date.
Berman is hoping to avoid a purse bid and instead host the fight in South Africa.
“If I am able to secure the fight in South Africa, I would ensure neutral judges and a neutral referee,” says Berman.
For Budler, each fight is a step toward building a reputation in the sport that he hopes will last on after he’s finished with the sport. He hopes to add his name alongside his childhood heroes, Brian Mitchell and Baby Jake Matlala, as a fighter who brought pride to South Africa.
Just as Matlala had his defining win over Michael Carbajal and Mitchell racked up title defenses around the world, Budler is eager to face the rivals whom will define his legacy.
“Hopefully one day, when I retire, they can say, ‘Hekkie Budler was a very good boxer and a very good blessing to South Africa.'”
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to THE RING magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @RyanSongalia.