RING champ Hekkie Budler says Brian Mitchell is still greatest South African boxer
With two minutes left in the 12th round, Hekkie Budler rolled under a right from Ryoichi Taguchi and looked to come back up with a left hook counter. Taguchi had it timed, however, and his own left hook met Budler square on the chin and sent him down.
“I didn’t even know if I was knocked down, I thought I slipped,” said Budler. The referee also ruled it “no knockdown” initially but changed the call afterwards upon review. The shift in momentum threatened to undo the work the South African had put in over the previous 11 rounds in Tokyo, Japan, where he used foot movement and angles to control where the skirmishes took place, and endeavored to answer every
two punches from Taguchi with four of his own.
“Obviously the Japanese guy thought he was hurt,” said Budler’s trainer/manager Colin Nathan. “But if you see the last 15 seconds of the last round, Hekkie came roaring back at him.”
When the scorecards were read, Budler was ahead by one point on all three scorecards, awarding him the IBF, WBA and THE RING magazine junior flyweight championships.
It was sweet redemption for Budler, who had fallen short in a close fight to Milan Melindo in his last outing, as well as to Byron Rojas. He had only gotten the Taguchi fight after Nathan successfully appealed to the IBF for an immediate title shot after the referee allowed Melindo’s corner to reapply coagulants to a cut after a doctor’s inspection.
Melindo then lost on points to Taguchi, and as Budler put it, “no one gave me a hell in shot to win the fight.” The reception that awaited him when he arrived back in Johannesburg more than made up for him spending his 30th birthday cutting weight the day before stepping on the scales.
“That was a first for me, there was a band, a few of the boxing bosses were there. It was actually pretty cool, that was the first time I’d ever experienced anything like that,” said Budler (32-3, 10 knockouts). “But it was a nice gesture from them and made me even more proud of what I’ve achieved.”
Often overlooked as one of the sport’s most accomplished fighters of the lowest weights, Budler has been constantly doing interviews and TV appearances, and Nathan says there’s even talk of meeting new South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. Budler’s own celebration for his belated birthday was a modest one, opening up some presents at home with his wife Roxy.
“I’m very pleased with myself for what I’ve done. My wife is ecstatic, she went crazy. But I don’t know, I think I’m still the same person,” said Budler.
The win was the apex of Budler’s career, outshining his 2013 South African summit meeting with Nkosinathi Joyi, when he outboxed his strong-as-a-bull compatriot to win a split-decision, or the one right hand he landed on Karluis Diaz’s chin to win the WBA strawweight title in the first round in 2014.
The Taguchi victory has even sparked conversations on where the two-division champion belongs in South African boxing history. He’s just the fourth fighter from his country to hold THE RING title, after Brian Mitchell (junior lightweight), and Arnold Taylor and Vic Toweel (both at bantamweight). Being a unified champion is a distinction that not even Mitchell, the country’s only boxer inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, had achieved during his career (though many felt he deserved the win over Tony Lopez in their 1991 unification bout).
It also opened debate about where it ranks among the best individual victories by a South African, alongside Mitchell’s victory over Lopez in their rematch, Corrie Sanders’ knockout of Wladimir Klitschko, and Dingaan Thobela’s improbable comeback against Glenn Catley.
Ask Budler, however, and he’ll say the fighter whom he used to stay up and watch as a kid is still the greatest to ever lace up gloves from South Africa.
“What (Brian Mitchell) achieved at the time that he achieved it, it was amazing. To defend your title overseas all the time out of the country was special,” said Budler, who also takes pride in having won his latest championship in his opponent’s hometown, just as Mitchell often had to due to Apartheid-era sanctions in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be the number one guy from South Africa. But just as long as I’m seen as one of those guys that did everything to win the titles and made the country proud, I’m happy.”
Budler already says he’s itching to get back in the gym, but was ordered by Nathan to rest up for at least two-to-three weeks. If he had his druthers, Budler says he’d love to unify the rest of the titles, calling WBC titleholder Ken Shiro of Japan “a great fighter and a true world champ.”
“With all the politics it’s extremely hard to do (unification). I don’t even care, as long as I can fight, I don’t care who I fight or what’s next,” said Budler.
Nathan says there’s an offer to do a rematch with Taguchi, and an IBF mandatory against heavy-handed Nicaraguan Felix Alvarado (33-2, 29 KOs) looms after he demolished Thailand’s Teeraphong Utaida in three rounds last October.
All of that is on the back burner. Budler had been waiting for a long time to get the attention which had eluded him. Now, he’s enjoying the spoils of his biggest victory yet.
“I don’t like to rate myself too much. I leave it up for other people to do,” said Budler. “But for me, it was probably the best performance of my career.”
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and can be reached at [email protected].