Wednesday, April 24, 2024  |


Hekkie Budler helps South Africa make an even greater mark in the boxing world

(From left to right) Writer Droeks Malan, The Ring Magazine/IBF/WBA junior flyweight champion Hekkie and Budler Colin Nathan
Fighters Network

Hot Box Gym is situated on top of a small shopping center, in the middle-class suburb of Glenhazel, in Johannesburg, South Africa. There is no grimy artwork over the entrance or train tracks running overhead, with dodgy characters hanging out in the corner. In short, it doesn’t resemble something out of a “Rocky” movie. Yet this is the gym that produced the current The Ring Magazine junior flyweight champion Hekkie “The Hexecutioner” Budler, one of only four South Africans to achieve that honor (the others were bantamweights Vic Toweel, Arnold Taylor and junior lightweight Brian Mitchell), and only the second to be awarded the actual championship belt. Budler did that by journeying to Japan to outpoint the reigning champion Ryoichi Taguchi by a one-point margin on all three cards, a win that also added the IBF and WBA belts to his trophy case, making him the only South African to simultaneously hold two major sanctioning body belts.

Climbing up the stairs, making my way to the gym entrance, this writer noticed a couple of cracked tiles, which sets the hardcore boxing nut in me at ease. The creaky, steel-framed door with window panes takes a moment or two to find, and once I entered, I could feel the energy. It is a small but busy gym. There are two rings, with a variety of punching bags hanging between them. The walls are of full of framed photographs of local fighters, as well as past and present greats from around the world. The champ himself is hanging out beside one of the rings, with whomever comes and goes. He cuts an unassuming figure, with none of the razzmatazz, and big entourages associated with the sport’s major stars. Just like in the United States, even here, the gladiators of boxing’s smaller divisions rarely get the attention their efforts deserve. Budler greets me warmly, and we move to trainer Colin Nathan’s office, where we try to find a space around a small desk amid a host of boxing memorabilia.

His journey started when he followed in his father’s footsteps, and took up amateur boxing. Budler doesn’t recall much about the elder Budler’s career, only that he was very good. “He did most of his fighting in the park, not the ring,” he remarks with a chuckle. Budler Junior, however, ended up with a 140-10 amateur record, which included three national championships, as well as splitting two bouts with South Africa’s only other current world champion WBO bantamweight boss Zolani Tete.

He turned pro in 2007 at junior flyweight, with a first round stoppage of Michael Sediane. In his 15th bout, Budler was given a baptism by fire against the seasoned 70-fight veteran Filipino Juanito Rubillar. He prevailed by a narrow margin (MD 12) to pick up the vacant fringe IBO 108-pound belt (a title not recognized by The Ring as a major sanctioning body title), and, to this day, he still rates Rubillar as his toughest opponent. Budler found the rematch easier (SD 12), as he was prepared for his opponent’s roughhouse tactics.

He suffered his first loss in 2011, when he dropped a split decision to countryman Gideon Buthelezi, which prompted a move down to strawweight. “I never had to pull a lot of weight, so I went down to strawweight, thinking that perhaps I’ll be stronger at the lower weight, and it worked for a while,” he explains. Budler reeled off five consecutive victories, including a win over former IBF champion Florante Condes.

Hekkie Budler (left) proved his boxing acumen and made detractors accept him, when he beat Mdantsane’s favorite son Nkosinathi Joyi, at Emperors Palace, in 2013. Photo credit: Gallo Images

Hekkie Budler (left) proved his boxing acumen and made detractors accept him, when he beat Mdantsane’s favorite son Nkosinathi Joyi, at Emperors Palace, in 2013. Photo credit: Gallo Images

That streak led to another IBO belt, and a highly anticipated showdown with local rival Nkosinathi Joyi, who was not far removed from being the former IBF champion and The Ring’s No. 1-ranked strawweight. Many, myself included, thought this would be where Budler hit his ceiling. “Most people didn’t think that I would go further than the IBO level. Even Joyi said he would stop me in three rounds,” Budler says matter-of-factly. However Nathan devised the right game plan. “What few knew was that (Joyi) was a converted southpaw, so we trained to move to his left, the power side of a southpaw. People thought we were crazy but his right was actually his power hand,” he explains. Instead of being “exposed,” Budler had his coming-out party and won a hard-fought split decision.

He went on to win the vacant WBA title by stopping Karluis Diaz in the first round and defended it against some tough customers like former WBC champion Chaozong Xiong, Jesus Silvestre and current contender Simphiwe Khonco. In the Xiong fight, a left hook put Budler on the canvas, in the second round. He got up and sent his opponent down with the same punch in the following round. From then on, he was in control. “It was more of a shock to my wife than me,” he laughs. It was a few days before their wedding, and there she was with his future father-in-law watching him on TV getting knocked down.

Then Budler’s fortunes took a downturn. In 2016 he lost his title and a close, unanimous decision to unheralded Byron Rojas. “I just wasn’t there,” he shrugs. “Still, I have a lot of respect for him. He is a good fighter, very strong.”

Although he insists the weight wasn’t a problem (Budler walks around at 114 pounds), they decided to return to the junior flyweight division. Two wins led to a shot at the IBF beltholder Milan Melindo but they had to travel to the Philippines. Budler dropped a split decision but there were a lot of irregularities. Melindo incurred several bad gashes and, incredibly, his corner was allowed to work on them, while the doctor checked him out during breaks in the action. “I still think I won the fight. The one (cut) was a headbutt but the other one was (caused by) a left hook.” Nathan launched a protest and the IBF granted a rematch.

Former IBF junior flyweight titlist Milan Melindo (left) vs. Hekkie Budler. Photo credit: Stevie Lim

Former IBF junior flyweight titlist Milan Melindo (left) vs. Hekkie Budler. Photo credit: Stevie Lim

In another twist, Melindo got an extension to unify with WBA titleholder Ryoichi Taguchi, with the winner compelled to fight Budler, a move that would prove fortuitous in the end. Taguchi grinded out a win against Melindo to become The Ring champion, and the Budler fight was set, this time with three belts on the line.

Once again the South African wasn’t given much of a chance of upsetting the champion in his native Tokyo but, by now, this was familiar territory for Budler. It was just a question of going to the drawing board, and coming up with the right strategy. “Our plan was to be in his face for 12 rounds, to match him blow for blow because he starts slow but ends full-on.” True to his word, Budler outboxed, and outworked the champion, banking enough rounds to hang on to his lead, during Taguchi’s usual late-rounds surge.

Hekkie Budler (right) nails Ryoichi Taguchi during their hotly contested bout for The Ring Magazine, IBF and WBA junior flyweight championships. Photo by Naoki Fukuda

Hekkie Budler (right) nails Ryoichi Taguchi during their hotly contested bout for The Ring Magazine, IBF and WBA junior flyweight championships. Photo by Naoki Fukuda

In the last round, he sustained a flash knockdown, courtesy of a Taguchi left hook, but referee Sam Williams erroneously called it a slip. If Budler thought he was catching a lucky break, he was mistaken. The Japanese protested Williams’ decision and the knockdown was counted, changing the score to a 10-8 Taguchi round. “I thought it was the Philippines all over again,” sighs Budler.

He need not have feared, as he won a unanimous decision by identical 114-113 scorecards. It was an epic victory by a South African fighter, which will be remembered alongside Brian Mitchell’s win over Tony Lopez, Sugar Boy Malinga’s diffusing of Nigel Benn, Corrie Sanders’ demolition of Wladimir Klitschko or Vuyani Bungu’s massive upset of Kennedy McKinney.

On the question of what the future holds, Budler gives the typical fighter’s response: “I’ll fight anyone, anywhere in the world. I leave that to Colin.” When pushed, he does mention that a WBC or WBO belt would be a nice addition to his collection. He also wouldn’t mind a return to Japan to face WBC titlist Ken Shiro. “I am The Ring champion; (Shiro) is number one on some other people’s list. It makes sense,” he offers. A rematch with Taguchi is also a possibility, given the exciting nature, and competitiveness of the first fight. He has no problem with it. “Sure, I’ll give him a rematch. He was great champion; he deserves it.”

During an earlier phone conversation, Nathan recounted a talk they had after the fight: “We couldn’t sleep, too much adrenaline, so we decided to go down to the lobby and have some late-night desert. We got into the lift, and, as we were going down, I looked at him and said, ‘Hex?’ He said, ‘Yes, Colin?’ I asked him, ‘Can you believe we did it?’ He started laughing, shook his head and said, ‘No, still can’t believe it.'”

Here’s hoping there will be some well-deserved financial pudding waiting in the near future for this humble champion, who made his country so proud.




You can follow Droeks Malan on Twitter @droeksonboxing.




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