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South African boxing battles COVID-19

South African cruiserweight contender (No. 5 in The Ring ratings) Kevin Lerena.
24
May

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the South African economy hard. A draconian three-week lockdown kicked in on March 27 and was extended to five weeks, with the economy now being incrementally opened in four stages. “Level Four” is well into its second week, with only a select few industries, deemed essential, allowed to operate.

The irony is that any income generating activity is, in fact, “essential” to those people who depend on it for a livelihood. Boxing, like other professional sports, has been hit hard with public events cancelled until the entire economy is opened.

Fighters are trying their best to stay fit by training at home but with social distancing and without being able get to the gym for the necessary sparring, they are not fight ready.

Leren’s trainer says the cruiserweight would need at least two months to be ready to fight again once boxing returns in South Africa. Photo courtesy of Golden Gloves Promotions

Peter Smith, trainer of cruiserweight contender, Kevin Lerena, gives his take: “If it is someone on a four- or six-round level, I can get them ready in four- to six-weeks but for a top level fighter like Kevin, we need at least eight weeks.” Hence, once the entire lockdown is lifted, there will likely be another two months before any top-level tournaments can take place.

Fighters at different stages of their careers also have different needs and require different activity levels. Up-and-comers starting out would ideally like to fight four times a year, which was already a challenge before the Coronavirus threw a spanner in the works. Championship-level fighters, on the other hand, fight around two to three times a year. Then there are also fighters who are getting on in their careers, looking for some last big pay days to feather their nest.

“It is bad for everyone,” says Damien Durandt, trainer of WBC cruiserweight titleholder, Ilunga “Junior” Makabu. Durandt sees age as the biggest danger. “Prospects who are, say, 23 years old, they can sit out for a year. Someone who is at the top but older and towards the end of their career who are counting to land that big pay day, they are hit the worst.”

He makes a good point. A glance across the South African boxing landscape reveals a handful of fighters in the same predicament. IBF flyweight beltholder Moruti Mthalane, South Africa’s most accomplished active fighter, is riding high, but he is also 37 years old. The pandemic could not have come at a worse time for him.

(From left to right) The Ring Magazine/IBF/WBA junior flyweight champion Hekkie Budler, RingTV.com's Droeks Malan and trainer/manager Colin Nathan

Former Ring/IBF/WBA 108-pound champion Hekkie Budler (with Droeks Malan and trainer/manager Colin Nathan) had a comeback fight nixed by South Africa’s lockdown. Nathan thinks boxing can take a page from the UFC in staging events during the pandemic.

Former Ring Magazine junior flyweight world champion Hekkie Budler, is looking for one last run at a world title. He has been inactive for over a year and was scheduled to make his return when the lockdown caused his fight to be cancelled at the last minute. Former IBF strawweight titleholder Nkosinathi Joyi, who has been enjoying an Indian summer, scoring an impressive victory over Joey Canoy in his last fight, is 36 and stuck in limbo as well.

Tournaments with minimal crowds, along with the requisite social distancing, have been done in Nicaragua and South Korea. Whether and when the South African government will be amenable to such an arrangement remains to be seen, so there is no timeline yet. There are, of course, many challenges to this approach. For starters, there is the income from the live gate, which can become significant considering that some promoters use the box-and-dine format. Then TV, of which there are precious few avenues in South Africa, as well as sponsors, need to get on board.

“We won’t even try it,” says Nomfesane Nyathela, CEO of Rumble Africa Promotions. “We will wait for this to be over, then we will start staging tournaments again.”

Other stakeholders do not want to wait and are pushing to get things going. Plans are already at an advanced level to stage the final of the [email protected] junior middleweight tournament between Brandon Thysse and Boyd Allen behind closed doors, according to veteran promoter Rodney Berman of Golden Gloves Promotions.

Ayanda Matiti of Xaba Promotions is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. He does not see the gate takings as a major obstacle as such but deems crowd attendance an important part of the sport. “The gate, for our outfit at least, is less than a third of the income from a tournament. Boxing is a synergy between the various role players: the fans, boxers, broadcasting networks and sponsors. It needs to be exciting and the fans contribute toward that. Empty seats will not be attractive to sponsors. We should have sanitizing stations at the entrances and exits, temperature reading, there must be a register, as well as masks, same as when you go into a retail shop. We cannot throw ourselves under the bus with the virus, it might not leave us soon. We will have to learn to live with it.”

Colin Nathan, manager/trainer of Budler and Mthalane, seems remarkably upbeat about the situation. “Perhaps we need to use UFC 249 as a blueprint. The crowd ambience might be a little weird but for the fans it could work, everyone is desperate for live content. Everyone will need to be realistic, though. Fighters will probably have to take a pay cut. There is nothing to be gained by being negative. In the long run, this could even be a good thing. We just have to think of creative ways to get around the situation. I think there could even be more opportunity for all the promotions out there and less of the usual BS (in negotiations). I think we are going to see a lot of good local matchups.”

Peter Smith is also enthusiastic, at least from a practical point of view. “It can definitely work. Go to a shopping mall to buy food and look around you. You are at much higher risk. We will just have to be smart about it and think about the way we conduct ourselves toward each other.”

Could cards behind closed doors become a regular occurrence in South Africa, at least until the end of lockdown?

Only time will tell.