Kevin Lerena outpoints Ryad Merhy in strategic battle
Kevin Lerena’s steady aggression won him a unanimous decision over Ryad Merhy over 12 rounds at Emperor’s Palace in Gauteng, South Africa, on Saturday night.
The fight was a nightmare to score at times, with several swing rounds. Lerena came forward throughout the fight while Merhy fought on the back foot.
Lerena battled to be consistently effective with his offense. Merhy showed a very cagey defense which, coupled with his sense of distance, allowed Lerena to only land single shots for most of the fight. Merhy had success with his straight right from a distance but only used the punch sporadically.
In a quiet opening round, Merhy tried to establish his jab but fell short with the punch. Lerena landed a hook to the body and just touched Merhy with a straight left, who replied with a left hook at the end of the round.
Lerena started backing Merhy up in the second, but the Belgian responded with a left hook-right hook to the body before falling short with his right while Lerena landed his southpaw left. That was the pattern in many rounds, with lots of feinting as well as punches falling short or being blocked. When they did land, each effective punch by one fighter was followed by an equally effective punch by the opponent, making it hard to separate them.
Merhy sent the spray flying with a solid right in the third, but Lerena seemed unperturbed and kept pushing forward.
Merhy was having a good fourth round, landing a straight right and another left hook-right hand combination, followed by a left hook to the body before he backed off again. He looked to be winning the round, but then Lerena landed a straight left and forced Merhy into a corner, where the hometown fighter landed a left uppercut and banged away at his defensive opponent towards the end of the round. Merhy was better at a distance; Lerena seemed stronger in close. It was a question of preference.
After four rounds, two of the judges had it even and one had Lerena up by two points (the fight took place under WBC open scoring rules). That didn’t change the tactics of Merhy, who didn’t show the urgency one would expect from a visiting fighter. He kept backing off, preferring to potshot from a distance. Lerena seemed unconcerned with the power of his opponent, who had 26 knockouts in his 31 wins, while, strangely enough, Merhy seemed wary of Lerena, who is not known as a knockout puncher.
For the next four rounds, both fighters landed sporadically, but Lerena’s punches seemed to have more effect, and he found an opening with his right hook around the guard. After the scores were announced at the end of the eighth, Lerena’s lead had widened on two of the cards. They stood at 79-73 and 78-74, with the third card still even at 76-76.
Lerena finally broke through in the ninth when he closed the gap after eating a pair of rights and let his hands go on the inside. The crowd exploded as Lerena sent a hurt Merhy stumbling back into the ropes, but the bell soon brought relief for the Belgian.
Merhy recovered well in the 10th, when he finally let a combination fly in the form of a left hook-right hand, which backed Lerena up for the first time.
It didn’t last. In the 11th, it was Lerena who finished the round strong, dipping Merhy’s legs with a left hook followed by another left from his southpaw stance.
Lerena started the final round by backing Merhy up yet again with his left. He also landed his right hook around the guard of his opponent. That seemed to light a spark in Merhy, who finally decided to go for broke. He drilled Lerena with a head-snapping combination punctuated with an uppercut that drove Lerena to the ropes for a change. A straight right slammed home, forcing Lerena to hold as the bell rang.
It was too little, too late. Judge Eddie Pappoe from Ghana scored the fight 118-110, which seemed ridiculously wide. South African Thabo Spampool had it 116-112, and Belgian judge Daniel van de Wiele also favored Lerena by a score of 115-113.
Lerena gets back in the win column after losing to Daniel Dubois at heavyweight and takes his record to 29-2 with 14 knockouts, while Merhy drops to 31-2.
The capacity crowd erupted in celebration for the charismatic Lerena, who will now go on to challenge Lukasz Rozanski for the WBC’s 224-pound bridgerweight belt, a division not recognized by The Ring.
“The strategy was to back him up,” said Lerena in the post-fight interview. “He is a good counterpuncher. We also knew he was very dangerous coming forward. He is not as comfortable going back, so that is what we did.”
It was a strategy that worked.
In the main supporting bout, Keaton Gomes posted a career-best performance, knocking out the usually durable Joshua Pretorius in the fourth round. With the win, he became the first man in a long while to retain the South African heavyweight title.
Gomes raced out of the corner at the opening bell, as we have come to expect of him. He landed a hard left hook. But then he backed up, circled the ring, and made Pretorius come to him. He landed a straight right, as well as a combination to the body, and then backed off again.
Pretorius is known to box well against aggressive, come-forward fighters, and the Gomes camp obviously had that aspect well-scouted. Gomes displayed a much more intelligent offense than his usual guns-blazing style.
Pretorius had a befuddled look by the third round as Gomes landed a big right, moved away and then landed his combinations as Pretorius was forced to chase him.
Just as it looked like Pretorius was having some success at the beginning of the fourth, landing some short shots and a solid right uppercut inside, Gomes found the right distance. A booming straight right found the mark. Pretorius stumbled backward, and a left hook to the body by the charging Gomes, almost as an afterthought, sent him crumbling to canvas on his back. He managed to turn himself onto all fours, but he couldn’t get up and was counted out at the 1:10 mark.
Keaton Gomes moves to 10-2 with eight knockouts while Pretorius drops to 9-7 (5 KOs).
Keanu Koopman TKO 2 Pieter de Klerk (welterweight)
Nthethelelo Nkosi UD 6 Gift Bholo (junior welterweight)
Ndabezitha Phiri SD 4 Charlton Malajika (junior bantamweight)
Beaven Sibanda TKO 3 Sandile Wessels (junior bantamweight)
The card was presented by Rodney Berman of Golden Gloves Promotions.