Hekkie Budler looks to turn back time in title challenge against Kenshiro Teraji
When South Africa’s Hekkie Budler steps into the ring in the Ariake Arena in Tokyo, Japan on Monday to challenge Ring and unified WBA/WBC junior flyweight champion, Kenshiro Teraji, he will be looking to turn back the clock five years to 2018.
That was when he scored the greatest victory of his career, upsetting the then Ring and unified WBA/IBF titlist Ryoichi Taguchi. In a tense battle, Budler triumphed by a single point on all three scorecards, becoming South Africa’s first unified major sanctioning body titlist and only the fourth world champion recognized by The Ring along with Vic Toweel, Arnold Taylor, and Brian Mitchell. It was a win that took its place among the great performances by South African fighters that include Brian Mitchell outboxing Tony Lopez, Vuyani Bungu shocking Kennedy McKinney, Thulani Malinga befuddling Nigel Benn and Corrie Sanders’ demolition of Wladimir Klitschko, among others.
The reign didn’t last long though and Budler was dethroned in the same year by Hiroto Kyoguchi when his corner pulled him out after the tenth round. The consensus was that Budler would drift off into retirement after a long career which also included a run as WBA strawweight champion.
However, Budler and manager/trainer Colin Nathan had other ideas. Nathan, who has been in Budler’s corner for his entire pro career was convinced that his flagship fighter had one more title run left in him. Just over two years later, he was back, winning a decision over Jonathan Almacen. That led to a shot at former WBO titleholder Elwin Soto in 2022. Of course, Budler had to travel to Mexico and face a hostile crowd which was nothing new.
Budler put on as fine a performance as he ever has. He stuck to his game plan of outboxing the hard charging Soto, knocking his opponent down in the 12th and final round. It turned out that he needed that knockdown to triumph by three scores of 114-113, which seemed way too close.
Since then, he only saw action once, knocking out journeyman Wichet Sengprakhon inside a single round in May of this year.
The lack of activity doesn’t bother Nathan. “I’m thinking it will work in our favor. It was a blessing in disguise, the rest was just what Hekkie needed.” Nathan’s Hotbox Gym has a stable of fighters that include former IBF strawweight titlist Deejay Kriel as well as current IBF junior flyweight champion, Sivenathi Nontshinga, among others. Quality sparring is certainly not something Budler lacks.
Trainers, especially when talking to the media, are a confident bunch. They have to be, after all. Nathan is no exception, but he is somewhat of a realist when assessing his charges’ chances. He would often tell you things like, “It depends on who employs the best strategy,” or “We know it is a tall order,” in his more candid moments.
That is why, if you get to know him, one tends to take his absolute belief in Budler’s chances against Teraji as more than just pre-fight bluster. “Right now, Hekkie is looking great in the gym. He is sharp, he is punching with more authority. I think he is honestly a better fighter now than earlier in his career. In the Kyoguchi fight nothing went right. Hekkie wasn’t healthy. When he is healthy with the right opponent in front of him, he is hard to beat.”
Styles make fights, as the saying goes. Nathan believes Teraji is tailor made for Budler. “We have the strategy to beat Kenshiro,” Nathan continues. “Hekkie is a fighter who listens, who can stick to a game plan.”
If one looks at Teraji in the ring, just concentrating on the form book, one can see where Nathan gets his confidence from. In his last fight, against late substitute Jonathan Olascuaga, the Japanese icon ate right hands, and some left hooks like candy, before stopping his opponent in the ninth round. His hands are sometimes all over the place and he has a habit of taking unnecessary shots. There is also the sole loss of his career when he was upset by unheralded Masamichi Yabuki in 2021.
That loss was blamed on coming back too soon after a bout of COVID-19. Teraji went on to prove that it was an aberration, knocking out Yabuki in three rounds in a direct rematch, regaining his WBC title. Before coming unstuck against Yabuki, he also made eight defenses of the green belt he won in 2017, a title reign that also included a seventh-round stoppage of another Budler foe, the former IBF champion, Milan Melindo. Budler dropped a split decision to the same Melindo back in 2017.
It was, however, Teraji’s annihilation of Hiroto Kyoguchi last year that firmly cemented him among boxing’s elite little men. He ripped The Ring and WBA belt from the hard hitting Kyoguchi, stopping him in seven rounds. It was a statement performance if there ever was one.
Yes, “The Amazing Boy,” as the 21-1 Teraji is nicknamed in the Land of the Rising Sun, does have his vulnerabilities but he has always found a way to win. Comparisons between common opponents do not predict outcomes but it is undeniable that he has been more dominating than Budler when faced with the best.
Still, it would be foolish to write off the 35-4 Budler. He is a seasoned veteran who knows how to win on the road. Should he pull off the upset, besides sanctioning body belts, he would become the only two-time South African holder of The Ring belt.
Can lightning strike twice?