Deejay Kriel left family, homeland behind in search of boxing glory in America

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Right after the last time Deejay Kriel lost was the first time he’d won.

It was a little over five years ago that Kriel first stepped into a professional ring, in April of 2014 in his hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa. He was facing another upstart whose own career hadn’t gotten out of the gates on a positive note, Colin Tloubatla. In round two, Tloubatla sent the 18-year-old down with a right hand he never saw coming. 

“I had so much nerves,” Kriel (14-1-1, 6 knockouts) remembers, and though he lost a decision, he fought his heart out. The defeat sent him to 0-4 lifetime in the boxing ring, taking into consideration the three amateur fights he lost between the ages of 14-15. 

This isn’t the typical way a story begins for a fighter poised for his first world title opportunity, which Kriel is, this Saturday against IBF strawweight titleholder Carlos Licona at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. Many people would have taken the hint, that maybe fighting isn’t for them. But ever since he was a young boy training with his uncle, becoming a champion has been his life’s obsession.

“I’ve put everything into boxing. It’s my first love,” Kriel said.

Less than three months later Kriel got his rematch, and revenge, staying off the canvas to take the decision win.

Since then he’s won almost exclusively, save for his draw with Ayanda Dulani three years ago. 

Pursuing his dream hasn’t come easy. After his early defeats as an amateur, Kriel decided he was done with the unpaid ranks at 16, but wasn’t allowed to turn pro until he was 18. He worked out for a time at the Hot Box Gym, under then-trainer Colin Nathan, and sparred with the likes of Hekkie Budler and Moruti Mthalane, two of the finest boxers his country has ever produced.

For the last six months he’s been living in Las Vegas, fed up with the lack of opportunities he had back home in South Africa.

“The smaller weights do the best in South Africa but for the last few years, things haven’t been happening. There’s no money in things. The promoters I was with, I was never happy with them, my career wasn’t going where I wanted it to go so I said OK let me take the initiative,” said Kriel, who is now 23.

“We gotta take these risks in life. If you just stay in the environment that you are, you never know what could have happened.”

He gets goosebumps when he talks about the sacrifices he’s made, leaving behind his wife in South Africa to train at the Bones Adams gym under Kenny Adams.

“People don’t understand, it’s crazy, the loneliness, it’s just that…I know what I want, I’ve known what I’ve wanted for many years,” said Kriel, who is rated no. 10 by The Ring at 105 pounds.

“I’d be willing to give up anything for these kinds of opportunities. Boxing is my life, my family and everything, they understand that. The loneliness is only temporary, glory is forever, these kinds of moments only last for so long.”

Licona (14-0, 2 KOs) too knows about sacrifice. The Westminster, California resident had at one point been collecting cans to pay for gas money to drive to Robert Garcia’s gym in Riverside. Before his pro debut, his father sold his work truck to pay for his son’s boxing license and first boxing outfit.

There was little fanfare before his last fight in December, when he defeated 2012 Olympian Mark Anthony Barriga by split decision in a minor upset to win the vacant title. The fight was at the Staples Center, but the venue had been emptied out after the Deontay Wilder vs. Tyson Fury epic that had preceded it, and the swing bout went untelevised domestically or abroad.

“I don’t think he won, I think Barriga beat him. I think it was a bit of a funny decision,” said Kriel, who watched video of the fight back in Vegas.

Though Licona is listed as just an inch taller at 5’4”, it’ll seem like a bigger disparity since Kriel tends to get low as he advances. Licona, also 23, often lays back and counters, much in the style of his father’s favorite boxer Juan Manuel Marquez. Kriel describes Licona as “very stationary”.

The fight will be untelevised, buried deep on the PBC on Fox card headlined by Leo Santa Cruz vs. Rafael Rivera, a symptom of the apathy that the sport’s lightest weights continue to face, even with the proliferation of platforms broadcasting boxing.

But for Kriel, it’ll all be worth it if he’s able to walk out with the belt.

“I’ve taken all these risks and gone through bad times and things just for these big shots,” said Kriel.

“We’re just going out there, we’re gonna make our adjustments and we’re gonna be victorious.”

Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and can be reached at [email protected].

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