Disappointments behind him, Moruti Mthalane wants to make most of second title reign

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Moruti Mthalane has had to show his share of patience in a career that has sometimes been frustrating. But now at the age of 36, he’s once again champion and looking to unify at 112 pounds. Photo by Team Mthalane

If you looked at the boxing record of Moruti Mthalane, overlooked the gaps of inactivity, and just examined his accomplishments for what they are, there’d be little debate against his high standing in South African boxing. He’s a two-time IBF flyweight champion with a 6-1 record in world titles, and has not lost in over ten years, yet, with the short memory banks of boxing, there were times when Mthalane’s name completely disappeared from the sport.

Those times away, like when he sat out all of 2013 and 2016, and being stripped of the title in 2014 after failing to meet a mandatory over a pay discrepancy, cast a shadow over the many accomplishments there are to boast on his resume’, which include becoming the only fighter to stop John Riel Casimero, and a knockout of Zolani Tete that has only become more impressive with time. 

The sport’s politics, more than any foe he met in the ring, was his greatest adversary.

“Moruti had every right to turn his back on the sport,” said Colin Nathan, who manages and trains Mthalane (36-2, 24 knockouts), of where they were at the end of 2016, when three fights were canceled due to issues ranging from promoters not coming up with the purse money and disagreements over broadcast fees.

“It was discouraging me before but now it’s history to me. I don’t think about it anymore,” said Mthalane, disinterested in putting any energy towards those frustrating times as he gears up for his first title defense on New Year’s Eve against Masahiro Sakamoto (13-1, 9 KOs) at the Wynn Palace Cotai in Macau. 

“Some other people don’t realize that but I do believe that I’m the best boxer in South Africa. Maybe because of inactivity they don’t rate me that high,” said Mthalane.

The best from his country now, or the best ever? Mthalane laughs to himself before clarifying.

“I would say now, I’m still the best fighter but there are good fighters like Hekkie Budler and Zolani Tete. At the moment the three of us now are the best boxers.”

Mthalane is in a better space now in his career, having had four fights under Nathan, who handles him with international dealmakers Mike Altamura and Sean Gibbons. 

From left: Mthalane with Donnie Nietes, who headlines the card against Kazuto Ioka, and Hekkie Budler. Photo by Team Mthalane

Mthalane had a get-back year in 2017, winning three fights before reclaiming the title he had never lost in the ring earlier this year, rising off the canvas in the eleventh round to defeat Muhammad Waseem by unanimous decision on the Pacquiao-Matthysse card in Malaysia.

“Waseem will have a very good career in boxing but on that night it was my night,” said Mthalane.

Now he turns his attention to Sakamoto, who at 27 is nine years younger than Mthalane, and has scored five straight knockouts since lone defeat, a 2016 majority decision loss to Sho Kimura just before Kimura won the WBO flyweight title. There’s scarce video on the Japanese fighter Sakamura, but from what Nathan has seen, he’ll be a credible challenge.

“I think Sakamoto hits really hard, he’s a young guy coming up,” said Nathan. “Moruti’s experience, and the fact that he’s a gritty, determined champion will pull him through to victory.”

“I saw he’s got power but I’m used to fighting with guys with more power, so it doesn’t give me any problem. My defense is always good,” added Mthalane.

To prepare for the fight, Mthalane got hard sparring at the Hot Box Gym in Johannesburg, South Africa with the likes of Fikile Mlonyeni (13-5, 10 KOs) and DeeJay Kriel (14-1-1, 6 KOs), plus RING junior flyweight champ Budler, who will be defending his championship against Hiroto Kyoguchi on the same card.

“I should actually charge people to come into the gym and watch [Mthalane and Budler] spar,” said Nathan. Anticipating an issue with timing, Nathan has brought seven members of the gym’s training staff to Macau, since Mthalane’s fight is expected to go on right after Budler’s, to ensure both fighters are amply warmed up for their bouts.

Mthalane-Sakamoto will go on right before the main event, which pits Donnie Nietes against Kazuto Ioka for the vacant WBO junior bantamweight title.

How Mthalane is viewed by history will depend on how he handles his second act in the sport, Nathan believes. He wants unification fights, and now is a good time to get them with exciting titleholders like WBC champ Charlie Edwards and WBO titlist Kosei Tanaka at 112 pounds.

If Mthalane gets past Sakamoto, then he’ll have to face mandatory challenger Masayuki Kuroda (30-7-3, 16 KOs) within 90 days. After that, Mthalane has a good idea of who he wants.

“At the moment I’m looking for the new champion Charlie Edwards. I would be very happy to get a chance to unify against him,” said Mthalane, who says he watched the British fighter’s upset win over Cristofer Rosales last weekend to win the title.

“I do believe it can be a good fight against him. He’s still young, he’s very strong, I watched his fight, it was good, he’s a promising boxer but I would like to fight him.”

Edwards replied via Twitter: “Let’s make it happen.”

Eighteen years after he turned pro, Mthalane says he still trains the same way, eats the same way. As dangerous as boxing can be, he says it has protected him, keeping him as a teenager from drinking and smoking like his peers. His simple lifestyle and adherence to his workout regimen have preserved his abilities into an age bracket when most other flyweights are well into their decline.

He grew up watching the champions from his country like Baby Jake Matlala and Dingaan Thobela, and like them, hopes to be remembered as a sporting icon in South Africa once his fighting days are over. That day is still a ways away, he believes. There’s still a lot of boxing left to do.

“It’s in my blood, I like it, I’m always in the gym. That’s why I can say I’m still on top,” said Mthalane.

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

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