Beneath Moruti Mthalane’s steely determination lies a strong desire to succeed following a long acquaintance with adversity.
When that success came, with the 37-year-old having been a two-time world boxing champion, his determination and personality didn’t change. Unlike many South African sportsmen who become complacent – arrogant even – when they reach the top, Mthalane knows it can all be taken away in the blink of an eye.
As such, he subscribes to the mantra “to live like a king, you must work like a slave”. I spent two and a half hours watching him slave away at the Hot Box Gym on Grenville Avenue in Savoy Estate, Johannesburg, ahead of the third defence of his IBF flyweight title. He’ll be fighting Japanese legend Akira Yaegashi in Yokohama, Japan, on Monday 23 December. To say I was awestruck would be putting it mildly.
Nothing was left to chance as Mthalane covered just about every possible scenario that could come up in the fight with trainer Colin Nathan and his assistant, Vusi Mtolo. Mthalane was made to do everything for the three minutes that a round lasts in boxing. He pounded the punching bag for a good three rounds, moving about as if in a fight.
Then he went four solid rounds in the ring with Nathan, who allowed Mthalane to be the aggressor with the boxer from Maritzburg peppering his trainer with myriad punches that showcased the all-round talent that he is. The left jab dictated matters and was delivered with the kind of power sure to wear an opponent down. Nathan called for the right hook, the straight right, the upper cuts and roundhouse punches – and Mthalane delivered.
“Moruti’s discipline is second to none. He is consistently training and hardly ever gains weight,” Nathan says as we settle down for a chat. “I think he is one of a few boxers who really understands that this is his job. He respects everything about it.”
That respect is evident as Mthalane goes a further four rounds with Mtolo, the boxer taking instructions from the assistant just as well as he did from his main trainer. In this session, Mtolo puts Mthalane on the back foot to train him to find a way to score points while retreating. He crowds him, roughs him up a bit and tries to frustrate him by holding and pushing him on to the ropes.
The way Mthalane reacts during this type of training shows why he has only lost twice in a 40 pro fight career spanning 19 years. He punches his way out of the clinch, delivering hooks to Mtolo’s covered ribs or uppercuts to the belly. It is a rough four rounds, a scrap really. But the champion is clearly up for everything Yaegashi – a former world champion in three different weight divisions – will throw at him.
Most impressive was what they do in the final 10 seconds of each round. Nathan and Mtolo both hold up their hands, wearing boxing pads, for Mthalane to deliver a flurry of punches until the bell tolls. Tiring at the end of the round, the man nicknamed Babyface had to dig deep and “steal” the round with an exciting finish.
“The nature of boxing is such that the judges put down their score after the bell. And we know that a lot of them are often swayed by what they witness late on, instead of what transpires throughout the two minutes and 50 seconds. So we want to make sure that Moruti steals the rounds if he has to, although our main plan is to obviously win every round from the onset,” Mtolo explains.
And he is sure he will celebrate Christmas as world champion. “I am going to beat him,” Mthalane says matter-of-factly. “Sure he is a great boxer and I respect him. But I am in great shape. Nothing has disturbed my training this time around.”
Bouncing back from personal loss
He then reveals something that would probably have left many a man so disturbed they would have lost focus.
“Before my last defence [against Masayuki Kuroda in Tokyo in May], I lost my five-month-old daughter in early March. She had been ill and she passed away. It was really a tough time and we decided to keep it a secret because I was busy with training.
“There was nothing I could do about it. I believe that if you cannot change something, you must just live with it. It was hard for me to lose my daughter. But I had support from everyone around me, especially from my mother. She helped my wife and I stay strong.”
That he pummelled Kuroda shortly thereafter for a unanimous points decision speaks to the man’s ability to focus on the job at hand. It is how he has always been though, having had to learn to make do with whatever he had from an early age.
“My father died when I was only six, so I never really knew him. I only had my mom growing up and it was not an easy situation. We struggled and after matric there was no money for me to further my studies.”
But he had already gotten into boxing by following his cousins to the gym. Moving to Johannesburg was the next logical step for him to pursue the career in which he was to excel.
“I loved Dingaan Thobela and Baby Jake Matlala when I was growing up. They inspired me to take up boxing seriously,” says the man with 25 knockouts.
Powerful a puncher as he is, Mthalane never plans to send his opponents to the canvas, he says.
“Every fight I go into, I prepare for the full distance. You saw how we trained today. We are ready for the 12 rounds. But if a chance for a stoppage presents itself, I will take it.”
South Africa’s last bonafide world champion
Following Zolani Tete’s shock defeat to Filipino John Riel Casimero in November, Mthalane is now South Africa’s sole bona fide world champion. The other boxers in possession of belts are from the much lesser sanctioning bodies.
Does he feel under any pressure to keep his belt?
“Of course, there is always pressure. But for me it is not brought about by outside factors. I love being a world champion. I worked hard to become champion and the pressure I feel is from within, to ensure that I don’t return to being just an ordinary boxer but to stay as a world champion. I have to pay the bills, hey.”
Mthalane supplements his boxing income by working as a personal trainer in a gym. “I enjoy the job. Fitness is a passion of mine and I derive pleasure from helping others keep in shape,” he says.
He is in impeccable shape himself. The kind that saw him complete the boxing workout with strength exercises that are sure to leave Yaegashi thinking he is fighting a machine. There were sit-ups, crunches and push-ups as he strengthened his core, before Mtolo delivered blows to his body with a hard ball that had the champion wincing in pain.
“You’ve got to take it, baba,” Mtolo told Mthalane as he prepared him for the solid punches he is likely to have to absorb from his Japanese opponent.
Chances are, however, that Mthalane is going to give more than he will take. And by the end of the fight, the ring announcer should send the partisan crowd into silence by booming “and still … the IBF flyweight champion of the world … Moruti Mthalane”.
These are words he has become accustomed to as a result of the respect he has for the sport.
“I cannot live like a normal man. As a sportsman, I have to behave completely different from the other guys. Focus is key. I have to live a straight life if I am to be successful as a sportsman.”