Even though Zolani Tete has the world at his feet, being the holder of the WBO bantamweight belt and the record for the fastest knockout in a world title, he is still subjected to begging for what should come pretty easily to athletes of his calibre.
Since taking the WBO title in Liverpool in the United Kingdom last year, the man known as “Last Born” has gone on to fight in Northern Ireland and Russia, but not in his country of birth. In a perfect world, South Africa should have hosted Tete in his record-breaking bout against Siboniso Gonya, who hails from Mtubatuba in KwaZulu-Natal. Instead, Belfast witnessed Tete floor Gonya in 11 seconds to retain his title and write his name in the history books.
Tete last fought in South Africa three years ago, in his hometown East London, at the Orient Theatre. “I dream of fighting at home as a world champion, whether it’s to defend my title or maybe in a unification fight,” says Tete. “I wish that one day that dream will come true. We have a president [Cyril Ramaphosa] who can make things happen just like presidents of other countries. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in East London or Johannesburg, as long as it’s in South Africa. That’s one thing I would like to do, not to fight at home only when it’s my last fight or a farewell bout.”
Money is the main reason behind Tete not fighting at home as a world champion. Due to there being little investment in the sport here, Tete has been forced to go elsewhere to defend his title and make money. The 30-year-old southpaw is currently involved in the World Boxing Super Series, a tournament that could give him his biggest pay cheque yet, with the winner in each weight class set to receive $10 million (just more than R145 million).
Tete has reached the semifinal of the money-spinning event, and will face either Ryan Burnett or Nonito Donaire next year. Burnett and Donaire square off in Glasgow, Scotland, on 3 November.
Tete has a score to settle with Donaire.
The champ says: “If it was up to me, I would face Burnett. I’ve always wanted to fight him. I believe that his fighting style versus my fighting style would put up a great fight. [But] I have a score to settle with Nonito. He beat one of our best fighters. We are still crying about it. If he comes, then he knows he will have to pay for what he did to our V12 [Simpiwe Vetyeka, who also hails from East London]. All I am looking for is the WBA title and to defend my WBO title. If Nonito faces me in the semifinal, he will have to pay for two sins.”
Training with Floyd Mayweather Sr
Tete will step into the ring for that semifinal next year a somewhat different boxer because he’ll be training with Floyd Mayweather Sr in Las Vegas in the lead-up. “We need something new, not only for myself but the whole team,” Tete says. “This is an opportunity to learn from the best because those guys are the best in the game. We can say whatever we want to say about them, but they have shown that they’re the best.
“[Andrew] Tabiti, one of their boxers, fought as an undercard in my last fight and he showed the good job they do. You could swear that it was Floyd Mayweather fighting, he was so well prepared. That’s what we want as a team, for me to gain a lot more experience so that when I am done with boxing I can give back to the youngsters what I have learnt and share my experience with other boxers.”
Life after boxing
The 30-year-old has already begun planning for life after boxing, having formed Last Born Promotions, a company that has hosted several bouts in Eastern Cape. There were some teething problems at first but he has soldiered on. “I don’t only focus on throwing punches. I must also know how the world of boxing works outside the ring. Fortunately, I’ve got people around me who always take me through the business side of boxing,” says Tete.
“Being a promoter has helped me grow as a person. It has grown my understanding of the sport. You have to be mentally fit to also develop as a businessman. There are things that you have to let go of and there are things that you can’t let go of. I am still a boxer; my mind is focused on boxing but I am also learning the business side of the sport.”
Boxing has slipped down the pecking order in South African sport in terms of financial support and TV airtime. But as South Africa’s flag bearer in world boxing, Tete sees it as his duty to reintroduce boxing to South Africans’ sports consciousness.
“It’s quite simple, for boxing to return to its heyday, it needs Zolani to win all those titles … I know that I am not the only boxer in South Africa but at the moment I am the one carrying the torch. By the time I retire, I need to have passed it to someone I believe is going to hold it until the boxing world recognises South Africa,” says Tete brashly.
“It’s not easy being the torchbearer. But thanks to my manager and my trainers, I can do it because they always draw the line. I am a human being as well, I am still young. I have my flaws. But that’s where Ta Mla [Tete’s business manager Mlandeli Tengimfene] comes in. Once I step over the line, he comes in and says: ‘This is the road.’
“People might think that Ta Mla and I always have nice times. That’s not true. There are times we fight and I don’t answer his calls. We have an open relationship in which we express how we feel about certain things. He gives me the opportunity to say what I feel and he listens to me, and then he corrects me. I thank him. I wish all the managers out there could have a similar relationship with their boxers.”