Four days on from Thabiso Mchunu’s emphatic defeat of Tommy Oosthuizen, trainer Sean Smith has still to come down to earth.
Taken in isolation, it was a meaningful accomplishment, but given greater meaning in the context of the first fight, which still rankles the cornerman.
The team went away, identified their faults and made the necessary adjustments to erase what Smith calls “the bitter pill” of the first fight.
“We had to use the second opportunity to become better. We started working in the gym, analysing and working on small changes. I knew Tommy wouldn’t change too much.”
Among the chief differences was a change in strategy. Smith knew, as did others, that his fighter had to up his work rate for starters.
“That was key, and I also stressed that he had to go downstairs, not head hunt as Tommy can pull back. Thabiso had to slow him down, work the body. In camp, he did that all day.”
Smith kept an ear on what was being said in the build-up and he believes that Oosthuizen got caught up in the hype. There was talk of him running, so instead Oosthuizen came out aggressively and chose to mix it, especially close in. It was meat and potatoes for Mchunu.
“Tommy mentioned that he was a bit wary for the first fight, not sure what Thabiso would bring. Then he said he felt Thabiso didn’t punch that hard; he wanted to try and hurt him. But Thabiso was ready. I urged Thabiso to do more. He’s so easy to work with and responded to everything.”
Smith said there were several dark moments after September’s reverse, with Mchunu discouraged by the points loss.
But Smith sat him down and urged following the high road. “You can drown in tears or turn it around,” the trainer challenged him.
Smith noticed the turnaround in gym with small victories here and there. Mchunu responded to these challenges, his body language matching his renewed confidence. “He was motivated, he was present,” said Smith. “He wanted to see what he had . . . the rematch was a challenge to himself.”
Things got trickier last weekend when Thabiso took a heavy crack in the ribs in his second to last session of sparring. But he never let it deter him, happy to beat Oosthuizen on the outside – surprisingly, perhaps – and trade with him on the inside, where Oosthuizen naively tried to trade. Mchunu had his number there too.
Smith and promoter Rodney Berman are now confident that Oleksandr Usyk exiting the division will create several openings into which they will try and work in the coming months. Mchunu has proved hit and miss at elite level over the years, but on the evidence of Saturday, he can become a contender again.
“Usyk apart, none of the guys are at a level Mchunu can’t beat if he puts it together, I really believe that. Of course, a big fight must be under the right circumstances and Rodney can help steer us in the right direction.
“What’s really good is that I’ve always been honest with Thabiso. We’ve had good heart-to-hearts through the years. I never doubted him.”