Saturday will be a big night for the fighters, but one man will shoulder more than most – top trainer Sean Smith.
He’ll be working the corners of both Thabiso Mchunu and Thulani Mbenge, a pressure-filled assignment that could give rise to a range of emotions.
He wouldn’t want it any other way.
“This is what I live for: the achievements, the momentum, the winning. All my credentials are on the line,” said the affable 42-year-old. “This is why I spend all those hours in the gym – success is the reward; failure isn’t an option.”
Mbenge goes for his first major title when he challenges battle-hardened Diego Gabriel Chaves of Argentina for the IBO’s vacant welterweight championship.
Chaves has been around the boxing block, having squared off against several big names, among them Brandon Rios and Keith Thurman. He knows how to look after himself.
Said Smith: “At this championship level, it would be nice to be able to pick and choose, but you can’t. The bar is raised and you must meet the challenge. That’s the obstacle.”
While Smith reckons Chaves may be headed towards the end of his career, he points to how the Argentine hung tough in fights against Rios and Thurman as proof of his status as a dangerman. If Mbenge isn’t stwitched on, he’ll get beaten.
“I believe Tulz has the goods to overcome him. He’s in a good head space and has trained hard. He’s never afraid of a challenge. He says ‘no problem’ to fighting anyone – ‘let’s get the “W” – and is prepared for an early night or a fight in the trenches. He’s up for it, which makes my job so much better.”
Smith has worked hard on developing his boxer’s ring IQ, for the occasions when his power isn’t enough and he can’t bank on a knockout. “It’s important to understand the fight game and how to manage fights. Chaves will try and exploit every bit of Tulz’ inexperience. He can’t have flat spots, he must keep the jab going and can’t let Chaves get his punches off.”
Smith faces an entirely different challenge with Mchunu, the other big name in his Fourways stable.
The southpaw takes on Richard Bolotnik of Latvia, a strong, come-forward fighter who has promised to mix up his game.
“I enjoy working with Thabiso. The mental state and lifestyle around a boxer – you can have a great fighter implode if it’s all wrong. But Thabiso is a true athlete, a clean-living guy. I’m glad he has another opportunity.”
Smith rationalises some of his boxer’s recent defeats to being out of his comfort zone where travel and other minor irritants often affect a fighter’s sense of self. “It can lull you, and before you know it, the fight’s over.”
He believes that Mchunu is matched well for Saturday.
“Bolotnik is a fair international standard opponent. He narrowly lost to Micki Nielsen, but many had him winning. He’s the right sort of guy for us. Thabiso is saying, ‘I’m here, I’ve still got the goods’. It’s an exciting time for the division. Opportunities may open up if we win. We need two wins Saturday to help keep the sport alive in South Africa.”
Smith knows what must be done. The key, as ever, is ensuring it gets done.