Boxing Snippets

Big, strong and in your face – that’s Kevin Lerena

Kevin Lerena on his way to dominating Roberto Bolonti last year. PIC: N-Squared

South African boxing has never known anyone quite like Kevin Lerena.

Never backward in coming forward, he’s a one-man marketer; perfect in a world where social media and branding have become ubiquitous. Lerena gets it. What’s more, he can fight, blending his alpha male personality with his power to produce arguably SA’s most popular boxer.

The sport has many fine exponents locally, but few of them are head-turners. They go about their business quietly and diligently, but unless you’re a hard-core boxing fan, you probably don’t know about them.

Lerena, blessed with attitude and articulacy, is close to being a crossover star; a fighter who appeals to dyed-in-the-wool boxing supporters as much as occasional watchers who are intrigued by his persona.

Last year was a turning point for the cruiserweight. In a massive return fight, he avenged his only career loss by stopping Johnny Muller. He then went on to outlast world-ranked Micki Nielsen to annex the Super Four crown.

He showed maturity in both, wearing tough Muller down in the first instance and then packing away his ego and boxing smartly against heavy-hitting Nielsen.

His trajectory shows a fighter firmly in the ascendancy. Although he had many faults in his rookie years, no doubt a consequence of having little to no amateur experience, Lerena has adjusted and improved with every outing. A professed student of the game, he is obsessed with self-improvement: he is sharply self-critical and works constantly on his skills.

“Yes, 2016 was good, but I look to progress every year,” the southpaw said this week, just days before his fight against Vikapita Meroro at Emperors Palace. “I’ve started coming into my own, discovering who I am as a fighter. Things are really starting to click.”

He recalls how, as an aspirant pro, he used to practice ring walks in his bedroom, dreaming of a life under the bright lights. That was then. Now, he’s living the dream. On Saturday he will take a proper ring walk at the famous casino venue and box before an audience of thousands both live and on television across the continent.

Lerena and promoter Rodney Berman. PIC: Nick Lourens

“I’ve had five years as a pro and haven’t looked back,” he says. “It’s all about accumulating experience, learning the lessons. I’m evolving as a boxer.”

Part of that evolution was dictated by his first (and only) career defeat, to Muller.

“A loss can be used for or against you. I’ve used that loss to my advantage. It was very close. I fought Johnny at his best and he had the edge. The second fight, I knew what I had to do and I applied it. It wasn’t physical; mentally I had to go to another level to beat the man who beat me. I had to believe it, I had to deliver on my conviction.”

Lerena famously went on to stop the durable Muller in a memorable fight, demonstrating that he can be powerful when he’s in the mood.

He sets the record straight: “I’ve got good hand speed and knockout power. The thing is I played it safe against Roberto Bolonti [last June] and Nielsen because I needed the victories far more than I needed to put on a show. It’s all about risk versus reward. I have more power than the majority of guys in my division . . . if I land on your chin, you’re gonna go.

“I exposed Nielsen’s ability and hurt him, but I didn’t capitalise. The public wants knockouts and I yearn for knockouts, but victory comes first.”Having shot to greater prominence on the back of that triumph four months ago, Lerena is deeply aware of the public’s growing expectations. He’s happy to take on that responsibility, saying he’d love to pack in around four fights this year and then stalk down one of the world champions in 2018.

“I’ll have my time,” he says confidently.

Meroro, from Namibia, offers an intriguing challenge this weekend. He’s known for being awkward and unorthodox, presenting an altogether harder challenge.

“Boxing pundits know he’s a spoiler, but regular people probably don’t. I want a terrific performance. He’s experienced, but I don’t believe he’s better than me. I want to win by KO, although I won’t go looking for it. I want to put on a good fight.

“Fighting a guy like this is often far harder than fighting a seasoned campaigner who comes to fight. Rather than fighting a guy who comes forward, he’ll be messy and I’ll have to work him out. It’s an important step in my progress and I’m grateful for what [promoter] Rodney Berman does for me, I’m humbled. I want to pay back his faith in me.”

The march continues, and confident Lerena is in full stride.

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