BY DROEKS MALAN
South African boxing has a storied history of local rivalries.
Heavyweights Gerrie Coetzee and Kallie Knoetze fought each other as young prospects. Coetzee prevailed by a whisker and went on to win the WBA title whereas Knoetze had an international career himself, eventually falling short against John Tate. Staying with heavyweights, Pierre Coetzer and Johnny Du Plooy fought a savage two round war, Coetzer prevailing and going on to give Riddick Bowe, Frank Bruno and George Foreman a run for their money. Future two-time IBF 130-pound champion, Cassius Baloyi, engaged in a war with Philip N’dou and had a memorable series of fights with Mzonke Fana and Malcolm Klassen, bouncing the belt between them. Before Thulani “Sugarboy” Malinga upset Nigel Benn for the WBC super middleweight title, he too had a four-fight series with local rival, Sakkie Horn.
On Sunday afternoon at Emperor’s Palace in Gauteng, young 12-0 upstart, Rowan “Braveheart” Campbell, and veteran warhorse, Ryno “The Lion” Liebenberg, will be looking to write their own history when they clash in a long-awaited showdown over 12 rounds for Campbell’s South African super middleweight championship, with a regional WBA title also on the line.
The fight has been a long time in the making. Liebenberg climbed into the ring at Campbell’s last fight, a fourth-round stoppage of Nicholas Radley in November of 2019, issued a challenge and the fight seemed on. It took all of a day for the fight to be off the table again, the Campbell camp opting instead to take on fellow unbeaten, Evgeny Shvedenko, in Germany. Then the pandemic struck, and that fight evaporated as the world shut down. As boxing slowly started up again, minus live crowds, the fight resurfaced and was on again for December of 2020, only to be canned once more amid many back-and-forth accusations between the camps.
Now that Campbell and Liebenberg will finally be facing each other in a boxing ring rather than on social media, it is easy to see why the South African fight fans seem so obsessed with the bout. It is a fight that can hardly fail to deliver. Campbell has developed into a busy pressure fighter with heavy hands as his eight stoppages show. He is not one to run around the ring and lie on his opponent in clinches. Liebenberg can box when he wants to but relishes a brawl and win or lose, he is never in a bad fight.
Liebenberg has competed at a much higher level, having shared the ring with the likes of former WBO light heavyweight champion, Eleider Alvarez, Thomas Oosthuizen, Erik Skoglund and Enrico Koeling among others. He is a better fighter than his rather spotty record of 20-7-1 with 13 knockouts indicates as most of those losses happened on the road. Some were close and others were outright robberies.
The bottom line is this: Liebenberg is a tough gatekeeper and Campbell needs to get past him to have any hope of emulating the likes of Malinga one day.
They share two common opponents: Patrick Mukala and Alex Kabangu. Liebenberg outpointed both, Kabangu in his last fight in March of 2020, whereas Campbell managed to stop Mukala in seven rounds, also having to settle for a decision over Kabangu.
The 37-year-old Liebenberg is brimming with confidence and has no plans of stepping aside just yet. “I had some of the best sparring I’ve had in the last five years. Both the smaller, fast guys like (junior middleweights) Roarke Knapp and (Tristan) Truter, as well as guys much bigger than me, Johnny Muller and Lebo (Mashitoa, both cruiserweights).”
He has fought as a light heavyweight for most of his career before deciding to move down to the 168-pound division. How does he feel at the weight? “I have no trouble with the weight. I was talking to Colin (manager/trainer Colin Nathan) the other day and we agreed the biggest mistake we made in my career is that we should have done this sooner. I have more power at this weight and they don’t hit as hard as the light heavyweights. Rowan’s power doesn’t worry me. He stops guys on their feet. Who has he ever put down for the count?”
That is not to say that he completely dismisses his opponent. “Look, Rowan is a hard worker and a good pressure fighter. He is busy in there and keeps on coming. That is what makes him effective, but his defense is very leaky. That last bit comes with experience. I was once where he is. No one has hurt him yet, so he just walks through the shots but once you go up in opposition, you realize that you have to look at your defense too.”
When asked for a prediction, Liebenberg does not hesitate. “I am knocking him out within eight rounds. He is strong and fit, he won’t go down easy, but his chin is suspect.”
Campbell, in stark contrast to the intense, talkative Liebenberg, seems much more laid back but he too does not lack confidence. He has not fought since November of 2019, but the inactivity does not bother him. “It’s been ok. Ryno is a good, tough fighter but I’m ready. I’m fit. I’m feeling strong. I just want to put on a good fight and a good performance.”
Prediction? He stops short of calling rounds, but he does not see it going the distance either. “I’m going to win. I am knocking him out.”
The table is set for a great crossroads battle. Will the veteran turn back the clock? Or will a new star emerge?
The afternoon will also showcase two unbeaten fighters: 7-0 junior bantamweight, Ricardo Malajika, who will be up against 12-4 Sabelo Ngebinyana and 16-0-1 junior featherweight, Lodumo Lamati, who will be taking on 16-7-2 Said Mohamed Hassan.
The card is presented by Golden Gloves Promotions of Rodney Berman.