SA welterweight champion Thulani “Tulz” Mbenge isn’t backward in coming forward.
Asked who the division’s king is, he considers no-one to be in charge. “They aren’t number one until they’ve fought me,” he says with customary confidence.
It’s a streak of self-assurance you like to see in an emerging fighter, confirmation that he trusts his ability and is prepared to face allcomers.
If Mbenge is among the crop of new and emerging young fighters jostling for recognition in one of the sport’s hottest divisions, he knows he can take a significant step forward when he fights big puncher Diego Gabriel Chaves in the headliner at Emperors Palace on June 23.
It’s a calculated risk for his promoters, Golden Gloves. A win will reaffirm his status as a star on the rise; defeat, however, would force a serious recalibration of Mbenge’s career trajectory.
But losing at this stage of his career, after just 13 pro bouts, is furthest from his mind. Mbenge isn’t cowed by punchers, noting Chaves’ power and brawling style. He swears he’s yet to be rocked in 54 rounds of pro boxing and reckons he must go back to 2011 and a fight against a long-forgotten amateur opponent in Mozambique to recall the last time he got banged up.
That said, he says he often wages wars in sparring at Sean Smith’s gym in Fourways with DRC’s big-punching Emmany Kalombo, who recently iced Nkululeko Mhlongo, giving him tough work. It’s the sort of experience he banks in anticipation of harder fights to come, not least next month’s assignment.
“I don’t mind working out with tough guys who can bang. If the sparring is good, the fighting is good,” he says.
The holder of the WBC International belt, Mbenge is thrilled to be fighting for the IBO title. He’s ranked 20th by the WBC, but is aiming for top 15 by year’s end.
It’s not the like of welterweight stars Keith Thurman or Errol Spence jnr who spur him on. Rather, he loves watching the like of Gennady Golovkin – “he’s a monster whose work ethic is brilliant” – and Anthony Joshua, Vasyl Lomachenko, Daniel Jacobs and Jorge Linares, who all rank among boxing’s best.
“I watch them on YouTube . . . I look, I learn. I also want to be up there, winning, knocking guys out.”
Next month would be a good time to remind us of that intent. The man they call “Tulz” just wants to fight.
His time is now.