Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, boxing champion KEVIN LERENA talks about his future in the sport, offers his opinion on the De Kock/Warner feud and previews the Lions-Blues clash at Ellis Park on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: How does it feel to have retained your marginal IBO cruiserweight title?
Kevin Lerena: There is nothing better than a tick in the win column. It was a good fight against Dmytro Kucher at Emperors Palace last Saturday night and I really had fun. The knock-out is always the cherry on top of the cake (Lerena won unanimously on points) but in 26 fights Kucher had never been knocked out. The fact that I was the first fighter to come relatively close to knocking him out is pleasing. Early on in the bout, I sustained a cut above my eye due to a clash of heads and I couldn’t see out of my right eye from round two. The blood was flowing into my eye and making my vision blurry. That is what caused me to lose my rhythm and reduced my ability to spot his jabs. However, I overcame the challenge and managed to find my rhythm for the duration of the fight. It came down to pure instinct, confidence in my abilities and sticking to the game plan. Staying relaxed in the ring is so important. I’ve evolved as an individual and grown exponentially as a fighter since turning professional at the age of 18. I start training again today after a few days of post-fight recovery and downtime - I visited some of the race horses I own earlier this week. With my next fight in April, I’ll get up at 05:00 every morning and train three times a day. My training, which is made up of aerobic, anaerobic, cardiovascular and strength work, is a mix of boxing, sparring, running and conditioning.
Sport24 asked: You played junior rugby for the Lions. Why did the boxing bug bite harder?
Kevin Lerena: Rugby is a great sport, but I can honestly say that boxing has been good to me. I played first team at King Edward VII high school (KES) and age-group level for the Golden Lions in the Vodacom Cup. It wasn’t that I necessarily turned down a junior contract with the Golden Lions; it was rather a case of needing something more. The bottom line was that I wanted to box. Boxing is a sport that can really humble you, and if you humble yourself to the sport you will always learn. The day that I think I know it all is the day that I must stop boxing. I don’t believe you can ever stop learning in boxing. Rugby is also a special sport and I still follow South African rugby and the Lions, in particular, closely. The Lions are the true definition of a team. They play for each other and that is what makes it special. There is a great culture within their camp, camaraderie between the brothers and they play for one each other, which is very important in a team sport. As a former centre, I keep a keen eye on the midfielders at the union. I have always been a fan of Lionel Mapoe at 13 and Rohan Janse van Rensburg came onto the scene and is very explosive on his inside. The Lions also have Harold Vorster and Howard Mnisi as midfield options, so it’s tough to say who’s their best centre pairing. During my playing days, I wasn’t just a crash-ball runner. I used my head to outsmart the defence. I believe South African rugby players are evolving in today’s time and we have plenty of intelligent players on the field. SA players boast brawn but there are many players with brain as well.
Sport24 asked: What do you make of athletes from different disciplines taking up boxing?
Kevin Lerena: I don’t agree with the purists who say the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and Conor McGregor shouldn’t have entered the sport. People in boxing always think that they know too much. Why not have people from different athletic backgrounds and sporting disciplines coming to the sport of boxing and giving it a try? If they are going to create hype for boxing and bring more people to the sport then I believe it’s only going to stand boxing in good stead. Sonny Bill is a terrific athlete and if he committed full-time to the sport, I reckon he would do really well in boxing. He’s got all the physical and athletic attributes to be a success in the ring. It was fairly early in his boxing career when he fought Francois Botha, so I commend him for what he has done. He’s a wonderful athlete and could have been a decent boxer had he pursued the sport 100 percent. However, for now, he is focused on rugby. Meanwhile, McGregor is also a fine athlete and did surprisingly well against Floyd Mayweather Jr. He didn’t disgrace himself but the American’s experience ultimately told. If you have never fought 12 rounds before, you cannot expect to prevail against Mayweather (McGregor lost the fight in the 10th round owing to a technical knock-out). I think we all knew what the outcome would be in the much-hyped fight. However, I take my hat off to Conor and I respect anybody who steps through those ropes - no matter their record - because it takes plenty character, heart and tenacity.
Sport24 asked: Is concussion a concern in boxing and how much longer will you fight for?
Kevin Lerena: I think boxing can learn from rugby in terms of managing the issue of concussion. I believe rugby players are managed better than boxers in that respect. I don’t think boxers, in general, manage head injuries all that well and rugby is more professional in that regard. I believe boxing in a controlled environment is pretty safe. It’s obviously not natural to be hit on the head as much as boxers are, but if youngsters enjoy the sport I would encourage them to get into the game. The key is to look after yourself, know your limits and make the most of your career. I plan to retire from the sport of boxing before the age of 30 (Lerena is 25). I’ve already been boxing professionally for eight years and I don’t want to be boxing for another 10 years. A unification fight is my dream bout and would be extremely lucrative. I suppose we all do sport for the love of it but, at the end of the day, this is my job and what I do to support my family. A unification fight against one of the best in the world (Oleksandr Usyk is currently the unified cruiserweight champion) for a substantial amount of money is the ultimate goal. There are some top cruiserweights in the world that I would love to have a piece of. Only time will tell, but I think those big fights are around the corner for me. When you retire from boxing you want to know that you have achieved something in the sport. I’m fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to go on and reach bigger things. Having said that, it is hard work being a South African boxer and competing against pugilists from top, first world nations.
Sport24 asked: What’s your take on the David Warner/Quinton de Kock war of words?
Kevin Lerena: Quinny is a former KES boy and I will always have his back. I encountered a fair share of bullies growing up and Warner most definitely comes across as your typical bully. He is obviously trying his luck, but Quinton has been backed up by his teammates and isn’t the type of guy who will stand down. In sport, you get guys out there who overstep the mark and sometimes they just need to be put back in their place. (Warner was fined 75% of his match fee and given three demerit points for the incident). Smack talk and banter is all good and well, but you shouldn’t get too personal and cross the line. If comments about loved ones are made with malicious intent, I definitely don’t think that is called for. After all the smack talk, everyone must now get on with the cricket and the second Test. I wouldn’t say cricketers think they’re tougher than they actually are. I respect all athletes and those who dedicate their time to their craft to provide a better life for themselves and their families.
Sport24 asked: What’s your outlook ahead of the Lions’ encounter against the Blues?
Kevin Lerena: It’s going to be a tough game for the Lions against the Blues at Ellis Park on Saturday. The New Zealand franchises always bring it and they are pretty effective in terms of their preparation. However, the Lions are on a roll and if they stick together it’s going to be tough for teams to come to Ellis Park and win. I believe the Lions will prove victorious on the weekend, but it won’t be easy. A number of people place the emphasis on losses (the Lions have suffered back-to-back Super Rugby final defeats) but what they have done by rising from a union that was struggling and getting to where they are now is phenomenal. They must just continue to perform and those big victories will come. Losses are as good as anything in life – you learn more from defeat than victory.
Previous Q&A chats:
Carlo de Fava
Flip van der Merwe
Neil de Kock
Bakkies BothaRohan Janse van Rensburg