The shadow cast by boxing’s heavyweights has long loomed over the sadly dismissed cruiserweight division, much to the detriment of boxing fans eager to see fighters with intriguing combinations of skill, size, and punching power. And although the sport’s glamour division has seen a recent uptick in quality and depth, the current micro resurgence at heavyweight has fortunately coincided with renewed Stateside interest in boxing’s 200-pounders. Whether it was the vicious slugfest between Krzysztof Glowacki and Marco Huck, or the emergence of Oleksandr Usyk as a pound-for-pound talent, the cruiserweight division, to use emerging contender Kevin Lerena’s turn of phrase, is “blooming.”
Since Evander Holyfield vacated his cruiserweight titles in favour of heavyweight glory, the weight class has taken on a decidedly international flare, with David Haye, Jean Marc Mormeck, Yoan Pablo Hernandez, Steve Cunningham, Denis Lebedev, Murat Gassiev, and the aforementioned Huck, Glowacki, and Usyk (amongst others) distinguishing themselves at various points. For South African Kevin Lerena, the chance to enter the fray at world level against such a diverse crop of champions and contenders presents innumerable opportunities to capitalize on a unique moment in cruiserweight history.
Like so many young men, Lerena started boxing as a teenager to develop confidence and to counteract bullying. But although he first entered a gym at 14, Lerena had virtually no amateur experience because South Africa’s unpaid ranks are extremely thin at the higher weights. Noting that an amateur fighter above 165 pounds could end up facing the same opponent six times in a calendar year due to the dearth of viable opposition, Lerena decided to gamble on himself and turn professional at 18. “It was a risk,” Lerena says. “And I took the risk, and I haven’t looked back since.”
At a passive glance, Lerena’s 16-1 ledger doesn’t cause one to pause, but greater scrutiny reveals an impressive breadth of experience for a 24-year-old upstart. Most compelling is that of Lerena’s 17 career bouts, seven have been scheduled 10 or 12 rounders. He has also gone the championship distance once and has been extended to 10 rounds on four occasions. Because of his limited amateur background, Lerena views these experiences as invaluable, noting that even heated sparring sessions cannot remotely compare to these distance fights, while also conceding that he’s still in need of seasoning.
“I couldn’t have asked for my career to go a better way, purely because I’ve been taken the distance,” Lerena says. “There were fights that I could have won by knockout, where I had the guy hurt, but having said that, the other guys had experience and they were durable. But those fights taught me a lot because nothing is more important than ring time, especially when you lack amateur experience.”
Kevin Lerena’s literal trial by combat progression has also forced him to overcome an early setback to veteran Johnny Mulller, a South African national champion at light heavyweight and one-time Oleksandr Usyk victim. Lerena dropped a competitive 10-round decision to Muller in 2014, but he argues it was a back-and-forth type battle and that he hurt his opponent on several occasions. That said, Lerena makes no excuses for the loss, conceding that he let that match slip away. “That fight was a pure case of lapsing concentration. It’s a fight I should never have lost.”
After a couple of subsequent wins, one of which gave him South Africa’s cruiserweight championship, Lerena got the chance to exact revenge against Muller in a bout where he defended his new title and also picked up the WBA Pan-African 200-pound strap. In halting Muller, Lerena exorcised some demons and silenced his critics, effectively demonstrating one of the most important attributes a pugilist can possess: the ability to genuinely grow following a loss.
“I came into the fight with a better game plan because Johnny Muller is a very tough opponent,” says Lerena. “He’s able to absorb shots quite well. I dominated the first four rounds. In fact, I hurt him during those rounds. But I gave him five, six, seven, and eight because I fell back into my bad habits. He took those rounds, but when I got off the stool in nine and ten, I knew I had the power to knock him out.”
The Muller triumph propelled Lerena into a “Super 4” single elimination tournament, which was crucial in securing his top-15 rankings in the WBC and WBO. With world championship implications at stake, Lerena produced two impressive performances in scoring decisions over rugged gatekeeper Roberto Bolonti and then-undefeated Micki Nielsen, who was highly rated and closing in on a title shot. The Nielsen win officially burnished Lerena’s contender status and proved he could employ sound tactics against a dangerous foe.
And yet, ever the critic, Lerena admits that at times he was too concerned with Nielsen’s punching power and offensive prowess. In his eyes, this prevented him from taking full advantage when he had Nielsen hurt in rounds seven and eight. But, as has become the theme of Lerena’s young career, he learned from the experience.
The next phase of Kevin Lerena’s progression includes both an upcoming bout against Vikapita Meroro, yet another battle-tested foe, and the hope of soon making his American debut. Co-promoted by Golden Gloves of South Africa and Artie Pelullo’s Banner Promotions, Lerena plans to burst onto the Stateside scene in 2017. And because of his popularity in South Africa, Lerena is ideally positioned to nurture his local support structure and capitalize on Banner’s connections with U.S. television networks and a larger pool of opponents.
As for the Meroro fight, Lerena knows that the former light heavyweight will try to box and move. Lerena also respects Meroro for his willingness to fight him in South Africa. And interestingly, Lerena was forthcoming in terms of discussing the pressure of now being the targeted, ranked fighter. With so many tantalizing prospects on the horizon, Lerena cannot afford the slightest misstep. At this juncture of his career, one of Lerena’s greatest mental hurdles is balancing the need to focus on the present while acknowledging exactly what’s at stake in terms of his short-term prospects.
“I think the division is starting to get exciting,” Lerena says. “It was a division that went quiet at one stage, but if you look at the guys at the top – Tony Bellew, Oleksandr Usyk – it’s a weight class that has good champions. So it’s a division I’m thriving in at the moment, and maybe down the road a few years I could go up to heavyweight and fight the bigger guys. I’ve got the skill-set to do so. But I’m still far away from that. I want to do as much as I can at cruiserweight over the next two to three years. Especially now that the division is blooming.”
To achieve these goals, Kevin Lerena keeps it simple, both in and out of the ring. He doesn’t fight for fame or fortune and is instead motivated solely by the desire to support his young family. He’s spoken to youth about his rise in boxing and tries to set an example by remaining humble and diligent in honing his craft. “For me, the most important thing is living a clean life.”
Part of Lerena’s focus and dedication comes from the desire to carry forward the mantle of South Africa’s rich boxing history. Pugilism has both popular and cultural significance in South Africa, with distinguished fighters like Dingaan Thobela, Jacob Matlala, Corrie Sanders, Gerrie Coetzee, and Hekkie Budler standing out amongst so many others. Kevin Lerena, keenly aware of this history and tradition, wants to join that elite group, reinvigorate the sport in his country, and be recognized as a standard-bearer for South African boxing.
“By the end of this year I’d like to be firmly in the top ten. I want to fight for a world title in 2018.” — Zachary Alapi