By Jake Donovan
Jeffrey Mathebula and Vusi Malinga are now back in the title picture after scoring separate decision wins Saturday evening in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Both fighters were forced to sit on humbling stateside losses for eight and nine months, respectively, but managed to find the win column in their title elimination bouts.
Mathebula broke a tie with longtime in country rival Takalani Ndlovu, taking a unanimous decision in their 12-round bout. Scores were 116-112 on all three cards, the lone decisive verdict in their three-fight series.
The fight was Mathebula's first since dropping a wide decision to Nonito Donaire in their 122 lb. unification bout last July in Carson, California. The bout served as the lone defense of the 122 lb. belt Mathebula acquired just four months prior with a split decision win over Ndlovu.
The 5'11" super bantamweight picked up where he left off the last time he and his countryman squared off. The bout was fought at a quick pace, despite the relatively slow start offered by Mathebula, who took a couple of rounds to find his rhythm.
Ndlovu was unable to preserve his early lead, falling behind and forced to play catchup for most of the bout. The 35-year old is now in danger of spending his remaining days as a notable stepping stone to other 122 lb. fighters, having now dropped three straight - two of which have come against Mathebula - as he falls to 33-9 (18KO).
Each of his past eight fights have either been title fights or elimination bouts, including a year-long stay as 122 lb. titlist prior to last year's loss to Mathebula. His lone win in the series came in Sept. 2010, setting up title fight and upset win in his third try against Steve Molitor in March '11.
Mathebula picks up his first win since defeating Ndlovu exactly 52 weeks ago. The 33-year old improves to 27-4-2 (14KO) and is in position to challenge for his old title. That trinket is currently in the possession of Jhonaton Romero, who won the belt in a vacant title fight against Alejandro Lopez, whose placement in the fight came with his elimination win over Ndlovu last October.
Vusi Malinga doesn't have as direct a path to his next title shot, but is one step closer after his points win over Filipino southpaw Diarh Gabutan. Scores were 117-111, 116-112 and 115-113 in the evening's co-feature, which was fought for the #2 position in the IBF bantamweight rankings.
Malinga (21-4-1, 12KO) was on the verge of a knockout at several points in the fight, but failed to close the show. His inability to capitalize on stunning Gabutan (18-2-2, 9KO) early almost came back to haunt him, as evidenced by closer-than-expected scores.
In the end, however, Malinga managed to pick up a much needed win in his first fight since last June's loss to Leo Santa Cruz in Los Angeles. Malinga became the answer to a trivia question as the opponent of Santa Cruz' breakout performance, which aired live on Showtime.
He is now in position to contend for his now-vacant belt, though will have to wait out the result of a May 11 vacant title fight between Jamie McDonnell and unbeaten knockout artist Julio Ceja.
Also on the evening's undercard:
Former flyweight title challenger Zolani Tete (now 17-3, 15KO) scored a violent 1st round knockout of Eduard Peniero (15-2, 10KO). Tete went on the attack early before putting the visiting Filipino down and out for several minutes after just 37 seconds of ring action.
Patrick Malinga and Thompson Mokwana fought to a bizarre split decision draw in their third meeting. Scores were all over the place, with Malinga taking a 119-110 on one card, while Mokwana was awarded the fight by a tally of 117-112, a massive 15 point swing between the two cards. The third judge had it 114-114 to produce the stalemate.
Mokwona (18-6-1, 10KO) holds two wins over Malinga (27-8-2, 24KO), including a 7th round knockout in their second fight exactly 52 weeks ago on the undercard of Mathebula's rematch win over Ndlovu and a split decision win one year prior to that. The bout was Malinga's last ring appearance prior to Saturday, and is now winless in his last three contests.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, Yahoo Boxing Ratings Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: