By Lyle Fitzsimmons
He’s a dual-belted world champion at 105 pounds and a former belt-holder one weight class up at 108, but South African slugger Hekkie Budler is far from content with what he’s already done.
In fact, just a few days out from his next title defense – against Thai challenger Pigmy Kokietgym on Saturday in Monte Carlo – the International Boxing Organization strawweight kingpin’s promotional team is laying groundwork for full-scale world domination for the “Baddest Little Man on the Planet.”
The fight against the 32-year-old Kokietgym will mark the first championship-level appearance away from home soil for Budler, a South African who turned 26 in mid-May and has racked up five defenses of the IBO strawweight belt he captured with a wide 12-round decision over Michael Landero in 2011.
His one-round stoppage of Karluis Diaz three months ago netted him the World Boxing Association’s highest honor in the weight class as well, and the addition of new jewelry has promoter Rodney Berman, chairman/CEO of Golden Gloves, training his eyes on the other three major title-holders at 105.
“He would be a superstar if he was a heavyweight,” Berman said.
“He’s all action and has improved out of sight. People beyond our borders deserve to see him anyway.”
Berman said he will make offers to International Boxing Federation champion Katsunari Takayama, World Boxing Council champion Osvaldo Novoa and World Boxing Organization champion Francisco Rodriguez Jr. to stage a tournament with two semifinal bouts before a full-fledged unification.
Budler is considered the division’s top fighter by the London-based Independent World Boxing Rankings, which include all fighters in a weight class, regardless of which title belt(s) they hold. Takayama is ranked second, followed by Novoa in third and Rodriguez at No. 20. Kokietgym is ranked No. 30.
Berman said even if the unification tournament isn’t do-able, he’ll push for a Takayama bout back in Monte Carlo in October. Takayama has defended his IBF title twice since winning it in March 2013.
“I’ll move heaven and earth (to make the fight),” Berman said.
Budler was the IBO’s champion at 108 pounds for 11 months in 2010 and 2011, winning and defending the title against Juanito Rubillar before losing it on a split decision to Gideon Buthelezi.
“The IBO has been very good to me and provided me with great opportunities and I am happy to continue to defend my IBO title,” he said. “On the other hand, I would love to add major titles to my collection of belts, so only time and patience will determine what will be on the cards for me next.”
He’s 8-0 with three knockouts since returning to the 105-pound ranks.
“I feel more comfortable and stronger at this weight,” Budler said.
“I feel that I should have boxed at this weight from the start of my career.”
Budler’s second title defense at 105 came via split decision over former IBO and IBF champion and fellow South African Nkosinathi Joyi one year ago. Joyi had been considered the best fighter in the division before losing his IBF crown to Mario Rodriguez, who then lost to Takayama in his first defense.
For his sake, Budler is concerned less with rankings and more with simply meeting all comers.
“I feel that a boxer is a boxer and no matter who fights or who dominates the weight class, the main thing that is important is that there are fighters who are good at what they do and who will challenge me,” Budler said. “If they deserve to be there, they will be.”
A rugby player as a youth, Budler was steered toward the ring at age 8 when his mother grew tired of hearing him blame teammates for losses and encouraged him to take up an activity where he’d have full responsibility for wins and losses.
He had a successful run as an amateur, including two defeats of the man who took his title at 108 pounds, Buthelezi, before ultimately turning pro at age 19 with a first-round stoppage of countryman Michael Sediane in August 2007.
Sediane never fought again, but Budler quickly ascended the ranks, ultimately capturing the IBO’s African regional crown at junior flyweight in his 11th fight and defending it twice before winning the vacant full-fledged world version over Rubillar in fight No. 15.
He made his American debut for a non-title bout in Laredo, Texas in August 2010 then lost to Buthelezi five months later, before commencing the eight-fight win streak that got him back to the title-holding fraternity. A return to the United States is a possibility if circumstances allow.
In fact, he’d welcome the chance.
“I had a great time being there,” Budler said. “The people were super nice to me and I loved fighting in America and would love to go back stateside and fight. Boxing in America is awesome and it was a real eye-opener just how big boxing is in America. I loved every second of being there.”
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
IBO strawweight title – Monte Carlo, Monaco
Hekkie Budler (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Pigmy Kokietgym (No. 21 contender/No. 30 IWBR)
Budler (25-1, 8 KO): Sixth title defense; Held IBO title at 108 pounds (2010-11, one defense)
Kokietgym (52-6-2, 22 KO): Second title fight (0-1); Unbeaten since 2010 (10-0, 4KO)
Fitzbitz says: The South African may be a relatively anonymous IBO champion to some, but he’s also the best fight in the world at 105 pounds to many. This won’t change the perceptions. Budler by decision
Vacant WBO featherweight title – Carson, Calif.
Gary Russell Jr. (No. 1 contender/No. 28 IWBR) vs. Vasyl Lomachenko (No. 4 contender/No. 64 IWBR)
Russell (24-0, 14 KO): First title fight; Seventeenth opponent coming in off a loss
Lomachenko (1-1, 1 KO): Second title fight (0-1); Fighting in third state (NV, TX, CA) in third fight
Fitzbitz says: The “fraud” tag was hung on Lomachenko after he fell short against Salido, but it’s hard to fathom how a coddled Russell would have done better. He won’t here either. Lomachenko by decision
Last week's picks: 1-1
2014 picks record: 44-11 (80.0 percent)
Overall picks record: 591-205 (74.2 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.