By Jake Donovan
A 34-year old challenger hits the road in pursuit of a second title reign in the super bantamweight division. Fighting away from home has not been a favorable scenario for the aging ex-titlist, who has previously come up short in his lone two fights outside of his home country. This particular fight comes on the heels of a nine-month period of inactivity, that bout his lone ring appearance in the past 17 months since his title reign came to a disappointing end.
Yes, Jeffrey Mathebula has Kiko Martinez exactly where he wants him.
On paper, it can be assumed that the deck is stacked against Mathebula, who vies for his old title in tonight’s showdown with Martinez. The title fight takes place in Elche, Spain, giving Martinez home field advantage for the first defense of the belt he won in emphatic fashion over the summer in the United States.
The crazy thing about Martinez’ knockout win over Jhonatan Romero this past August was that the fight came with Mathebula’s blessing, even though the South African was due the mandatory title fight. Agreeing to step aside was a calculated risk, one they believe will reap major dividends tonight.
“To be honest, we would rather fight in Spain than in the United States,” insists Branco Milenkovich, Mathebula’s longtime promoter. “We were happy that Kiko beat Romero, and that (tonight’s) fight is in Spain. Had we fought Romero, the trip to the United States would have been double the flying time as it is to travel to Spain, plus the higher tax implications.
“That’s why we agreed to let Kiko have the fight with Romero (in August). His adviser, Sampson Lewkowich and I both knew he was going to stop Romero, and that this fight could easily be made next. If you think about it, Kiko wouldn’t be champion if it weren’t for us. After tonight, he won’t be champion any longer because of us,” Milenkovich playfully quips.
Mathebula (27-4-2, 14KO) was perhaps wise to step aside for a shot at Romero. The fight may or may not have aired on HBO, as was the case with Martinez’ knockout win to dethrone the newly crowned titlist. Mathebula’s lone HBO appearance ended in disappointment, losing a landslide decision to Nonito Donaire in July ’12, a win that was part of his conqueror’s Fighter of the Year campaign.
Any financial compensation that would have come with facing Romero wouldn’t have allowed for the type of preparation he was afforded heading into tonight’s title fight with Martinez. The past two road trips for Mathebula ended in despair, losing wide to Donaire and dropping a split decision to Celestino Caballero in a May ’09 bout which most observers felt went the wrong way.
The common denominator in both fights was the minimal amount of time spent in country. Mathebula was in the United States (for Donaire) and Panama (for Caballero) for about a week, normal time for most visiting challenger but still not very long at well when traveling halfway around the world.
For Martinez, the lead-in to the fight is right in line with the calculated risk taken with passing on one title shot in anticipation of another.
“Jeffrey arrived in Spain four weeks ago,” Milenkovich reveals. “This is the first time I’ve done this for Jeffrey as his promoter. The weather is summertime in South Africa compared to the current cold weather in Europe. He’s been in country long enough to get acclimated to his surroundings and also properly finish up training, rather than doing both at the same time.”
His return to the title fray came about by settling an ongoing rivalry with countryman Takalani Ndlovu, whom Milenkovich also promotes. Ndlovu won their first encounter in Sept. ’10, a win that set up his third fight with Steve Molitor, finally coming up aces to claim a long elusive championship.
The reign was short-lived, lasting exactly 52 weeks before Mathebula upended his in country rival for his lone title fight win amidst a career coming up on 12 years in service. Despite losing the belt to Donaire in his lone defense, the year he led left him with the belief that he has a lot more to offer at the championship level.
A points win over Ndlovu earlier this year – making him 2-1 in the series – put him in position to once again fight for the title. Despite running the risk of growing stale while on the shelf for nine months, Mathebula insists he’s never felt more confident heading into tonight’s championship bout.
“I’m not a fighter who has ever given up easily,” says the former titlist. “I fought Nonito with a broken jaw, and even though I came up short, I never gave up in the fight. It was a great experience for me. So was winning my first world title against Takalani earlier in the year. I’m glad to have the chance to show (tonight) that I still belong with the best fighters.”
Given Martinez’ dominant showing over the summer along with the fight taking place in his home country, Mathebula enters the fight as a modest underdog. As styles make fights, the challenger and his team likes his chances against the shorter defending titlist.
“I think Jeffrey has a very fair chance of beating Kiko,” Milenkovich believes. “Not just because Kiko lost to Takalani (in a Sept. ’09 title eliminator) and Jeffrey has beaten him twice. But because Jeffrey is a very difficult opponent for anyone.”
The bout with Ndlovu was four years and many adjustments ago for Martinez (29-4, 21KO), who has since won nine of his last 10 bouts. The lone loss over that stretch came against unbeaten Carl Frampton, regarded as one of the best super bantamweights in the world.
Martinez struggled with Ndlovu in their bout way back when, but proved height and reach disadvantages weren’t at all difficult to overcome in breaking down and stopping Romero to win the title he defends tonight. He has vowed to do the same to Mathebula, who naturally takes issue with the statement, even if he understands where it’s coming from.
“Kiko is a better fighter than when we saw him (versus Ndlovu) in South Africa, and I know he’s well prepared to fight me,” Mathebula acknowledges. “He said he will stop me the same way he stopped Romero. That’s good he thinks that. But I’ve come too far to allow that to happen.
“I know this can be my last shot. That’s why I came here a month ago to unfamiliar territory. I’m as ready as I can be for this chance to win back my title.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, Yahoo Boxing Ratings Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox