A lot has changed in just over four months for both Adrian Curiel and Sivenathi Nontshinga.
In November of last year, Nontshinga was the toast of South African boxing, having won the IBF light flyweight title in September of 2022 over Hector Flores. The win over Flores was a spectacularly brutal twelve-round battle, one that found itself on the shortlist for the year’s best fights, and in conversation as one of the most thrilling battles the division had ever seen. Nontshinga became a cult hero of sorts, particularly after his trainer, Colin Nathan, gave him a moving inspirational speech after a particularly brutal ninth round, bringing to the forefront his incredible life’s journey from a farming village in Eastern Cape to a world class boxer.
“You’re down. You have nine minutes to change your life,” said Nathan. “Do you want to change your life?”
The speech was the spark that Nontshinga needed, as he rallied through the pain and exhaustion to outlast Flores and leave Hermosillo a world champion. Less than a year later, in July of 2023, he was able to have his homecoming moment as champion, defeating Regie Suganob in East London, Eastern Cape, and turn his eye towards a potential unification. The bridge to a fight like that was to be a win over Adrian Curiel, a lightly-regarded Mexico City with four losses on his record and zero twelve rounders. Oddsmakers listed the fight accordingly, with Nontshinga closing as high as a -1100 favorite according to odds aggregator ProBoxingOdds.
Except Nontshinga’s life changed again. To put into perspective how much things changed: Heading into their rematch this week in Oaxaca, Mexico, Nontshinga is around a +100 underdog. That’s because things didn’t go as planned in Monte Carlo, with Curiel scoring a Knockout of the Year contender over Nontshinga, flattening him with an overhand right that ended the fight immediately in the second round.
Just two fights prior, Curiel was in a tooth-and-nail battle with the 15-9 Jose Ramirez in Mexico City, one which ended in a technical draw, far away from the gaze of the mainstream boxing public. In the gym, he’d practiced the very overhand right that would prove fruitful over and over after studying Nontshinga relentlessly. He’d told his mother on the phone that night that she shouldn’t be worried, because no one could beat him that night, feeling the same sense of irrational invincibility Nontshinga felt the night he walked through hell to beat Flores. For a round and a half, Curiel bulldozed forward, eating counters from Nontshinga, having his patented double left hook blocked again and again, before he uncorked the shot he was truly waiting to land, the one that changed his life.
This Friday, the two meet again, this time in Mexico, Curiel’s homeland and the site of Nontshinga’s finest hour. It’s a fight that will answer, or help answer, a variety of questions that are ultimately left lingering when a fight ends as early and as brutally as their first contest did.
The large question, of course, is whether the result was a fluke or not. Although the first fight was a short one, every moment leading up to the knockout did not suggest that a knockout was on its way—at least from Curiel. Curiel, in fact, was the one absorbing most of the punishment up until the knockout shot. Prior to that night, Curiel had only scored four knockouts in his career, mostly engaging in scrappy, physical battles on the upper rungs of the Mexican club scene against local light flyweights and flyweights. Is Curiel’s power for real?
There’s also the question of whether Nontshinga’s punch resistance is as shaky as it appeared to be on that night. Nontshinga had taken dozens of seemingly similar shots against Flores and continued to march forward. There are, of course, examples of fighters who get stopped early in fights and it does not signal that they’re on an imminent downward slide towards retirement. Sometimes, those fighters even win the rematch, as seen with Bektemir Melekuziev after getting starched by Gabe Rosado. More commonly however, early knockouts are a bad sign—after all, no knockout is a good thing, as the punch card, so to speak, only has so many holes to poke through before there’s nothing more to give. Was Nontshinga’s war with Flores a sign that he's capable of absorbing more, or that he’d given everything he had on that night and has little left to offer?
The stakes for the bout have also heightened since they fought the first time. The divisional kingpin, Kenshiro Teraji, has solidified himself as a borderline Pound For Pound talent, one that has now drawn the interest of western broadcast audiences as well. A unification bout with him is big business relative to the 108-pound weightclass, certainly bigger than anything either Curiel or Nontshinga could have imagined even a year ago, let alone in their adolescence as diminutive fighters.
The fighters also needn’t look too far for inspiration in their quest to answer the obvious questions surrounding them. In the co-feature to them is Mauricio Lara, himself a fighter who was once an out-of-the-blue world champion, proved to be anything but a fluke. In Nontshinga’s own camp is Hekkie Budler, a fighter who was written off after a stoppage loss to Hiroto Kyoguchi, but bounced back with an upset win in Mexico over Elwin Soto to earn a crack at Teraji.
Who will answer the questions in the way they’d hoped in Oaxaca?