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 road-tripping Nicaraguan challenger Byron Rojas on Saturday night in South Africa – the International Boxing Organization minimumweight kingpin’s promotional team is continuing a blueprint for full-scale world domination as the “Baddest Little Man on the Planet.”
The fight against the 25-year-old Rojas is the second straight home turf appearance after three straight 14-hour plane trips to fight across the Mediterranean in Monte Carlo. He defeated Pigmy Kokietgym and Chao Zhong Xiong in his first two appearances there in 2014, then rode shotgun to Gennady Golovkin for a February 2015 defeat of Jesus Silvestre Cardenas.
It’s also defense No. 10 of the IBO belt he captured with a wide 12-round decision over Michael Landero in 2011. Now 27, Budler’s one-round stoppage of Karluis Diaz in March 2014 netted him the World Boxing Association’s highest honor in the weight class as well.
“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.”
Budler’s trainer, Colin Nathan, insisted complacency won’t be an issue against Rojas – though he does believe the challenger is in over his head.
“Rojas is a good fighter, but he’ll be up against a very good, potentially great, fighter,” Nathan said. “I’m hyper-critical of my fighters and although Brian Mitchell shouted me down and said Hekkie is already great, I believe true greatness is around the corner. We’re expecting a tough fight. Rojas throws lots of combinations and is aggressive. But Hekkie can adapt, and that’s going to be the difference.”
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.
IBF champion Jose Argumedo is ranked second, followed by WBC champion Wanheng Menayothin in sixth and Kosei Tanaka, the WBO’s champion, in seventh.
Rojas, though he’s never beaten a fighter ranked better than No. 41 in a pro career stretching back to 2010, is slotted ninth.
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 12-0 with four 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 in 2013. Joyi had been considered the best fighter in the division before losing his IBF crown to Mario Rodriguez, who then lost to Katsunari 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 12-fight win streak that’s gotten 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/WBA minimumweight titles – Kempton Park, South Africa
Hekkie Budler (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Byron Rojas (No. 8 WBA/No. 9 IWBR)
Budler (29-1, 9 KO): Tenth IBO title defense; Held IBO title at 108 pounds (2010-11, one defense)
Rojas (16-2-3, 8 KO): First title fight; First fight outside Nicaragua
Fitzbitz says: For a guy who’s not fought outside his home country, Rojas has built up a decent level of respect. But in Budler he’s probably bitten off a bit more than he can chew. Budler by decision
Last week’s picks: 1-0 (WIN: Flanagan)
2016 picks record: 12-3 (80.0 percent)
Overall picks record: 744-252 (74.6 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.