By Keith Idec
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — This time a week ago, there weren’t many people outside of Kaizer Mabuza’s family who believed the Devon Alexander-Juan Urango fight tonight would mean much to him.
Mabuza was 22-6-3 in his 10-year pro career, hadn’t defeated a legitimate contender and traveled halfway around the world to fight a heavy-handed former junior welterweight champion in the prime of his career. Worse yet, Mabuza had lost twice to fellow South African Isaac Hlatshwayo, a former welterweight champion who knocked out Mabuza in the first round of Mabuza’s pro debut and easily out-pointed Mabuza in their rematch three years later.
Kendall Holt, Mabuza’s heavily favored opponent last Saturday night, dropped Hlatshwayo three times and dominated him en route to a 12-round unanimous decision win in November 2006. The Holt-Hlatshwayo fight also occurred in the very same Bally’s Events Center where the Holt-Mabuza match was to take place.
All of those perceived disadvantages helped make Mabuza a 14-1 underdog entering their IBF junior welterweight elimination match, according to several Internet sports books. In the words of Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, Holt’s close friend and manager, Mabuza was brought to Holt’s home state to lose.
Mabuza manhandled Holt for much of their astonishingly one-sided, six-round fight, though, before Aroz Gist, Holt’s trainer, wouldn’t allow Holt to leave his corner for the seventh round.
The 30-year-old South African contender didn’t really hurt Holt with any one punch, nor did he knock down the onetime WBO 140-pound champion. He just relentlessly pressured his more accomplished opponent and hit Holt with an array of body shots and uppercuts that left Holt bleeding from his nose for five rounds and unable to adequately defend himself.
“Sometimes being the underdog is good, because you don’t have too much pressure,” Mabuza said. “That’s why I came here all the way from South Africa to do my best.”
Mabuza’s best coincided with the poorest performance of Holt’s nine-year pro career, and it quickly made Mabuza a player in the loaded 140-pound division.
He was the IBF’s 13th-ranked junior welterweight contender before he fought Holt (25-4, 13 KOs), who was rated No. 4. The only reason he fought Holt was because matchmakers at Top Rank Inc., which promotes Holt, were turned down for one reason or another by every other IBF-rated contender when they were trying to schedule a fight that was designed to get Holt another title shot.
Now, however, it is Mabuza who is guaranteed an IBF title shot in his next fight. The magnitude of his career-changing victory over Holt wasn’t lost on Mabuza or his trainer, South Africa’s Manny Fernandez.
“He’s got two kids back home,” said Fernandez, referencing Mabuza’s daughters, ages 7 and 4. “He’s fighting for his family. This youngster is very hungry. His very first fight with me he had a loss, and from there we’ve been winning. It’s only a matter of time before he becomes a world champion.”
Mabuza has won eight straight fights since settling for a six-round draw with Anthony Tshehla (27-11-3, 13 KOs) two years ago in Secunda, South Africa.
Theoretically, Mabuza is supposed to box the victor of the Alexander-Urango unification fight next. Should the winner between St. Louis’ Alexander (19-0, 12 KOs) and the Colombian-born Urango (22-2-1, 17 KOs) tonight at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. (9:30; HBO), opt not to meet Mabuza next, the winner could be stripped of the IBF title and Mabuza could fight another IBF-ranked contender for a vacant championship.
That’s what occurred after Timothy Bradley (25-0, 11 KOs, 1 NC) beat Holt in their unification fight 11 months ago in Montreal.
He gave up the WBC belt he had won from Junior Witter (37-3-2, 22 KOs) in May 2008 in Nottingham, England, rather than fight Alexander, his mandatory challenger. Alexander instead beat Witter to win the vacant WBC crown seven months ago in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
“I’m so happy,” Mabuza said. “I’m looking forward to fighting for the world title.”
Holt, however, is faced with a much more daunting reputation restoration project than those he attacked after his three previous defeats.
The Paterson, N.J., native’s first loss, a first-round technical knockout to Thomas Davis in June 2004, was widely viewed as the consequence of carelessness in an ESPN2 fight he was winning easily before Davis drilled him with a right hand in Chicago. That bout also was stopped with just one second left in the first round, while Holt remained on his feet.
His second defeat, an 11th-round TKO loss to Colombia’s Ricardo Torres in September 2007, was commonly considered one of the most controversial contests of the past decade. Holt, again on his feet, was stopped amid a dangerous downpour of beer, soda, water, cans, cups and plastic bottles as the Salon Jumbo del Country Club turned into one of the most unruly ringside environments imaginable in Barranquilla, Colombia, Torres’ hometown.
Holt’s third setback, the aforementioned unanimous decision defeat to Bradley, was even less damaging because Holt floored the resilient Bradley twice during a competitive bout.
But Mabuza made Holt look like he didn’t want to be in the ring last week. That’s what made this inexplicable loss most troublesome to his handlers.
“He wasn’t there mentally,” said Carl Moretti, Top Rank’s vice president of boxing operations. “I don’t know why. There’s only one person who can say why. He won the first round. But after that, it was the fastest downhill [slide] for a fighter in the ring that I’ve ever seen.
“It was like being a heavy bag and letting the guy do what he wanted. [Mabuza is] a tough kid, but I know 20 junior welterweights that’ll beat him right now. This is strange. [Holt] just didn’t want to be in the ring.”
Holt, 28, said when he returns to the ring that he’ll be a welterweight. His camp seems split regarding fighting at 147 pounds, but Holt believes he’ll feel fresher as a welterweight because he walks around near 150 pounds and won’t waste nearly as much energy making a higher weight.
Whether he’s a welterweight or a junior welterweight, Holt realizes he’ll have to win lower-profile fights before earning the type of opportunity he had against Mabuza
“Losing the Bradley fight was a big setback,” Moretti said. “This was gigantic. But he’s going to have to want it more than anybody first. He’s going to have to want to come back.”
Keith Idec covers boxing for The Record and Herald News, of Woodland Park, N.J., and BoxingScene.com.