The chance to unify two world titles live on HBO this Saturday is much more than Jeffrey Mathebula could have hoped for.
Mathebula, who faces Nonito Donaire at the Home Depot Centre in Carson, Calif., this weekend, has been hanging around backstage in the junior featherweight scene for the past four years, but has never been able to step through the curtain.
After rematching and winning the IBF’s version of the 122-pound title from Takalani Ndlovu in March, Mathebula (26-3, 14 knockouts) was still in the unenviable position of being a relative unknown fighting out of South Africa—not exactly prime real estate for North American premium networks. His promoter, Branco Milenkovic, had his work cut out for him if he didn’t want to see his charge caught in the mandatory defense carousel.
To Mathebula’s delight, Milenkovic came through with the biggest fight possible in the division, on the biggest stage.
“After winning the title against Takalani, I was waiting for a voluntary defense, but Branco went much higher and secured a unification bout for me,” Mathebula told RingTV.com. “I want to give a good fight to HBO, Top Rank and Nonito.”
For months, reports indicated that Donaire (28-1, 18 KOs), who holds the WBO junior featherweight strap, would be facing Cristian Mijares on a forthcoming HBO date. It was a natural fit from a matchmaker’s standpoint. Mijares had been seen on American television before, was older, slower, and relatively the same size as Donaire.
According to Milenkovic though, he didn’t need to “sell” anyone on the idea of Mathebula as a challenger for Donaire, even though he isn’t well known in this part of the world. Rather, HBO simply agreed with what most of the boxing public believes: His fighter is a much bigger test for Donaire than what Mijares would have been.
“We don’t chase other promoters in order to look for fights. When you have a champion in the right division, such as (junior featherweight), the fight will come sooner or later,” said Milenkovic. “We did notice in electronic and print media reports about Nonito fighting all different guys in his next defense. The name that was coming all the time was Mijares. I never had a doubt that Jeffrey was a more credible fighter for Nonito than Mijares. I think this is what Top Rank and HBO was aware of as well.”
While he wasn’t exactly expecting this chance to come, THE RING’s No. 6-rated junior featherweight does believe that he should have been fighting on American television a long time ago.
In 2009, the 33-year old lost a closely contested split decision to Celestino Caballero that both he and several ringside observers believed he deserved to win. Two fights later, Caballero was fighting on HBO airwaves, while Mathebula was taking a six-round bounce-back fight and reconsidering his future.
“I thought I won it easy,” said Mathebula. “Every time I saw Caballero fight I thought it should be me. After the Caballero fight I was honestly thinking of giving up on boxing. I just thought, ‘I can’t get a decision.’ It was not only because of the Caballero fight, but when I fought Takalani the first time as well. Many people thought I won but it was a split decision same like in Panama.”
Mathebula was referring to another debatable split decision to Takalani Ndlovu in 2009, an IBF title eliminator. Since then, though, he has received the nod in two split decisions, one in another eliminator bout with Oscar Chauke, and the aforementioned second meeting with Ndlovu.
His recent good fortune has him feeling a little more optimistic about his chances on the scorecards in his first trip to the United States.
“The Takalani fight was at home in South Africa and we had South African judges,” said Mathebula, “so it will be unfair for me to say I worry for officials in USA. We’ve had South African fighters getting decisions in the USA. Branco was at the same venue a few weeks ago for (Vusi) Malinga vs. (Leo) Santa Cruz, which was the best fight of the night. He told me that the California Commission is one of the best he (has worked) with and we will have one South African judge, for which I’m grateful to both the IBF and California Commission.”
There is, of course, the notion amongst those who have seen Donaire’s destructive knockouts of Fernando Montiel and Wladimir Sidorenko that the scorecards will not come into play whatsoever. In recent outings against Omar Narvaez and Wilfredo Vazquez Jr., though, Donaire hasn’t looked quite as menacing.
“He was a big puncher in flyweight when he fought my stable mate Moruti (Mthlane), and he didn’t hurt him. Maybe he has improved his power now when he went three divisions higher, as he is more comfortable. In any event, I can punch and I can take a punch,” declared Mathebula, who has only been stopped once, in 2003 when he was still a domestic-level fighter.
Mathebula has worked closely in the gym with Mthlane, trying to learn the intricacies of Donaire’s approach in the ring from someone with first-hand knowledge. He has also been surrounded and aided by a bevy of talent in Nick Durandt’s gym in South Africa, including former IBF junior lightweight beltholder Malcolm Klassen, and former WBC bantamweight title challenger Simphiwe Vetyeka.
His training camp seems to be a collective effort among some of the country’s best fighters to help get Durandt off the schneid on HBO. The famed South Africa cornerman has backed four combatants in losing efforts on the network, albeit to elite competition, including Phillip Ndou (vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr.), Lehlohonolo Ledwaba (vs. Manny Pacquiao), Silence Mabuza (vs. Rafael Marquez) and Mzonke Fana (vs. Marco Antonio Barrera).
South African fighters have been dominant at 122 pounds since 1990, with Ledwaba, Welcome Ncita, and Vuyani Bungu all enjoying lengthy title reigns. However, no countryman has ever unified world titles, in any weight class.
He couldn’t have predicted it three years ago, but Mathebula now has the chance—and the confidence—to reverse a lot of bad fortune on Saturday.
Follow Corey Erdman on Twitter @corey_erdman
Photo/Chris Farina – Top Rank