It was so much easier and so much more fun, so as a kid Thabiso Mchunu would lose himself on sunny afternoons kicking around a soccer ball rather than honing his boxing skills in the dingy gyms of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Mchunu enjoyed it. His father, Alex, didn’t.
“Sometimes I would skip the gym and play soccer all day. Then I would come back home and my father would shout at me,” Thabiso recalled with a thunderous laugh. “My mother had to talk him into letting me back into the gym when I was 14. I wasn’t sure, because all my friends stayed with soccer. At 14, boxing looked like something that I was made for.”
Thabiso is slightly undersized for a cruiserweight at 5-foot-9 (though he is listed as 5-8), but everything else about the 25-year-old South African makes him a threat. From his squat, chiseled frame to his southpaw style and quick hands, Thabiso is a rising star in the 200-pound ranks, currently rated No. 10 by THE RING.
In his first fight ever out of South Africa, and first in the United States, Mchunu chewed up “Fast” Eddie Chambers in a 10-round unanimous decision in August 2013.
American fight fans will get another glimpse of Mchunu (14-1, 10 knockouts) this Friday night when he takes on 33-year-old Olanrewaju Durodola (17-1, 16 KOs) in a 12-round fight for the vacant NABF cruiserweight title. It will be part of the undercard featuring the 10-round middleweight main event between Curtis “Showtime” Stevens and Patrick Majewski on NBC Sports Network’s Fight Night from Atlantic City.
Mchunu is looking to build on what he did against Chambers, who, at 6-1, was five inches taller and had a 2¼-inch reach advantage. It didn’t matter. Mchunu was a master at distance, fighting wonderfully off his back foot and showing great head movement.
That all goes back to Mchunu’s extensive amateur past. He had 173 amateur fights. By his fourth professional fight, he won the South African cruiserweight title with a 9th-round stoppage over Patrick Madzinga.
He stopped seven of his first eight opponents, three in the first round. Mchunu never got a chance to avenge his lone setback, a surprising sixth-round kayo to Zack Mwekassa in September 2011, because Mwekassa was beaten by Danie Venter in the semifinals of the Nashua Super 8 Last Man Standing cruiserweight championship. So Mchunu settled for the next best thing, whacking out Venter in five in the Super 8 finals in November 2012.
And to think this dynamo was tempted to give up the fighting life for a soccer ball.
“I would train with my father, but I made sure that I made time to play soccer with my friends every time I got a chance,” said Mchunu, who began boxing when he was six, coached by his father. “I think I came around more to boxing because my father would tell me all of the time that I can be a world champion in boxing.”
The signs that Mchunu could be special were actually there quite earlier than 14. He was winning national tournaments by the age of 11. By the time he was 17, far more immersed in the sport, he made the South African national team, which exposed him to various styles throughout the world.
Mchunu, known as “The Rock,” will be giving away six inches in height to the 6-foot-2 Durodola. It’s not unique. His broad amateur past has allowed him to see almost every conceivable height difference there is.
“Beating Chambers I think showed the world my boxing skills. My height is not important,” Mchunu said. "I’ve been fighting like this since I was a kid, so I’m really not new to fighting a 6-foot-4 guy. I will outfight him, outbox him, fighting off my back foot and can still land normal punches.
“They all take me lightly when they see my height. I think Chambers did. Then when they get in the ring with me, it all changes. I become taller and I become bigger and they can actually see the change. My main goal this year is to get the opportunity to win the WBC belt for Main Events, and it’s something that I think is possible.”
Sean Smith is Thabiso’s trainer and has been with him for the last three years. Smith used to watch Mchunu in South Africa and always thought of him as special. He couldn’t wait to work with him.
“I knew Thabiso was already a great counterpuncher. What we’re trying to do more of is starting to hit a lot more and get some more angles on guys,” Smith said. “In this fight, Thabiso is really going to shock the world with all of the things that he can do. I think what you’ll see different about Thabiso this time is he’s going to be more explosive and not solely relying on his skills. Thabiso can show the world that he’s arrived.”