Cape Town - When Kevin Lerena stepped into the ring at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London a few months ago, it was a dream come true.
The 30-year-old southpaw from Johannesburg had given up his dominance in the cruiserweight division to try to become a world-famous heavyweight – a seriously difficult task, as he wasn’t the biggest boxer around at 1.85m and 106kg.
In comparison, his opponent last December, British champion Daniel Dubois, towered over him at 1.96m and 110kg as they went toe-to-toe for the WBA (Regular) heavyweight title.
In addition, it was on the undercard of the massive Tyson Fury v Derek Chisora WBC heavyweight title bout, which Fury dominated until the referee stopped the bout to end Chisora’s suffering in the 10th round.
But that didn’t deter the ‘Gutter Boy from Joburg’, as Lerena described himself ahead of the bout, and the South African showed what he was capable of right from the outset.
His aim was to emulate the last SA heavyweight world champion, the late Corrie Sanders, who famously knocked out Ukrainian star Wladimir Klitschko in the second round to claim the WBO title in Hanover, Germany.
Dubois was knocked down three times in the first round alone on December 3, but English referee Howard Foster controversially called an end to the round 11 seconds early to help the home-town favourite to recover in his corner.
Lerena was then struck by an uppercut in the third round, and Foster didn’t afford him the same opportunity to get his bearings again.
Now, ahead of his return to the ring in two weeks’ time, the Dubois defeat still rankles. “You learn with every fight you have. I was unfortunate not to get the victory after I had the guy down three times. I thought it was over, and my concentration lapsed and I got caught… I thought I could have continued, but it’s at the discretion of the ref,” Lerena told Independent Media this week.
“I would’ve got the decision in the US or SA. He went down three times … anywhere in the world, two knockouts is over.
“(But) If you look back at the past, you will never be going forward into a good future. It is what it is. It was a great experience, and I showed the world that I can stun the biggest heavyweight and put him on his a*s… Now it’s time to move forward and continue my campaign in chasing greatness.
“Looking back at a 12-year career, it’s not the be-all and end-all. I am very proud of myself, and I just look forward to what the future holds for me.”
That future begins at Emperors Palace on Saturday, May 13, when Lerena will face Belgium’s Ivory Coast-born Ryad Merhy in a WBC bridgerweight title eliminator.
While his own record is an impressive 28-2, with 14 knockouts, his opponent – also 30 – is still also a top pugilist at 30-1, with 25 KOs.
“It’s about generating revenue, and by hopefully becoming bridgerweight world champion, it could give me another shot at a heavyweight world title, which is very prestigious,” Lerena explains.
“It is the glamour division – the pinnacle division is the heavyweight division. Having said that, in order to get another shot at the heavyweights, the bridgerweight helps me do that.
“I also want to give a special mention to my key sponsors, because the guys have been helping me through the training camp – Under Armour, World Sports Betting, SkyNet.
“The guys at Under Armour have been getting behind me, and not just from an apparel point of view, but also from a PR point of view. The Under Armour team have been really pushing me over the last couple of months, and I really appreciate it.
“At the end of the day, it all comes down to money, and by being a world champion, your credibility (rises) to get to the heavyweights again.”
Promoter Rodney Berman’s Golden Gloves is organising the fight, and said recently that at the official mandatory 30-day pre-fight weigh-in, Lerena was at 105kg and Merhy 101kg.
But Lerena is careful not to get ahead of himself. Merhy is a tough opponent, and will push him to the limit. They were due to fight in 2021 in Belgium for Merhy’s WBA (Regular) cruiserweight title, with Lerena the IBO champion, but the latter had to withdraw a few weeks out due to a broken hand.
So, now they will finally meet, and a victory for the South African will see him take on Poland’s Lukasz Rozanski, who won the WBC bridgerweight title last weekend with a first-round knockout in what was described as a “bar brawl”-type bout against Croatia’s Alen Babic at the G2A Arena, in Rozanski’s home town of Rzeszow.
“It’s a big fight (against Merhy). Good competitor, similar record to me. He is a former cruiserweight world champion, so it’s two former world champions colliding for the WBC silver belt,” Lerena said.
“I am looking forward to the challenge, and I have a lot of respect for Ryad Merhy the fighter. But come May 13, respect will be out of the window, and I need to get back to winning ways in explosive fashion.
“Ja, I think so – that’s the plan (for a slugfest). We want to put a hard fight together, and we know it’s not going to be easy. But I am just looking forward to the challenge.
“It would be a world title fight against Lukasz Rozanski, who just beat Alen Babic.
“So, I can’t look past Ryad Merhy, because I need to take care of business on May 13. Hopefully I can come through that tough test, and then talk about who comes next.
“Training has been going good. I feel that I’ve had a better preparation in terms of the quality that I am putting out. My skill-set in sparring is a lot better than I was for Daniel Dubois, to be honest.
“So, I’m in a better headspace, and also I believe in better skills condition and physical condition.
“Things have really come together… it’s starting to click. And I think you are going to see the best version of Kevin Lerena on May 13.”
Who knows, that best version might see Lerena in the ring with Fury himself one day…