Johannesburg - Even though he had the world famed green and gold WBC belt hanging down his heavily-tattooed body from the side of his neck, Kevin Lerena seemed somewhat in disbelief.
Granted it was not the world title but rather the silver belt which confirms he is next in line to challenge for the real deal.
But the popular southpaw could well have pinched himself, just to make sure he was not dreaming.
“It is surreal. I come with no amateur fight - just a great team, a great trainer and great sponsors. I am just grateful to be here. It is very surreal for me. This is a Cinderella story. Don’t let anybody in life tell you that you can’t do it because I am testament that YES YOU CAN”, he said as the crowd responded with a loud cheer.
The crowd had experienced the cagey fight with him, cheering him loudly on the rare occasions he put together some combinations and going eerily quiet when his adversary Ryad Merhy looked to have the upper hand.
Fresh from what could easily have been a deflating third round knockout defeat to Daniel Bubois in a heavyweiight clash in December, Lerena needed to win the WBC bridgerweight eliminator to remain relevant in the fistic sport that he took on without ever having laced on a glove as an amateur.
That he went on to become national and world champion at cruiserweight spoke to his talent and recently he seemed well on the way to realising his long-held dream of becoming world heavyweight champion. But the Dubois fight ended all that.
Kevin Lerena 🇿🇦 (29-2) wins the WBC bridgerweight title eliminator against Ryad Merhy 🇧🇪 (31-2) in Kempton Park, South Africa.— Permante (@PermantexG) May 13, 2023
The verdicts were: 118-110, 116-112, 115-113. pic.twitter.com/SJgkxLf3iH
It did not end his desire though and against a tough opponent in Merhy he fought a smart fight to set up a clash with champion Lukasz Rozanski. He dictated matters from the onset but he was very careful not to get too involved and hardly loosened up, throwing punches when he believed the moments was right.
It was a cagey, cautious and calculated fight that brought him the desired result – a unanimous points victory over an opponent whose record suggested he had the potential to switch the lights off on Lerena at any given time.
“Kudos to Ryad Merhy, he is a good fighter. We knew we had a tough fight tonight. But tonight was my night. I brought my warrior spirit and I won. I knew Ryad Merhy is a counter puncher, so I was trying to put the pressure because he doesn’t really like fighting on the backfoot. When he is coming forward, he is dangerous. So I had to put him on the backfoot and he had no answer for that.”
His trainer Peter Smith explained their fight plan: “I knew we were in for the biggest fight of his career (so) we worked on a strategy. I’d studied Merhy. He is a smart fighter. He is a dangerous fighter but there were a few things we spotted in his last fights. We knew his strategy, we knew his plan and you know what, but it was game, set, match.”
For Lerena it was all a bit surreal. But he will no doubt soon realise it is real and get back to the gym to start preparing for the world championship clash with Rozanski – a fight promoter Rodney Berman wants to bring to South Africa.