It is fitting that the ‘Rainbow Nation’ of South Africa is home to one of boxing’s most colourful world champions.
The charismatic Hekkie Budler, with his multi-coloured hair and blistering handspeed, is widely-regarded as one of the finest fighters in the lower weights and the Johannesburg stylist will showcase his skills before an international audience when he defends his WBA strawweight title against rugged Thai Pigmy Kokietgym in über-rich Monaco on June 21st.
South Africa has always had a deep talent pool in boxing, especially in the lighter weights, but the relative weakness of the Rand against major currencies has denied its leading lights the opportunity on a grander stage until promoter Rodney Berman’s game-changing deal to feature his fighters at the opulent Casino de Monte-Carlo.
Budler, 25-1 (8), will quite possibly become the first patron sporting a punk hairstyle to be admitted through the doors of a Monaco casino. The South African changes his hair colour on a fight-by-fight basis after a suggestion by his hairdresser that he ‘ try something new’. “Everyone always asks me what colour my hair is going to be so I kept going with it,” Hekkie told Boxing Monthly over the phone from Johannesburg. “I tell my hairdresser to go crazy and she chooses the look. Sometimes the colour doesn’t wash out afterwards so I shave off my hair. People then stop me in the street and say, ‘Are you Hekkie? Because you don’t have the colourful hair.’ ”
It is a far cry from Budler’s days as a child growing up in the Newlands Area of Johannesburg where an early lack of sportsmanship propelled him almost by accident into the fight game. “When I was younger I hated losing,” Budler told BM. “My parents couldn’t play a board game with me because if I lost I would throw the board to one side. I was playing rugby and my team lost and I blamed everyone else. Someone told my mum I should play a sport where I can’t blame anyone, except myself, so I chose boxing.”
Though South Africa is notable for producing a number of elite boxers in the lighter weights it is highly unusual for a Caucasian fighter to be quite so small. “I just stopped growing,” explained Budler, who was picked on for his diminutive stature at school, even after he first laced gloves. “When I won my first amateur title I weighed 45kg. The year after I scaled 48kg at 14 years old and then stayed the same throughout my whole amateur career. I am still the same weight as a professional.”
After winning his first 17 pro fights as a light-flyweight, Budler dropped an agonizing split decision against compatriot Gideon Buthelezi, who he had beaten in the amateurs. The defeat prompted a career rethink and move down to boxing’s lightest weight class where Budler has since flourished. “After the Buthelezi fight I was broken,” confessed Hekkie who fought that night with a back injury. “I thought that was the end of me. Then I figured out that I wanted to be a champion even more. That fight just proved to me that when I step into the gym I have to train harder than everybody else. “I never pulled weight to make light-flyweight. I just trained to be in the division,” said Budler, who is nicknamed ‘The Hexecutioner’. “The guys I was fighting were all dropping down to make my weight and naturally bigger than me. So we decided to move down in weight and it has worked out brilliantly.”
After winning the lesser-regarded IBO crown in a second weight class, Budler faced former IBF title-holder Nkosinathi Joyi, then 23-1 (16), in a crossroads fight between world class South Africans in June 2013. “In South Africa, people thought we would get murdered in that fight,” remembered trainer and manager Colin Nathan, who has coached Budler since his amateur days. “But I knew in my heart that if Hekkie listened to my gameplan - ‘work angles, keep him off-balance, let him lead and look for the counter’ - we were going to win.” “That fight made me what I am,” added Budler, recalling the career-defining split decision victory. “Joyi was my idol. I looked up to the guy ever since I was an amateur. Beating him made me stronger, have more belief in myself.”
Exuding renewed confidence, Budler halted Argentine southpaw Hugo Verchelli in four to win the WBA interim crown and was elevated to full WBA world championship status by knocking out Colombian Karluis Diaz in a single round in March. Now the South African hopes to coax one of his fellow title-holders into a unification bout in the neutral locale of Monaco. IBF champion Katsunari Takayama, a former Joyi victim, has been in contact via Facebook and the two rivals have already engaged in banter on social media.
“After the Diaz fight, Takayama said, ‘congratulations, wonderful fight’, but claimed I didn’t want to fight him,” said Budler, who engaged in 150 amateur bouts losing only 10. “He said he is ready for the unification, but I am still waiting. Takayama is probably the best of the other champions. I haven’t seen the others fight (WBC champion Oswaldo Novoa and WBO title-holder Francisco Rodriguez Jr, both from Mexico), but their records do not suggest they are that good. Takayama is very durable, very strong. Competitively, he gives everything. I feel confident I could beat him, but he’s got a very tricky style. Our gameplan will have to be brilliant.
“I would like to unify the division,” continued Budler, who with trainer Nathan has identified Thailand’s unbeaten WBC No.1 Wanheng Menayothin as the true dangerman at 105lbs. “It would be my dream. Then I would like to move back up in weight and win legitimate titles at light-flyweight.“ Budler’s veteran promoter Berman, who has guided Brian Mitchell and the late ‘Baby Jake’ Matlala to world titles among others, believes his present charge can fulfill such lofty expectations. “We made a proposal to Takayama, but he is yet to come back to us,” Berman told BM over the phone from his office in Johannesburg. “We are open to fighting any of the champions to start unifying the division. Hekkie’s next outing (after Kokietgym) will probably be in September or October where we have another extravaganza planned in Monaco so, if Takayama agrees, that is the ideal place for that unification.
“Hekkie is the loveliest young man you could ever hope to meet,” added the veteran promoter. “I remember him leaving the ring after a gruelling 12-rounder and there was a paraplegic kid at ringside who wanted to meet him. Instead of heading to the changing room, which he should have done being exhausted, Hekkie spent at least 15 minutes with this kid, had pictures taken and made him feel important. That gives you some idea of his character.”
“I had Hekkie from the beginning so I’ve been able to mould him,” added Nathan, who visits the Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles every year to work with master trainer Freddie Roach. “Defensively, we’ve brushed him up. We came under a lot of criticism early in his career that Hekkie took too many shots. After working with Freddie, we’ve worked on the angles, brought that into play. Hekkie hardly takes head shots any more. His defence is really good.
“Hekkie has a strong work ethic,” continued Nathan, a former South African Judo champion who fought over 300 fights. “We’ve been working on his core strength and sitting on his punches more. We train at altitude up here in Johannesburg so we’re fortunate that wherever we go in the world we have that advantage. He makes 105lbs without problem, being the frame he is we have to watch the calorie intake, but battling weight has never been an issue. “Hekkie has not reached his full potential yet. He’s turning 26 and can fight at this level as long as he wants providing he does not take too much punishment and, lately, that is not happening. South African boxing should appreciate and respect the time we have with a fighter like Hekkie Budler.”