“He’s strong, bigger than me, hits hard and will be fighting at home.”
Hekkie Budler himself neatly summed up the enormity of the challenge when discussing his impending fight against Ryoichi Taguchi for the IBF, WBA and Ring magazine light-flyweight belts in Japan next weekend.
Indeed, it’s a case of going into the lion’s den for a crack at history: never before has a South African fighter competed for such a trio of illustrious honours.
“It’s the biggest fight of my career and the second biggest honour,” said Budler, one of SA’s best campaigners during the past decade. “The biggest honour was asking my wife to marry me!”
The former IBO and WBA champion has endured a hellish training camp, one he describes as his toughest in 11 years as a pro fighter.
“It was so hard, but I’ve never prepared this well. I’m the best I’ve ever felt.”
Trainer Colin Nathan has no illusions about their Tokyo test. “I know it’s going to be far more physically demanding than Hekkie’s ever had, probably the toughest since the first of his fights against Juanito Rubillar in 2010. Hekkie was too raw, too green [then].
“Taguchi throws a lot of punches and body shots. He’s got a great tank, a great chin, but we’ve spotted holes in his defence. His style is suited to Hekkie, unlike [recent opponent] Milan Melindo, who was short and squat and feinting all the time.”
Nathan reckons Budler prefers fighting taller opponents like Taguchi, citing the examples of Simpiwe Konkco and Michael Landero.
“Hekkie relishes that kind of fight. We might even see a war.”
Remarkably, the Japanese camp acquiesced to Nathan’s request for neutral judges, although it’s extraordinary to see SA’s Neville Hotz among the judges, with an American and Mexican. There is a US referee and an Australian supervisor.
While it’s no guarantee of boxing-style home cooking, the appointments suggest that the playing field ought to be even with everything else stacked against the popular South African, who turns 30 two days before the fight.
“I reckon that if Hekkie’s good enough, he’ll get the decision – even in Japan,” said Nathan.
Taguchi (27-2-2) is a fierce competitor, having gone unbeaten in five years since a decision defeat to super-flyweight beast Naoya Inoue.
He’s 6-0-1 in championship fights since winning the WBA belt in 2014, most notably seeing off Melindo in their unification bout in December.
“Winning would put Hekkie right back on top, which is why we opted for it,” said Nathan inbetween his anticipated departure for Japan this weekend. “This is Hekkie’s grab for that pot of gold. He’s just got to negotiate the rainbow to get there.”