South African cruiserweight Thabiso Mchunu (22-5, 13 KOs) has managed to step out of his father’s fighting shadow, by boxing for world titles, and competing in the United States and Russia, as well as domestic venues in Pretoria, Durban and Bloemfontein. But as he edges towards the top of his division again – possibly for one last time – can he change the fortunes of the Mchunu name forever?
It’s been over two decades since Alex Mchunu, Thabiso’s father, last fought professionally. He wasn’t a champion; he wasn’t ever really close to becoming one, but there was no doubt about his heart, or his passion for the sport.
He introduced his kids to the gym at a young age after pursuing that brief career between the ropes himself, retiring with a reported 2-6-1, 1 KOs record (via BoxRec). Alex finished his own career in 1998, with a knockout victory over Jabulani Buthelezi in the third round; Buthelezi would fight twice more – losing on both occasions.
Discipline and pride were the aspects of boxing he valued, ensuring those traits were transferable at home with his children. Boxing is tough, but life, especially in parts of South Africa, can be far tougher.
Also a cruiserweight in his fighting prime, the elder Mchunu battled in town halls and small casinos across South Africa, working as a cop to pay the bills and provide for his young family of five. That was enough for him – but it isn’t enough for his son.
Now, with his own career blossoming once more, Thabiso spoke to Boxing Social about the impact of that introduction to boxing, and the South African soccer team’s potential loss of a star player: “Well, I can say my dad was a boxer, but he didn’t get that far. That’s how I got into the sport; I used to follow him to the gym when I was a kid, when I was about six, seven. Then at the age of eight, he started teaching me.
“I’m a southpaw. But naturally, I should have been an orthodox fighter, because I’m right-handed. I play soccer with my right foot. Everything I do in my life [is with my right side], but I used to look at my dad and try to imitate him when he was doing his training for boxing. Then, by the time he started teaching me, I couldn’t stand in the orthodox position; I was so used to standing as a southpaw. So that’s how I became a southpaw.”
Mchunu continued, “My dad used to encourage us, telling us how our life could change through our boxing. I think at the time maybe I wanted to be a traffic cop, or I would have been a soccer player. I used to play soccer a lot. I was good; I would have made it to the national team. I still train with the soccer guys for my fitness, my footwork and stuff like that because it’s different. To mix up whatever training I can get, it also benefits me in terms of my boxing.”
The active fighter from Cato Ridge knows what’s good for him – he’s been doing it long enough. His own professional career dates back 13 years, starting out in venues similar to his dad, but successfully and devastatingly capturing the South African cruiserweight title in only his fourth outing. Thabiso quickly moved on to ‘bigger’ fights, winning the WBA’s Pan-African title in 2008.
It would take until 2013 for Mchunu, dubbed “The Rock”, to make his mark on a broader scale, challenging well-known American fighter Eddie ‘Too Fast” Chambers in the Mohegan Sun Casino, Uncasville. He had waited patiently for his big opportunity, biding his time on the South African circuit, fighting for the same titles – against the same opposition – over and over again. Chambers had a record of 36-3 at the time of their meeting, but for Mchunu, the result was never in doubt.
“He was good; I used to watch him when I was still an amateur in the national team and he was fighting as a heavyweight,” revealed the 32-year-old. “I used to watch him and praise him, because he was a small kind of heavyweight, but he could beat bigger guys because of his intelligence and stuff like that.
“Fighting Eddie Chambers really helped me to pick up my level; I had to be on top of my game, otherwise he could win very easily. But, at the same time, I believe in myself. I know that I know boxing. I don’t think there’s someone who’s more skilful than me [at cruiserweight]. I was nervous, but I was also confident at the same time that I can beat him.
“It was my first time fighting in the USA, and outside of South Africa, when I fought Eddie. As an amateur, I went around the world but we didn’t go to America. It was a very different experience, but we handled it well, my managers, and my trainers. They gave me full support. I got everything I needed going into the fight. And yeah, I was very confident that I was going to win that fight.”
Beating Chambers by unanimous decision led to a fight in New Jersey with one of the division’s danger men, Nigerian puncher Olanrewaju Durodola. Durodola’s class is such that, at this moment in time, he’s preparing for his own world title tilt against defending WBC champion Ilunga Makabu on December 19. But when he fought Mchunu he came up short, losing a points decision over 10 rounds.
Losses would follow for Mchunu, as he challenged the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Makabu in a non-title bout, suffering a stoppage defeat in the 11th round in front of his own crowd. The Convention Centre in KwaZulu-Natal fell silent that night, but he’d be back. After winning his return fight with Boniface Kabore, it was back over to America, but this time it would be a little different. Thabiso would challenge for the WBO world title – then held by Oleksandr Usyk.
“Usyk, man,” he paused, taking a breath before attempting to explain the depth of the Ukrainian’s ability. “I believe he’s the one; skill-wise and physically, obviously for a boxer, you don’t have to have a lot of power if you know what you’re doing in there. But I’ll say this – Usyk is the one who gave me a really tough time because I had to think throughout the entire fight. The intensity of that fight was very high.”
As far as world title fights go, he’d been handed the hardest of the bunch. But he continues now, undeterred, hungry for success. That loss to Usyk was before the Olympic gold medallist captured every other belt in the 200lbs division. It was before his World Boxing Super Series triumph and also ahead of his move to heavyweight. Time was on Mchunu’s side then; maybe it still is.
A career-best victory over ageing Russian stalwart Denis Lebedev had propelled him back into discussions at the top table last December. That was his last fight, just under a year ago in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. Surely a second bite at the cherry is looming as the world tiptoes back to normality from its recent pandemic?
“They all expected that Dennis Lebedev was going to just win. They thought he would knock me out. So, I think maybe they wanted him to try and fight for the WBC title again, not knowing that it wasn’t going to go their way because they gave me enough time to prepare for this fight. Everything was going well for me – my whole camp went well. I had no injuries; I did everything I had to do in camp. So I was fully confident that I was going to beat him, because I knew he’s wasn’t as clever as me in there.”
It seems that a WBC eliminator should be next for ‘The Rock’, early in the New Year. It’s a challenge that he welcomes, like all of the others he’s faced. The thought of winning a world title for himself and his family stirred excitement in his voice, but he claimed he’d be just as happy if fans remembered him as an “honest fighter”. His father Alex is no longer directly involved.
“I had to leave him, in terms of getting good management and getting the correct exposure, I just had to leave my dad,” he said. “My dad is the one who taught me boxing. Then when I started as a pro, I also started with my dad, but coming from our small location, there wasn’t much happening there. That was really hard for me. But I knew I had to do it, because I knew that I wanted to win world titles. He still plays a part in my career. He tells me what I’m doing wrong, what I’m doing right, where I need to improve and stuff like that, I suppose.”
Mchunu finished by speaking of his Zulu heritage, which is something he’s immensely proud of. His ring attire states, “Hail to the Zulu King,” he explains, and that legacy of Zulu warriors drives him to succeed – but also, more importantly, to persevere. Perseverance is integral to a burgeoning career between the ropes, often filled with hope and disappointment, and Mchunu believes his time will come again.
After boxing, he wants to open his own gym and plans on giving back to the sport’s next generation. He also talks of owning various businesses, investing his money and becoming his own boss. His success clearly differs from his father Alex’s and it appears his desired path after hanging up his gloves will, too. But both father and son are experienced fighting men and, in a sport like boxing, you either have it or you don’t.
“I believed that I would be a lot more successful [than my dad] because I could see that I was winning fights and I was still going to learn, and become better,” he said. “So, I’ve believed from the age of 14, 15, that I will be a world champion. And yeah, now I’ve still a good chance of fighting for the WBC title again. This doesn’t happen for a lot of boxers. So, for me. even if it doesn’t work out as planned, it wouldn’t stress me that much, because I’ve been around the game and I know I’ve done well.”
Main image and all photos: Donat Sorokin/Tass/PA Images.