Immaculuate Edwards topples boxing’s smallest giant.

Moruti Mthalane must be the best boxer you’ve never heard of. A South-African detonator who has fought and beat some of the finest boxers in boxing’s lightest classes. Zolani Tete dismantled in five rounds. John Riel Casimero victim of the same fate just six months later. If Moruti Mthalane was a heavyweight there’s little doubting he’d be one of South Africa’s richest sportsmen.

Mthalane’s career started in the small halls of Durban. A young flyweight making his first professional steps a couple of years before Corrie Sanders would put South African boxing on the map by knocking out a young Wladimir Klitschko. Sanders time would pass. Vitali would avenge his brother’s defeat  but there was another South African who’s dominance would last far longer. In 2004 Mthalane tasted his first defeat, a tenth-round knockout handing Nkqubela Gwazela the finest win of a career that would never reach the same heights.

Moruti Mthalane’s rise up the rankings

If Moruti’s journey was difficult it was made harder by that defeat. Four more years in the halls of South Africa, from Johannesburg to East London and Soweto before a second shot at the South African Flyweight title.  A knockout win later and Mthalane was making his way up the global rankings, enough to be deemed a worthy opponent for Nonito Donaire’s defence of his IBF and IBO World Flyweight titles.

Mthalane was heading to Vegas, to the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino. Six rounds later his eye socket was broken, Donaire directing the referee to take a look for himself and the doctor signalling an end to the contest. That was 2008. Joe Calzaghe was to have his swansong versus Roy Jones Jr seven days later and David Beckham had just given up the England captaincy. Many things have changed but one thing remains no different.

Moruti Mthalane – the World’s Flyweight King

In 2021 here we are and Moruti Mthalane still has just two defeats on his record. When Donaire stepped up the IBF title became vacant and Julio Cesar Miranda couldn’t deny Mthalane once more. Neither could Tete, nor Casemiro, both in succession. Mthalane’s grip has tightened ever since.

In 2012 he vacated the IBF title, ending a sequence of four consecutive knockout defences by dismissing the home favourite Ricardo Nunez in Panama City. A year out the ring he returned to win the IBO Flyweight before returning once more to reclaim the IBF Flyweight title in 2018. Twenty-six knockouts in thirty nine victories he is now thirty eight, his star only slightly brighter than the one he gained all those years ago.

Mthalane has spent much of his career on the road, big fights in Jo’burg intermingled with fights in Malaysia, Sardinia, Macao and most recently Japan. Often the away fighter when really he has earned the right to be the main attraction, he has upset many home crowds. A brilliant boxer, who has fought his way to the top, been denied its famous pay packets but belligerently bulldozed his way through adversity.

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Sunny Edwards – the “best in Britain”

Sunny Edwards was a good fighter, his father claimed him and his brother Charlie were Britain’s best. Plenty of boxers have said that, though few perhaps with the clarity of the boy from Croydon. Braithwaite, Essomba, Guarneros, all credible opponents but none with claims to boxing’s crown jewels. Edwards would have to be at his best. Edwards would have to box out of his skin.

I wrote these notes prior to Friday’s fight, the scale of the challenge facing Sunny Edwards one there for all to see. Moruti Mthalane had grown comfortable in hostile surroundings, forcing the issue where other travelling fighters had grown victims to some questionable scorecards. A final visit to York Hall, one of the homes of boxing purism but one lacking the moneyed allure of the big arenas seemed a fitting ending.

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Edwards executes

On Friday night exactly what Edwards said he would do happened. A twenty-five year old flyweight gave a performance as good as any by a British boxer in recent years. From the opening bell Edwards did exactly what he predicted, landing with both hands before skipping his way out of trouble. The champion held the ring, the challenger dancing round him.

More than once early on Mthalane would close down the space, aiming to force Edwards on to the ropes but each time just as the pressure was applied it would vanish. Edwards ducking out of peril before turning the situation on its head and pinning the South African to the ropes himself. Telling shots, landing early but surely not ones that could be sustained for twelve hard rounds.

If Mthalane was telegraphing punches, in hindsight to the spectator we should have woken up quicker. A pound for pound champion finding only air in front of him and Edwards to his side. Where slight gaps were meant to open instead chasms would appear.

These differences would disappear we were told. Edwards’ bounce losing some of its spring, drawn by the vicious body punching of a champion well versed in sucking the energy out of anyone daring to try and grab his belt.

But they never did. Edwards consistent work to the body leaving marks of his own. As a fan watching a slowdown always felt a threat but as a neutral observer it would be difficult to make the case. Still Mthalane swang and still he found the cloy air of an East London leisure centre.

A procession is the wrong word to use. Few processions involve the everpresent threat of one right hand crashing into your temple and rendering the acclaimed unconscious. Few are in a dark hall, the piercing lights radiating corners with face shields and surgical masks. That procession will come and it is one Edwards has well earnt.

Winning a world title was never meant to be easy and make no mistake, it wasn’t. The obstacle immense it was one negotiated so excellently it did him a disservice, giving the pretence of a challenge lessened.

It is an accusation that will be labelled at him, an ageing champion handpicked to take his crown but it is one Edwards would do well to ignore. This was a performance of the highest calibre. A wrestling of a title that will not be his last and, to reiterate, one of the finest by a British boxer in many years.

Edwards is at the pinnacle, where he goes from here is his choice.

Featured image produced by Queensbury Promotions/BT Sport

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