He’s only boxed competitively for 171 rounds and never took part in a single amateur contest, yet South Africa’s Kevin Lerena (25-1) is on top of the world.
The IBO World cruiserweight champion is preparing for his seventh world title defence later this year, post-pandemic, against the undefeated Norwegian, Kai Robin Havnaa (16-0).
“We’re contractually bound to fight Kai Robin,” the champion told me. “He’s hungry to become a world champion, but unfortunately I’m a different animal to any person he’s fought and he’ll realise that in September, but I commend him for his career so far. He’s done well. I’ve watched him and he actually fought on the same card as me when I fought in Denmark (in 2015). He looks like a very athletic fighter and his record is remarkable, but I believe there are levels to this sport and we’ll see in September those levels.”
The long-reigning champion turned twenty-eight last month and is in a rich vein of form. He successfully defended his crown four times, three via stoppage, in less than eleven months, pre-pandemic, and believes he’s learning to let himself off the leash.
“I feel like I’ve always had power; I’ve just doubted myself a little bit and I’ve been too cautious,” the southpaw admitted. “Before it was like: Be cautious, be safe, get the win, now it’s like: ‘I’m coming in, using my skills, to go toe-to-toe with you, but I’m going to hurt you. If it takes me two rounds or it takes me twelve rounds – I’m going to hurt you every single round. That’s my mindset when I go into fights. Obviously having no amateur experience – you doubt yourself. I think now, I’m truly only getting to believe in myself and realise how hungry I am to be the best.”
Back in February, Lerena traveled to Germany to defend his IBO gold against veteran former cruiserweight titleholder, Firat Arslan. A big left hook wobbled the challenger and a subsequent barrage of punches forced Arslan’s corner to throw the towel in. The champion showed an impressive killer instinct.
“They saved him a bit of dignity because I was really going to hurt him and stop him eventually, at any given point, after I hurt him with that left hook. I’d say it was a B+ performance and I can always be better and do more, so I was happy with my performance; (it was) one of my better ones.”
European boxing fans can expect to see a lot more of the Johannesburg native in the future. That most recent win in Germany will be followed by the aforementioned title defence against Havnaa in Norway. Lerena then explained to me how he views his immediate future.
“I enjoy fighting abroad. I think it’s going to be my new stomping ground – especially Europe. I’m looking forward to breaking into the English market. I think that’s where my future is destined.”
Two of the premiere cruiserweights in the world currently plying their trade in the European market are Mairis Briedis and Yuniel Dorticos. The Latvian and Cuban pugilists are scheduled to contest the final of the, twice-postponed, World Boxing Super Series final.
“If you ask me, who would I like to fight between the two? I’d like to fight Briedis,” Lerena revealed. “I believe his style is suited for me. Dorticos has got a good pedigree, he’s a good boxer. Not to say I wouldn’t beat him because I believe I beat everybody in the cruiserweight division, but he would be a harder fight than Briedis in my opinion. Both great competitors, both great fighters. Who do I think wins that fight? I’d say Dorticos and who would I like to fight? I would say Briedis.”
Even when he’s not preparing for a fight, Lerena keeps himself in good shape. He’s used recent time away from the gyms, forcibly closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, to rest and recuperate after a hectic schedule of four fights in eleven months.
Once he’s fully conquered the 200lbs division – the land of the giants awaits.
“I want to achieve everything that I can at cruiserweight and once everything’s been achieved – 90% of cruiserweights do go up to heavyweight. I must be totally honest: I’m a big cruiserweight. Making the cruiserweight limit for me is a daunting task. It takes a lot of discipline and at what point will it be impossible for me to do? I walk around at 100kgs which is about 225lbs, you know? You have to sacrifice that little bit of power to make weight, so it’s going to get to a point where if I’ve done everything at cruiserweight then the only thing left for me would be heavyweight and it’s not like I’d have to bulk up. I do walk around in the heavyweight division. For me, it would be about changing my game plan but not my style. I believe my style would be a hard style for anybody to face.”