Hekkie Budler: The Highs and Lows of a South African Sporting Legend
Exclusive interview by Ian Aldous: After more than two years without a fight, former two-division world champion Hekkie Budler (32-4) was chomping at the bit to finally get back to doing what he does best – fight. Last weekend, the South African was fully prepared for a ten-rounder to get him back on the path to the world title fights he’d been accustomed to competing in for the best part of a decade. However, his opponent inexcusably weighed-in almost eight pounds overweight for a bout scheduled at 108-pounds.
“It was quite a surprise, actually,” the thirty-two year old explained. “In the morning, I actually walked past him and he was wearing a plastic bag (sweat suit). We thought maybe he had a little bit (of weight) to pull and he’ll make it easily. The guy was four kilograms overweight! I don’t know how much that is in pounds, but it’s quite a lot (laughs)!”
“The rules in South Africa, in our weight division, you’re allowed to be 2.5kgs over and they’ll allow the fight,” he added, “but even after he had two hours to pull weight, he only lost 350 grams. He was still 3.6kgs heavier than me, so it was never going to happen.”
The former 105 & 108-pound world champion has not competed since late-2018. He’s not the only pugilist to suffer of late, but his desperate and painstakingly patient wait for competitive action rolls on even longer. He now hopes to land a fight date in May, with his fingers firmly crossed.
“It’s been quite hard,” he summarises with the understatement of the century.
Budler attained the status of being South Africa’s youngest ever amateur senior champion, at just seventeen, in what he modestly referred to as a “reasonable amateur career”, with his style not suited to the unpaid code.
“When I was an amateur, it was still computer scoring and I was not a computer scoring type of fighter where you throw two-three punches and move away,” he said. “I was one of those guys who kept on coming forward and throwing punches the whole time.”
Turning professional in 2007, he would soon prove that his aggressive style would bring success and myriad belts to his collection. His maiden world championship was earned in 2010 when winning the IBO world light-flyweight championship. He defended it before dropping a split-decision to compatriot, Gideon Buthelezi in 2011. Later that year, he dropped to strawweight to capture the IBO’s 105-pound crown and dawned on a long unbeaten run that included nine successful defences and the addition of the WBA strap.
“I was beating good fighters at that time. I think I was at the best part of my career then.”
“And the IBO made me; without them I would not have won what I did.”
‘The Hexecutioner’ narrowly lost his unified titles in 2016 against Byron Rojas via three 115-113 margins, and decided to move back up to light-fly, reclaiming his IBO world title and then dropping it in a unification against IBF champion, Milan Melindo. It was at this point that Budler would rebound to score his biggest win.
He departed Johannesburg to travel to Tokyo. Taking the Ring, WBA & IBF 108-pound world championships from Ryoichi Taguchi, as a massive underdog in the Japanese’s home town, was his unenviable assignment. In what can only be described as a breathless feast of boxing with barely a second spared to relent from the punching prowess, Budler prevailed 114-113 on all three scorecards to claim the unified world titles, even after an unusual event in the final round.
“He knocked me down in the twelfth round with a left hook, the referee didn’t call a knockdown and I went down and got back up,” the MTK Global-advised fighter told me. “When I saw the replay, I thought, ‘ok, it’s a knockdown’.”
Upon review following the bout’s conclusion, it was correctly ruled a knockdown and the judges were instructed to score it as such.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen them changing the rule when they gave a 10-8 round, but at least the judging in Japan is immaculate. They still gave me the fight.”
The much-hoped financial fortunes failed to subsequently follow when Budler very reluctantly vacated the IBF title due to a paltry $25,000 winning purse bid for a mandatory defence against Felix Alvarado. Unlike the heavyweight division, success in the lightest weight-divisions does not result in substantial monetary gain.
“The reason everything happened is that they let me sign a rematch clause for Taguchi, and then he went up in weight, so they made a purse bid for the IBF (title) which was very low.”
Thankfully, the legacy of his victory against Taguchi meant he found a differing route to a more financially viable bout.
“We got a better fight to defend the WBA (title) as part of the rematch deal because it was still one of the promoter’s fighters. That actually worked out better for me.”
That man happened to be Hiroto Kyoguchi, as a return to Asia loomed. But on this occasion the destination was China, with consequences Budler and his trainer, Colin Nathan hadn’t anticipated.
“I’ve got fitness-induced asthma, so the fitter I get, the sicker I get (laughs), but it depends where I fight,” he revealed. “If I fight in South Africa, it’s not that bad. If I fight in Japan, it’s not that bad. But in China, the pollution hit me extremely hard. I could go for a run there and I would get sick. When it was fight night, I didn’t know if it was going to affect me so badly in the fight.”
“It’s not an excuse, he still beat me. He still beat me fair and square,” he made a point to emphasise. Nathan pulled Budler out after the tenth round, showing compassion for his man in a fight he seemed not to possess the stamina to win.
Known for his often exuberant hair colours on fight night, Budler is now preparing for one last run at winning another world title as he bids to cement his legacy as one of South Africa’s best ever boxers. Twenty-seven months, and counting, without a fight hasn’t deterred him from boxing on. Nevertheless, a promise has been made to those dearest to him.
“I have to say, I’ve told my parents, my wife and Colin, when they see me slowing down or my speech starting to sound different, or when it takes me longer to get fit – they’ll tell me and I’ll call it quits straight away.”
In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and a year bereft of even remotely joyous moments, Budler became a father for the first time.
Despite losing more than two years of his in-ring career and winning Ring, 2x IBO, 2x WBA & IBF world titles, the South African legend and new father says, “I still feel I can achieve more.”
You’d be a fool to bet against him.
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