It’s hard to work out Kevin Lerena. On one hand, his trash talk and bravado place him neatly in what some might describe as the typical Jo’burg bruiser category — the type of guy to put punches before words. On the other, he’s a young family man who shatters that stereotype; a fighter with a clear respect for his artform and coach.
His shit-talking game is strong, that’s undeniable. It hasn’t always won him friends but then he’d probably be the first to admit that’s not what he’s here to do. He wants to be the best in the world and is supremely unapologetic about that. Every man he meets in the ring is just another obstacle that must be removed on the way to that goal.
“Nobody expected me to do things in boxing,” he says when we meet at Smiths Boxing Gym in Fourways. “‘Ja, strong guy, strong kid, but what’s he gonna do?’ Well, I’m sitting at No 3 in the world now. And a world champion. It’s been a meteoric rise, but I’ve always had a goal and I wanted to become a champion.”
The gym is the latest spot opened by former fighter Peter “Sniper” Smith. It’s clear judging by the quality of the place that he’s done well for himself as a trainer. For one, the workout area is far cleaner and less cluttered than most other gyms. The gym sits on a corner of affluent Cedar Square and the plentiful ventilation takes away the damp smell that’s usually ubiquitous when men and women give their all to pummel a punching bag.
As I’m taking in this scene on a regular Tuesday, a sparring boxer has his nose busted open, serving as a reminder that the sleek trappings belie the grittiness of a facility designed to breed champions. The two continue to slug it out.
Smith has coached Lerena since he turned professional at 18. Nine years later, he’s working to set up a fight that could catapult him to global stardom. Having already defended his IBO cruiserweight title five times, the 27-year-old fighter has his eyes on the championships from the other major federations: the WBO, WBC, WBA and IBF.
If that fight fails to materialise soon he will face the experienced Firat Arslan in Germany in February to defend his belt once again. It will mark the first time he has done so outside Emperors Palace, a fact for which he has attracted a fair amount of criticism. But Lerena maintained back in August that he knows his self worth and is waiting for the “million-dollar” payday to agree to a big international fight.
In any case, he tells me, doubt has always followed him and he revels in channeling it towards a greater purpose. “You get the people that rate you and the people that don’t,” Lerena says. “I use that for me. I say that to Peter: we are just going to continue proving people wrong. I said it in my last interview as blunt as it was … we show up, we rock up and we fuck shit up. Blatant. People don’t work it out. They keep going ‘Oh, how, why, who’s he fought?’
“Every time they put somebody in front of me who’s meant to beat me, we fuck him up. Every single time. So what do people want? I laugh it off because I know what I’m capable of. But people make me the underdog and it takes so much pressure off me. When I do the ring walk, I say: this guy’s trying to take the food off the table of my kids, he’s not going to beat me. That’s my mentality.”
Incidentally, he has recently had his son’s and daughter’s portraits tattooed on to his forearm and the healing ink has begun to peel. Having them young, Lerena says, gave him the last push he needed to succeed.
Whatever you think of the man, his power and workrate are irrefutable. His description of his career as “meteoric” is hardly a misnomer when you consider how fast he’s racked up 24 wins — picking up only one loss along the way. Should he continue on this trajectory, it’s inevitable that he will become one of the finest South African boxers of his generation.
In keeping with Lerena’s self-confidence, however, winning simply won’t be enough. “I just want to defend my belt as much as possible and hunt more belts. There’s five, I’ve got one of them. I want to win all of them. And until I’ve got all of them, in my mind I’m not the best.”
In boxing parlance, unifying a belt refers to winning the championship from multiple world bodies. In this division specifically, there have been only two other undisputed champions since Evander Holyfield became the first in 1988. But, like Holyfield, the dream doesn’t stop there.
“Unify the cruiserweight division and then I’m going to go up to heavyweight and fight the heavier guys,” Lerena says. “No South African has ever done that; I’ll do it.
“It’s easy to go up to heavyweight, I can do that tomorrow. But going up as a unified champion, no one’s done that in South Africa.”
It may be a realistic target now but Lerena’s grand plans were nearly put into jeopardy last November when the IBO announced that he had tested positive for a banned substance. He pleaded guilty almost immediately, claiming that the substance came from an array of medication he was taking for an arm that had recently been operated on. Ultimately, the authorities cleared him of intentional wrongdoing and he was allowed to fight again.
“In the moment it was shit because people label you as a PEDs [performance-enhancing drugs] user and that’s not the case. But this is sports. You have to be wary of everything you ingest. Whether it’s a mistake or whatever it is. So like now, when I get a supplement I literally put every single name on the supplement through the list and make sure that nothing is illegal. It’s your own responsibility and it taught me a lot too.”
The negative criticism would have been expected, but it was the messages of support that took Lerena by surprise. He admits to being amazed at how many people spoke up to back his integrity and remained in his corner. Still, he relished giving both a literal and metaphorical middle finger to the wolves who had arrived at the door. That’s his character: protect your own and to hell with the rest.
Which is why it caught me off guard when he pointed to his orange paramedic van parked outside. At that very moment he was on duty — ready should a call come in for his assistance. He doesn’t need the money he says, but will continue to put in the work as a full-time paramedic whenever he can.
After spending an extended period listening to his plans to pummel whoever stands in his way it’s hard to reconcile — the paramedic and the pugilist. But, again, he probably doesn’t care what I or anyone else thinks of him. Which is likely also a big chunk of the reason he’s on the cusp of greatness. As supportive as his team may be, you don’t get a much lonelier sport than boxing. Only the most single-minded athletes can prosper in that environment. And, at the moment, Kevin Lerena is thriving.