By Anthony Cocks
It wasn’t that long ago that the mid-20s were considered the cut-off point for boxers in the lighter weight classes.
But South African veteran Moruti ‘Babyface’ Mthalane 37-2 (25) has bucked that trend by not only continuing to fight at the ripe old age of 36, but defeating world-class opposition along the way.
The IBF flyweight boss is in the second championship reign of his 18-year pro career after earlier abandoning the same world title he now holds when he couldn’t secure meaningful fights.
Despite his winning record, there weren’t many prepared to put up the money to back an ageing world champion.
Enter Colin Nathan, a young trainer with a vision for the future.
“I have known Colin for a very long time now even while I was still training with Nick Durandt, that’s when I first met him,” Mthalane said. “Colin has taken my career to the next level and he has introduced me to a lot of people who have helped me in my career.
“When most people thought that my career was over and that he was wasting his time. What contributed mostly to our unique working relationship is that we understand each other.
“We have respect for each other and we have the same vision for my career.”
Durandt was a legend of the South African fight scene. During his extensive career he produced 95 national champions across 17 weight classes and trained a host of world champions including Thulani ‘Sugarboy’ Malinga, Isaac Hlatshwayo, Cassius Baloyi, Malcolm Klassen, Jeffrey Mathebula, Siphiwe Nongqayi and Zolani Tete before retiring from the sport in 2016.
He would tragically pass away a year later in a motorcycle accident at the age of just 53.
When Nathan took over coaching duties in 2016 Mthalane was the reigning IBO 112-pound champion after earlier relinquishing the IBF championship when big-money fights failed to materialise.
With Mthalane’s career in limbo, Nathan set to work building a fight plan that would see the evergreen boxer regain the IBF flyweight world title and the recognition he so clearly deserved.
“When the late Nick Durandt retired from boxing in April of 2016, Moruti approached me to take over his career,” said Nathan. “He was seriously plagued by inactivity but I always knew that he was world class. The rest is history.”
At age 40, Nathan breaks the mould for boxing trainers after the Rocky movie franchise characterized fight trainers as grizzled old men who speak out the side of their mouths.
But this wasn’t always the case. Famed boxing coaches Angelo Dundee, Ray Arcel, Charley Goldman and Whitey Bimstein had all trained world champions before their 40th birthdays.
The partnership between Mthalane and Nathan wasn’t complete until the pair brought in the experienced duo of Australian boxing manager Mike Altamura and American all-rounder Sean Gibbons to help the flyweight world champion achieve his career ambitions.
“Mike and I go back 17 years. He is one of the very few people in this sport I trust. He has integrity and is an all-around good human being,” Nathan said.
“When I was in a position where I needed Moruti pushed we formed a small partnership called ‘The Three Musketeers’ with Mike, Sean Gibbons and myself. The dynamic works as I truly respect these gentlemen.”
Mthalane credits Altamura, who manages and promotes boxers through his MJA Platinum brand while also working as an international talent scout for MTK Global, for rejuvenating his career when many in the boxing industry preferred to see him remain on the sidelines.
“I met Mike through Colin and Mike has also been one of the people who have helped my career in boxing grow,” said Mthalane. “Mike makes sure that I get fights which are at international level.”
"Moruti is an absolute pleasure to represent,” said Altamura. “He has an incredible work ethic, bright attitude and possesses a real appreciation for everybody around him. One of the classiest people I've ever been associated with."
In recent years there has been renewed focus on the sub-featherweight divisions due in large part by the Super Fly tournament in the United States and season two of the World Boxing Super Series featuring the dynamic and talent-rich bantamweight division.
The timing couldn’t be better for Mthalane who, as one of the sport’s elder statesmen, is ranked number one in the world by the venerable Ring Magazine in the 112-pound weight class.
But the career flyweight thinks he still isn’t getting the credit he deserves.
“I am definitely not getting the recognition that I personally think that I deserve, but that does not discourage me in any way,” said Mthalane.
That recognition could come sooner rather than later if he can land the unification bout he covets against newly-minted WBC flyweight champion Charlie Edwards 14-1 (6).
The 25-year-old English boxer wrested the green belt from tough Nicaraguan banger Cristofer Rosales 28-4 (19) at London’s O2 Arena in December 2018 by clear-cut unanimous decision. And if the ambitious Edwards gets his way, he will unify two of the major world titles while his brother and fellow flyweight Sunny Edwards 10-0 (3) annexes the other two.
Mthalane isn’t bothered by Edwards’ youthful exuberance and firmly believes that experience will be served if the pair meet in the prize-ring.
“What has happened with age is that I understand boxing more. I know what to do in certain situations, because of the skills and knowledge that I have gained from the past years,” he said.
Mthalane says his lifestyle choices are the reason he has managed to remain at the top of his game for so long, citing mental health as one of the key reasons he has been able to continue not only competing at the top level but beating world-class opponents.
“Various routines and habits have contributed immensely to my longevity which are exercising, eating healthy, taking care of my emotional and mental well being,” he said.
“My happiness is very important to me. When I have a clear mind I train to the best of my ability and even challenge myself to do even better.”
For coach Nathan the biggest challenge is to prevent the naturally hardworking Mthalane from over-training in the gym.
“He takes his career as a boxer very seriously. He is one of the most disciplined and hard-working fighters that I have ever worked with. He keeps in shape even when he hasn’t got a fight lined up,” Nathan said.
“Naturally he doesn’t drink or smoke and he is an absolute dream to train. In fact, even now he still has a tendency to over-train and I often have to slow him down or tell him to cut his rounds in the gym.”
Mthalane is open-minded about new training techniques but insists on keeping his foundations solid.
“It hasn’t changed that much, but I am always open and willing to try out new exercises that will challenge me and improve my performance in the ring,” he said.
“I don’t like to put myself in a box and limit myself.’
Mthalane is undefeated for more than a decade. His last loss in was to former four-division world champion Nonito Donaire in Las Vegas in 2008 when the fight was cut short after the Johannesburg native suffered a cut eye that forced the stoppage in the sixth round.
IBF and IBO flyweight champion Donaire was able to outbox Mthalane early but the South African was beginning to land more and more frequently as the rounds progressed until a cut to the challenger’s eyelid forced the ringside doctor to intervene and stop the contest.
It’s a fight that Mthalane still believes he should’ve won.
“I was devastated when the match was stopped. My performance was very good. I personally think that I was going to win the fight, but my health was more important,” Mthalane said.
Five months later Mthalane would defend his national flyweight crown against Lehlohonolo Ramagole via KO3 before seizing the vacant IBF flyweight championship against rugged Mexican future world champion Julio Cesar Miranda, 30-4-1 (23) at the time, by wide unanimous decision.
He would defend his IBF crown four times by knockout – including a fifth round TKO in his maiden title defence against current WBO bantamweight world champion and World Boxing Super Series number three seed Zolani Tete in September 2010 – before relinquishing the crown in January 2014.
After 18-months of inactivity Mthalane would return to pick up the vacant IBO 112-pound world championship against once-beaten Jether Oliva, 20-1-2 (11) at the time, in March 2014. He would fight just twice more in the next three years.
After his extended period in the wilderness Mthalane returned with a bang in 2017, stopping previously undefeated Genisis Libranza, Isaac Quaye and Ardin Diale in four, two and two rounds respectively.
The victory over Diale for the vacant IBF International title put him in line to face young Pakistani hotshot Muhammad Waseem, 8-0 (6) going in, for the vacant IBF flyweight championship on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao versus Lucas Matthysse in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in July 2018.
Mthalane would climbed off the canvas in the 11th round to earn a close but deserved unanimous decision victory.
The ageless Mthalane returned to action on the big New Year’s Eve world title triple header in Macau, comprehensively out-boxing qualified contender Masahiro Sakamoto of Japan, 13-1 (9) coming in, before stopping him in the 10th. The victory lifted Mthalane’s record in IBF world title fights to 7-1.
So how much longer can the timeless veteran continue in the sport?
“He still looks really good and fresh. And it all comes down to his performances. As long as he keeps performing, his career will carry on,” said Nathan.
“I think everyone wants him to unify and if the opportunity presents itself, we will look at that.”
"He's 36 and one of boxing's most underappreciated technicians,” said the Australian manager. “I think it's time he receives his just due and there's no better way to see that fulfilled than by delivering on unification opportunities."
As of right now, the champion says there is no end in sight.
“My body is holding up very well. At times I am also amazed when I think about my age and what my body is capable of doing and what it has been doing for the past 18 years,” Mthalane said.
“I will continue to compete for as long as my mind and body allows me to.”