SUNDAY TIMES - No SA female can give me a good challenge: boxing sensation Bukiwe Nonina
Sunday Times Sport By Nick Mulgrew, 2017-04-16 00:00:00.0

No SA female can give me a good challenge: boxing sensation Bukiwe Nonina

Of her 16 professional fights, Bukiwe Nonina has lost only three.
Image: Chris de Beer

Nick Mulgrew hangs out with the young boxing sensation before and after her landmark fight in Khayelitsha

Bukiwe Nonina spars with men. It's not an ego thing. "I just don't see any female in South Africa who can give me a good challenge," she says.

Four months ago, Bukiwe was named South African Female Boxer of the Year. Only 25, she has held the South African national women's welterweight title for the past five years.

So how about sparring with a female middleweight? "The weight doesn't matter," she says - it's a matter of quality. I am the best female boxer in South Africa," she insists. "I have to step out to find a new challenge."

A new challenge is coming: Bukiwe is due to fight a former eight-times world champion for the World Boxing Federation world welterweight title.

"My aim is to prove the point," she says, smiling: "I am the best."

Women's boxing in SA has technically only been legal and recognised since 2001.

According to Boxing South Africa's figures, there are 46 professional women boxers across all weight divisions, still some struggle to find regular fights.

In that context, it is not surprising that Bukiwe's bout is the only women's duel on the bill for the Fight for Hope tournament in boxing-starved Khayelitsha.

As when most things come to townships, the tournament goes under the guise of "outreach" - in this case a charity fight between former twice-European Muay Thai champion, Uwe Hück, and Francois Botha, one-time IBF world heavyweight champ and all-round scary dude.

The event is also the launch of an apprenticeship programme sponsored by Porsche. It's a big deal. An article on News24 says Arnold Schwarzenegger will be in attendance at the OR Tambo Hall. Imagine that - the Governator in Khayelitsha. Bukiwe, however, is more interested in another muscular European.

Alesia "The Tigress" Graf is 36 years old but has the body of an athlete half her age. She and Bukiwe were supposed to square off last year, but their meeting was postponed and postponed - until Friday, March 31.

At the weigh-in for the Fight for Hope, Alesia strips down to a navy bikini. Bukiwe opts for a powder blue T-shirt, boxer briefs and sunglasses.

The contrast between them is startling in both garb and body: the compact Belarusian-German; the lanky one who lives in Limpopo.

Howard Goldberg, president of the WBF, doesn't really fancy Bukiwe's chances: "Alesia is considered, pound-for-pound, one of the best women fighters in the world," he says. "She'll have a challenge beating her."

Bukiwe has held the South African national women's welterweight title for the past five years. Image: Chris de Beer

Bukiwe has a strategy, of course. "I have to beat myself before I beat her," she says. "And I know how to beat myself."

And how do you do that? "Pressure," she says. "I hate a fighter who comes at me. I won't let her get close to me." Luckily, she's got reach, a hinge for a waist. Her coach, Immanuel Neluonde, emphasises footwork. He makes her sprint every morning. "The best thing in boxing is fitness."

Bukiwe plans to box smart, go all 10 rounds and win on points. She doesn't think she'll knock Alesia out. "I don't believe in aggressive boxing anyway," she says. "I fight with love."

Bukiwe was born in iDutywa in the Eastern Cape, one of boxing's traditional heartlands. She only started boxing, though, when she moved to the North West for high school.

"To be honest," she says, "I don't really love boxing."

Perhaps part of that is because, no matter where she goes, the stereotypes of women boxers persist.

"It's not my sexuality that brought me to boxing," she says. "I was gay before I boxed. But even so, it's hard to go to the location and say to kids, 'Let's go to the gym', because parents think we are devils.

"People have an attitude where they want to fight me in the street. But I'm already too sensitive in the ring - I can't fight in the street."

Bukiwe 'Anaconda' Nonina prays with her mother, Notheko, before the fight. Image: Chris de Beer

Of her 16 professional fights, Bukiwe has lost only three.  The first two were among her first bouts; the other was the first, and last, time she took a step into the international arena.

Lusaka, two-and-a-half years ago. Her opponent was Catherine Phiri, a hometown star who would go on to take the WBC bantamweight title. The Government Complex on Independence Avenue was hot, the ring small, the lights too close.

"My father and my manager were in my corner," she recalls. "I said to them, let's stop this before I get injured. So they agreed."

The next day, the Zambian papers were mocking. Bukiwe had "surrendered", The Post said; she was worried that Phiri "would have killed her in the ring".

Bukiwe maintains she never said those things. "Now it's personal. They can bring their ring. I'll train in Limpopo, outside in the sun. I want Phiri now. I just need the title on Friday."

Schwarzenegger is not there. A few hundred other people are, though, coming in from the mist. Children mill around at the edge of the crowd, shadow-boxing, eating Simbas and raisins, playing shibobo with Coke cans. Bukiwe shares a humid changing room with four male boxers. Her parents stand by as Immanuel tightens her gloves. Bukiwe's mother, Notheko, prays over her. Then the singing begins.

Alesia has a sequinned tiger on her vest, which she discards to reveal that muscled torso. Her gloves look too big for her, whirling out from her sides. She is trying to coax Bukiwe into countering her attacks.

Bukiwe keeps her distance, retreating into the corners, more tiger than the Tigress herself. She bends, avoids, lands a hard jab. Alesia swings wilder and wilder. She goes after Bukiwe, her face glowing red, but cannot reach her opponent. Bukiwe's face is serene, feet like a ballroom quick-stepper. In control.

Bukiwe 'Anaconda' Nonina took on Alesia 'The Tigress' Graf. Image: Chris de Beer

In the 7th round, Bukiwe falls through the ropes, dazed. During the break she looks past Immanuel at the crowd, at the photographers surrounding the ring, not listening to anyone, just smiling. Seconds out. The bell. Bukiwe just about runs out of her corner, the new aggressor. Alesia is desperate, charging around the ring, her gloves met only by the silence of clean air. The Tigress literally begins to growl.

94-96, 93-97, 94-96. Close, but unanimous. Bukiwe is mobbed on the way back to her changeroom. Inside, safe, mom Notheko wipes tears from her eyes. Bukiwe doesn't rest.

There's blood on her white Nikes - she doesn't really notice that her eyebrow has been split. "I feel awesome," she says.

Outside, Hück and Botha gear up to face each other. But the real fight has already been fought. Through the wall, a live band shrieks out a song by Toto. It's Africa, of course. The continent Bukiwe will soon leave to find the appreciation she desires.

Well, maybe. Maybe she'll stop off in Lusaka first and pay a visit to Catherine Phiri.

Mulgrew is the author of 'Stations', published by David Philip.