Unbeaten Xolisani Ndongeni to join Floyd Mayweather's gym
South African world boxing champion is heads to Las Vegas this week where he hopes to find fame and fortune — and pave the way for other fighters
South Africa's unbeaten world boxing champion Xolisani Ndongeni left on a jet plane last week - and his stalled ring career could have taken off with it.
The 27-year-old International Boxing Organisation world lightweight champion was headed for Las Vegas, the flashy capital of world boxing and the dream destination of any ambitious fighter.
Ndongeni was excited but apprehensive. He has suffered too many disappointments and setbacks in his 10-year boxing career to take life for granted.
"It's every boxer's dream to go and fight in Vegas and I'm very grateful," he said while waiting at OR Tambo International Airport for his flight. Then he quickly added that he would only breathe a sigh of relief once he got there.
His caution is understandable. Just four months ago Ndongeni had decided to quit the sport.
"I've been to hell and back in boxing, but I'm still standing," he said, recalling the setbacks and frustrations.
"I managed to keep on, with all the hard things that have happened. I see this as a breakthrough."
The breakthrough is a new manager and trainer in Luis Tapia, a man with serious connections in world boxing. Tapia works from world champion Floyd Mayweather's gym.
It's a big step for the South African champ. It may be even bigger than the one he took 10 years ago in Duncan Village, East London, when he gave up his first love, rugby, for the ring.
"Everyone thought I would not make it because I started boxing so late in my career," he recalled. "When I started boxing I knew nothing about the sport."It's a slight exaggeration. He had carried the boxing bag of his cousin Thabo Sishwane to the local gym. Sishwane, 31, is a former World Boxing Association Pan-African bantamweight champion.
In the gym, Ndongeni would sit and watch. Outside the gym, on the streets of the village, he occasionally needed to apply the fistic skills he'd picked up from mere watching; there were the inevitable scraps with other boys.
It was not a desire to defend himself in those scraps that led to him taking up boxing as a sport, but the intense training regimen of those he'd been watching in the gym.
He'd seen trainer Mzamo Njekanye put his fighters through their paces at the Duncan Village Boxing Academy.
The academy was housed in a small gym in the township. It would become the place where Ndongeni's talent would be nurtured.
OWED MORE THAN R1-MILLION
Ndongeni turned professional in 2010 and since then has suffered one disappointment after another.He is still owed more than R1-million in purse money, he has had fights cancelled and has had to endure debilitating inactivity. His last fight was a unanimous points win over Mexican lightweight Juan Garcia Mendez in Los Angeles in November.Sidinile was later taken to court by Ndongeni for failing to pay him after he featured in one of the promoter's tournaments.Ironically, it was Sidinile who guided Ndongeni to a world title in 2015. Ndongeni beat fellow South African Jasper Seroka in East London for the vacant IBO lightweight title.
Sidinile is also the brains behind the US move, something Ndongeni said he'd never imagined would happen given the history between the two of them.
"It's boxing - you have to know there are no permanent enemies in this sport. Now he's taking me to America. Because I want to be a champion. I said to myself: 'I can get someone to take me further with my career.'
"I called Andile and he said he would talk to some people. He then called me back asking if I was ready to go to America. For me to just move out of South Africa and start a new life ... it's a big thing."
Ndongeni left Berman and Nathan earlier this year and joined Damien Durandt, son of the late boxing trainer Nick.
The relationship ended after Ndongeni pulled out of a tournament in the Western Cape when the promoter failed to come up with the purse money in the week of the fight."I loved being at the Hot Box Gym and working with Colin, but the only issue was that I was not getting fights. I felt I deserved better and me staying there was not going to benefit me or my son. To not fight for almost a year is frustrating ... Imagine going to the gym every day and then there would be a fight promised and it would not happen. Training is not easy because you have to diet and you travel, so it hits your pocket."
Despite the challenges Ndongeni maintained an unbeaten 22-fight record, winning 11 of those with knockouts.
Ndongeni has also been a beneficiary of the Mathews Phosa Foundation, which paid for his flights to America, and says he appreciates the help. His plan in the US is to land a promotions deal with the Mayweather camp, a sure-fire ticket to stardom. He will probably meet Mayweather, but he acknowledges that landing the promotions deal might be more difficult.
FIGHTING STYLE CRITICISED
Mayweather would like Ndongeni's energy and heart, but is less likely to appreciate his fighting style, which is likened to that of Chris Eubank, the British world middleweight champion of the late 1980s and '90s.
Ndongeni's fighting style has often been criticised by the Duncan Village boxing aficionados who prefer skill to raw power."My style is modelled around Chris Eubank," said Ndongeni of the Brit with the granite jaw, "because I knew and appreciate my limitations. Before seeing [Eubank] I thought I would not make it, but to see his movement and power was good for me."
What Ndongeni lacks in skill, he more than makes up for in heart, energy and power.
"I've trained to adjust quickly in the ring. At times it's not the most entertaining and I can't say I am the best boxer, but I do know how to win."
And win he has, with six titles in his professional career. He has a huge following in and outside East London, was named the 2016 boxer of the year, and has a number of sponsorships.
South Africa's best lightweight boxer is rated 12th by the World Boxing Council while the other two highly regarded federations, the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Organisation, do not rank him in the top 15.
Ndongeni's career could provide the blueprint for analysing the malaise in South African boxing.
The sport has been on the ropes for the better part of the last decade, crippled by poor administration, a lack of sponsorship, dwindling tournaments and dodgy promoters and managers.
For every boxer telling a rags-to-riches story, there are hundreds with sad tales of journeys in the opposite direction, of unfulfilled promises, fights over purse money and wasted talent.
Challenges and pitfalls
How else does one make sense of the travails of a fighter with as much promise as Ndongeni?
In the past two years, he has changed managers and promoters three times and has not been paid his purse money twice, and recently he pulled out of a non-title fight because the promoter failed to raise the purse money for the boxers.Ndongeni is well aware of the challenges and pitfalls that frustrate ambitious boxers in South Africa. He says education is critical.
"To be honest with you, my son would never box as long as I'm alive," Ndongeni said.
"If the sport remains the way it is now - and given my experiences in South Africa - he must stay well away from the gym.
"For the sport to change here, we need more education about the business for boxers.
"There are too many old people who are not keen to change the way things are done.
"We need to be more professional; that way you would be able to attract sponsors, television and even fans.
"But I believe those changes will only happen for the next generation. It might just be too late for us.
"I know my going to America now will, in a small way, benefit South African boxing and inspire up-and-coming amateurs.
"I wanted to emulate boxers who went to Johannesburg and built their lives there. I hope one day boxers in Duncan Village will aim to come to America. I would have done good."..