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South African Southpaw Kevin Lerena is the Best Fighter in his Weight Class

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  • South African Southpaw Kevin Lerena is the Best Fighter in his Weight Class

    In a fight this past Saturday that fell under the radar, Kevin Lerena won a 12-round unanimous decision over Ryad Merhy in the city of Kempton Park on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Merhy hailed from Belgium, a country that has produced no world-class boxers other than Delfine Persoon, but he wasn’t a generic Belgian boxer, having been born in the Ivory Coast, and his 31-1 record with 26 KOs bore witness that he was no slouch.

    Lerena vs. Merhy (pictured) was a tactical fight, not what one would have expected considering Lerena’s previous fight against Daniel Dubois. In that fight, as prizefighters are wont to say, Lerena nearly shocked the world.

    Dubois, once considered a surefire world heavyweight champion, was making the first defense of the WBA trinket he won with a fourth-round blast-out of Trevor Bryan. In the opening round, Lerena nailed him with his signature punch, a left hook, and Dubois went down hard. For the rest of the round, he was in a survival mode, twice taking a knee.

    Dubois was ripe for the taking when the second round started but, inexplicably, Lerena failed to press his advantage and let a golden opportunity slip away. Dubois shook off the cobwebs, fought his way back into the fight, and stopped Lerena in the ensuing round.

    Although Lerena entered the match with a 28-1 record and had avenged his lone defeat, the presumption was that he would be easy pickins’ for Daniel Dubois, an imposing physical specimen who carried 240 pounds on his six-foot-five frame. Lerena had beefed up to 230 pounds, but had fought most of his career as a cruiserweight.

    After the Dubois fight. Lerena’s braintrust thought he would be better served by going after the WBC bridgerweight belt.

    Let’s pause now and let the snarky laughter subside. Yes, the newfangled bridgerweight division for fighters weighing 201 to 225 pounds, is looked upon by boxing fans as nothing more than a money grab by the World Boxing Council. With the sport already plagued by a ridiculous number of weight classes –17 to be exact – why create another?

    We are reminded that there was also a lot of harping when the WBC created the cruiserweight class in 1979, notwithstanding the fact that it made so much sense -- before then, a boxer weighing as low as 176 pounds was classified as a heavyweight.

    It took a while for the cruiserweight division to gain traction. The first champion was crowned on March 31, 1980, when Montana’s Marvin Camel outpointed Croatia’s Mate Parlov in their rematch at Caesars Palace. There were five title fights altogether on that date. ABC televised four on their “Wide World of Sports” extravaganza. The cruiserweight division was held in such low esteem that Camel vs. Parlov didn’t make the cut.

    Evander Holyfield made a very smart observation when he said it takes a special boxer for a new weight division to achieve credibility. “I think it’s the fighter that makes the division and not the other way around,” said Evander after gutting out a 15-round split decision over Camden, New Jersey fireplug Dwight Muhammad Qawi on July 12, 1986. While the weight class would always remain a way station for light heavyweights heading north, few bad-mouthed the division following the Holyfield-Qawi rumble. (For the record, this fight was for the WBA junior heavyweight title which had a ceiling of 190 pounds. However, the term “cruiserweight” had come into vogue and the nomenclature and parameters would soon be concordant across the rival organizations.)

    Oscar Rivas, a native of Colombia, based in Montreal, out-pointed fellow Canadian Ryan Rozicki in Montreal on Oct. 22, 2021, to claim the inaugural bridgerweight title. That may have been Rivas’s final fight. He has a history of detached retinas and his career is in limbo.

    On Jan. 5 of this year, the WBC declared the title vacant and certified the match between Alen Babic and Lukasz Rozanski for the vacant title. In a surprise, Rozanski’s promoter outbid Eddie Hearn for the rights to stage the fight. He potted it in Rozanski’s hometown of Rzeszow, Poland, where it played out on April 22.

    In a fight between two maulers, Rozanski disposed of Babic in the opening round, Ergo, an obscure 37-year-old Pole now sits on the bridgerweight throne. And it’s back to the drawing board for Babic, a 32-year Croatian whose hell-for-leather style had earned him a cult following in his adopted city of London.

    Back to Kevin Lerena. His match with Ryad Merhy was a WBC bridgerweight eliminator. He’s next in line for the undefeated Rozanski who has knocked out 14 of his 15 opponents with 13 of those knockouts coming inside the first two rounds.

    It figures that Rozanski has a puncher’s chance when he makes the first defense of his title, but he’s still relatively green and the only recognizable name on his ledger other than Babic is Artur Szpilka who was stopped in four frames by Adam Kownacki before Rozanski caught up with him.

    Lerena is legit and I think it’s a safe bet that he will box rings around the Pole. For the moment, the South African southpaw is the best fighter in the weight class.