Michael Ramabeletsa’s record doesn’t speak for itself. And why should it? Records are for DJs, after all, and the “Trouble Maker” ain’t dancin’ to the tune of preconceptions. Instead, the English super-bantamweight champion 18-17 (8KO) is looking to right the wrongs of a career in the away corner, starting on Saturday night live on BT Sport against the unbeaten Chris Bourke (8-0, 5KO).
“The record is what it is. To be honest, I feel like I only really lost a few of those fights,” Ramabeletsa admitted earlier this year in the peak of the UK’s first coronavirus lockdown. The 38-year-old had given me a fair chunk of his time, relaying detailed intricacies of a career that hadn’t previously been given the luxury of airtime or column inches.
“It’s easy to look at a guy with 17 losses and call him a ‘journeyman’ or something like that, but in reality, they don’t know what is going on behind the scenes in boxing. I’ve been fighting in the away corner for most of my career, but now that I have been given a fair chance I can prove my worth.”
Growing up in Tokoza, South Africa, Ramabeletsa’s struggle started way before an introduction to the unforgiving business of boxing. As a child, he would bob and weave around the intimidating streets of Johannesburg in an attempt to stay on the right path, getting by with the help of his mother who he pays a big tribute to. Not until age 13 did he stumble across his first pair of gloves and the transition from schoolboy into fighter began.
A chance meeting with a friend in Tokoza led a young Mike towards the sweet science, with threats from his first trainer instilling the resilience and commitment needed to prosper in such an uncompromising sport.
“You gotta be here every day,” his trainer in Tokoza would demand. “I’ll come to your house and whip your ass if you don’t come,” was another warning Ramabeletsa recalled, chuckling despite the obvious trepidation the 13-year-old version of himself would have felt. Still, this baptism of fire would hold him in good stead as he learnt his craft over the years that followed.
“I got beat up in my first fight as I didn’t know what I was doing. I was still so young. I was so nervous and couldn’t eat before as I felt so sick. I lost that fight and had zero confidence.” Despite coming close to throwing in the towel at the first hurdle, he rallied and grew. “I had to convince myself to continue and I knew I’d have to put some real work in. I went back and the confidence came as I trained. I won my second fight.”
This early success lit the fuse to follow a career in the fight game for Ramabeletsa. It wouldn’t take long for this natural talent to manifest itself in junior titles at the Eastern Gauteng Championships and in the Masakana tournament — a South African version of Prizefighter.
“I was told I was untouchable,” he reminisced. “When I walked into the gym, people took notice. I had a real swagger about me. When I was 17, nobody wanted to fight me, so my coach said he would try and match me with the seniors. Then I became Eastern Gauteng champion as a senior.”
A shoulder injury would dash Ramabeletsa’s dreams of competing at the Commonwealth Games, with Kwanele Zulu taking his place, scooping a silver medal having previously lost to Ramabeletsa in the qualifiers. Three years passed with the burning desire to return to the ring fading day-on-day until a friend offered to pay for his shoulder surgery and restart his career.
This act of altruism paved the way for the “Trouble Maker” to turn pro, and after winning six pro fights in South Africa, a move to the United Kingdom — championed by trainer and friend Tony Harris — saw Ramabeletsa adopt the role of an away fighter by accident.
“I never wanted to be the away fighter,” he explained “but I guess I just struggled to get the opportunities when I moved over. There is no such thing as a journeyman in South Africa, so it was surprising how I was getting treated in fights in the UK. You constantly feel like you don’t belong there and you’ll never get the opportunity to win on the cards. if you don’t get the knockout, you’re not going to get the win.”
How to Watch Yarde vs Arthur
Date: Saturday, Dec. 5 | Start Time: 2:00 pm ET
Location: Church House - Westminster, London, England
TV: BT Sport (UK) | Stream: ESPN+ (US)
Losses to the likes of Martin Ward, Josh Wale and Paul Butler would see Ramabeletsa go 0-5 in his new home, before stopping the rot via TKO against Ross Burkinshaw.
“Everything was different. But I knew I had to adjust. I came to the UK to change my life for the better and I guess I accepted that I was going to have to take the rough with the smooth at the start. For all of those fights, I was training myself which limited what I was able to do. But there was no other option at the time. I was tempted at times to return to South Africa, but Tony Harris convinced me I was too good not to stay.”
Ramabeletsa’s record would grow, with the newly proud Lancashire fighter scattering wins and losses up and down the United Kingdom. Shots at the English super-bantamweight and commonwealth titles would pass him by via tough decision losses over Josh Kennedy and Ashley Lane until a crowning moment in his career came in 2018.
Three wins on the spin against fighters with combined records of 24-0 saw Ramabeletsa scoop the vacant English super-bantamweight title and with it, the belief that at 38 years old he can find his peak in the division.
This was his breakout moment — it was time to cash in.
Months passed as he awaited news from Frank Warren on a potential live BT Sport card in London. Expecting to defend his English title, news broke of a better opportunity for Ramabeletsa in the form of a WBC International Silver title fight, and with a win, a WBC ranking at 122 pounds.
Unbeaten Chris Bourke is the man tasked with stopping the momentum of Ramabeletsa this Saturday night, but for the “Trouble Maker”, this opportunity is illustrative of a career of patience.
“I’ve been waiting my whole life for an opportunity like this to come along and I can’t wait to grab it with both hands,” he told me a day before leaving for the London BT Sport Bubble. This is the second attempt to get this fight on, following a postponement three weeks back due to Ramabeletsa’s coach failing a COVID-19 test. ”Chris [Bourke] is a good kid and a good boxer but hasn’t got my experience in the ring. Boxing is all about levels — it’ll be a good fight, but I don’t think this is his time.”
There will be thousands of new eyes on Michael Ramabeletsa this Saturday night, with not many knowing the path he has trodden and the battles he has overcome en route to this opportunity. As his record of 18-17 is plastered across the screen before the first bell, eyes will roll and assumptions will be made from armchairs up and down the country.
Win or lose, Ramabeletsa is living proof of how choppy the boxing waters can be across a career. Saturday night is his Superbowl — he’s convinced me he’s done everything possible to make it a successful one.
A career fighting in the away corner hasn’t dampened his love for the sport. The fire still burns deep within the heart of the English champion and after finding a new home in Preston, with a beautiful young family, he’ll get the closest to experiencing what it’s like to be a home fighter inside the desolate Church House, Westminster.
All he’s asking for is a fair crack and he’s confident he can do the rest.