It’s evening in Johannesburg and Kevin Lerena sits in darkness.
“It’s called ‘load shedding’,” he explains to Bad Left Hook, rolling his eyes. “Every night there are planned power outages across South Africa to save on energy. It’s annoying, but we are pretty used to it now.”
“I guess it’s similar to my career,” he chuckles. “Us South Africans are forever overlooked, underappreciated, and left in the dark when it comes to sport. But it’s something we have become aware of as a nation. I don’t know why. It’s a question I ask myself a lot. Maybe it’s because we aren’t in the heartland of Europe or North America; we are outsiders and not considered a first world country? But now that I have been given an opportunity it’s down to me to grab it with both hands — no one else.”
That opportunity comes on Dec. 3. Lerena is thrown into the spotlight on the undercard of Tyson Fury vs Derek Chisora to challenge heavyweight Daniel Dubois (18-1, 17 KO) inside Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. It signals just the fourth time the 30-year-old will have fought outside of his home nation, but this step up in quality and chance of exposure is something he has been craving since turning professional.
“I haven’t been this motivated in a long time,” he says. “I am all too aware that this is a big task ahead of me, but I am excited more than anything. It’s going to be quite something walking out in front of 65,000 fans in London — all rooting for Daniel — but we are coming to cause an upset and not just enjoy the occasion.”
Lerena speaks like a man with years of boxing experience under his belt, but it has been a fairly rapid rise for the Johannesburg fighter. He first stepped into a ring in 2011 and has gone 28-1 (14 KO) in 11 years without benefitting from the foundations of an amateur career.
“I’ve been forced to learn on the job,” he adds. “I’m no silver spoon kid. I had to fight growing up and nothing has changed now except I get paid to do so. We are seen as gutter dogs from my part of the world: we’re not expected to amount to anything. But I am ready to change that.”
“I was ignored for years while I was South African cruiserweight champion and IBO champion. I was handed guys like Artur Mann and Sefer Seferi and never given that chance of a big fight, so a move up to heavyweight was always on the cards. I haven’t really put on that much weight. I walk around about 230 lbs, and that’s what I used to walk around at when I was a cruiserweight. So I’m comfortable knowing I don’t have to do those drastic weight cuts during camp.
“I am not stupid,” he continues. “I am not oblivious to the fact that I have got a hard fight ahead of me in Dubois, but I know that I am the most skillful fighter he would have ever come up against. He is going to see something very different in me to what he is used to fighting. I am not a guy that’s going to come and stand in front of him all night. I’ll use speed, skill and precision to be victorious. Speed beats power and I need to make full use of mine.”
Dubois is rebuilding his career following a damaging defeat to Joe Joyce in 2020. The 25-year-old suffered broken left orbital bone and nerve damage around the eye at the hands of the hard-hitting “Juggernaut,” but has since gone 3-0, fighting twice in the United States.
Lerena claims not to base too much of his preparation on studying Dubois’ solitary defeat, but understands the threat that the Briton carries.
“He has got a very simple but effective style,” he admits. “He is very strong and relies on his power a lot, which is expected. But the fight against Joyce will be a lot different to ours. There you had two bulls in the ring, but with my explosiveness and speed, it’s going to be very different.
“Dubois’ eye hasn’t even come into consideration. I never take pleasure in seeing someone get injured in boxing, so it’s certainly not something we are going to target specifically. At the end of the day that eye would have completely healed now and he will be a new man. If you focus on something too small you can often miss the bigger picture of the fight.”
The jump from cruiserweight to heavyweight can often be scrutinised by the boxing public, but Lerena is comforted by a growing archive of successful attempts. Evander Holyfield, David Haye, and Oleksandr Usyk have all successfully scaled the top of each division and the South African sees no reason why his name can’t join theirs in the future.
“Those three champions all had very different styles but it shows that it can be done in many different ways,” he explains. “It’s the best kind of motivation though. I grew up watching Holyfield and Haye so the blueprint is there.”
The lights turn back on in the Lerena household as he signs off with conviction.
“Listen, I know what Dubois is going to bring to the table but we have done everything possible in preparation. I’ve had some great sparring with Martin Bakole and Keaton Gomes and I’ve stood up to everything they have thrown at me. I can tell you right now that he doesn’t punch harder than Martin. We are bringing our own style to this fight and it’s going to be nothing he has seen before.”