“I still love everything about this sport,” Hekkie Budler explains with a smile plastered across his face. It’s an ebullient and earnest smile that lights up his living room in Johannesburg, South Africa, replacing his trademark, exuberant hairstyle which today is unusually modest.
Budler (35-4, 11 KO) is deep in training camp ahead of his first world title fight since 2018. On Monday night in Tokyo, the 35-year-old will take on the highly-rated Kenshiro Teraji (21-1, 13 KO) for two of the belts in the 108 lb division. A win inside the Ariake Arena would cement his legacy as one of South Africa’s greatest ever boxers.
“It’s been a hard camp, but probably one of the most enjoyable and best of my career to date,” he continues. “I am feeling better and better with age. It’s weird. I am following a new diet now where I eat little and often, and along with the addition of a strength and conditioning coach to my team, I am feeling fresher and stronger than I have in a number of years.
“I think the pandemic played into this by allowing my body to rest properly. I had two-and-a-half years out of the ring where I could just recover and solely focus on myself; this isn’t something that you can often do as a fighter trying to earn a living.”
His opponent on Monday is in possession of the WBA, WBC and Ring Magazine titles in the 108lb division. Just one defeat blots his record coming against Masamichi Yabuki — a loss he avenged six months later via a third round KO — but Budler is confident playing the role of the underdog in enemy territory.
“I have always loved being an underdog,” he explains. “It hypes me up that extra bit. I have gone through my career always wanting to prove myself right and other people wrong, so this is just another opportunity to do so.
“I know in my heart that I have what it takes to become a world champion again at the age of 35, but there have been many people questioning my desire to continue in the sport. ‘Aren’t you too old? Shouldn’t you have retired already?’ I get asked all the time, but it’s not something that I am even close to considering at the moment.
“I still have that fire in me and, until that goes, I will keep on fighting. It’s what I have always done and I love it more and more each day.”
Budler nods in agreement that most boxers claim, like he has, to have had the best camp of their careers, but can point to some of the nuances that prove his case. He has managed to overcome a breathing issue that hampered his last world title shot, enabling him to post further and faster distances in training despite his advancing age.
The “fitter I got, the sicker I got,” he explains, before seeking medical advice regarding his fitness-induced asthma. But he is acutely aware that he will need more than his big heart and pumping lungs to beat Teraji in front of a passionate Japanese crowd.
“I believe he is number one in the division, this is why I wanted to take this fight,” he continued. “He is a volume puncher, like me, and can be relentless with his attacks. He sets you up with the jab, lures you in and then counters.
“He is a typical Japanese fighter where he aims to hurt you with every punch. It’s more of an accuracy thing. You see it with [Naoya] Inoue as well — every shot he throws in his attacks he lands, there is nothing wasted like when you see two big heavyweights just slinging bombs at each other. I think it is also how they are taught to turn their hands over, there is pure power in every shot.
Budler has had access to world class sparring inside the Hot Box Gym, where he is coached by a tight-knit team fronted by Colin Nathan. Former titleholder Dee-jay Kriel and current IBF junior flyweight titlist Sivenathi Nontshinga have given him vital rounds in sparring, working on his speed and power underlining the philosophy that ‘irons sharpen irons’.
“We are going to have to move and be in his face from the opening bell,” he adds. “But we are always very adaptable in our game plans. It’ll become clear from the first round if something is working or not working, and it’ll be down to Colin and myself to spot that and find a solution, fast. Of course I am a volume puncher but there is a lot more to me than that!”
A return to Japan is one that fills Budler with excitement. His last visit ended in a historic victory against Ryoichi Taguchi just over five years ago, a fight that draws obvious comparisons to Monday night. Budler was again a big underdog in winning the WBA, IBF and Ring Magazine 108 lb titles and is adamant that history will repeat itself again.
“I feel like a star when I travel to Japan,” he explains. “It’s a country that really respects and celebrates the lower weight classes. They are promoted well out in the East and it gives us the opportunities to be stars and make good money. Sure, the heavyweights will always get the big headlines and attention in the sport, but I stopped caring about that a long time ago.
“I will have to get another job after retiring but the likes of Fury, Usyk and others won’t, even if they don’t win as many world titles as me, but I am at peace with that. If I didn’t love the sport as much as I do then that might have broken me a long time ago.
“To be honest, our fights tend to be a lot more fun! You see the number of punches thrown in a lower weight class fight compared to the heavyweights, but I get it; history tells us that the heavyweights will dominate the news.”
Budler flinches whenever retirement worms its way into any topic of conversation, but it’s one that he has discussed openly with his family.
“My family and coach will tell me when it’s time to hang them up, but I think that we will realise it is time together. As soon as my heart isn’t in it anymore then we will all realise that the show is over. But that’s not close to my mind at the moment.
“Right now, I love boxing as much as I always have and it’s done a pretty good job of loving me back over the years. But when it is time to retire, I am sure I will stay in the sport to some degree. I love coaching normal people, not professionals, but people that want to use boxing to make a change in their lives. Whether that’s just getting fitter, staying healthy or keeping their mind busy – they are the people that I want to help.
“It something that I do currently alongside fighting – it gives me such a buzz to see people fall in love with the sport like I have. For my daughter, Freya, as well I want to leave a legacy that she can look back on fondly.
“The Hexecutioner” already has a career to be proud of, but there is still more to achieve.
“If I can win the WBO and WBC titles then I will become the first South African to win all four recognised world titles,” he explains. “That’s a big thing for me. Also, winning the Ring Magazine title twice will also be an unprecedented achievement in my country.
“But if I am being honest, I just want to keep enjoying it for as long as I can. We don’t get long careers in boxing, they can be over in the blink of an eye. I want to squeeze as much out of it as possible. And if I can do that at the very top, then that is even better.
Good ambassadors seem harder and harder to find in boxing but Budler reminds us that, perhaps, we haven’t been looking closely enough.
“I want to be remembered as someone who inspired others to get involved in boxing. Knowing I have been in an entertaining fight gives me such a thrill, knowing that I have put a smile on the faces of fans.
“I think this fight against Teraji will be one of those. If I win, it will be the biggest win of my career and I have every confidence I can achieve this.”