Johannesburg – Kevin Lerena vividly remembers when it was that the bug really bit. He was already established in the sport of boxing then. He was even a world champion.
But that night ignited something deep inside him, something that saw him aspiring to much more – something he now believes he is close to realising.
“Watching 90 000 people packed in that arena when (Anthony) Joshua fought (Wladimir) Klitschko, wow man … that was something else. That was an inspiration.
“I looked at those guys and believed I could fight them. And I just found myself yearning for that kind of experience. I wanted to be involved in something that grand.”
The twinkle in his eye and the excitement in his voice tells the story of a man who is literally reliving that moment once more. Of course, he was not at London’s Wembley Stadium on April 29, 2017. But he could well have been, Lerena having lived every moment of that thrilling “Fight of the Year” (as per the renowned Ring magazine), which saw Joshua win via a TKO in the penultimate round, in front of his television.
That he still gets goosebumps on his log-like tattooed arms remembering that clash is because, five years on, Lerena has made serious inroads into making the dream a reality.
I am speaking to him on the edge of the boxing ring at the Smith’s Gym in Fourways a few days after his unanimous points victory over Poland’s man-mountain Mariusz Wach. That success at a packed Emperor’s Palace was only his second in the heavyweight division but already saw him become the IBO Intercontinental champion.
And while he admits that he must work his way up the rankings to earn a shot at the title of boxing’s most glamorous yet toughest weight division, the 30-year-old former cruiserweight world champion says he would take to the ring any day for the championship should the opportunity arise.
“In a perfect world any big offer that comes along, we are going to take it,” he says unflinchingly before greeting well-wishers walking into the gym.
And who of the current champions does he fancy his chances against?
“The guys who have the titles now are all incredible. Joshua is phenomenal. (Tyson) Fury is a good boxer and (Oleksander) Usyk is amazing.
“Out of the top four, I truly believe that Joshua is the most vulnerable right now. If given the opportunity (to fight him), I will sign the contract tomorrow.”
He knows that he will have to bide his time, though. After all, he has only just graduated to the division, though that is where he had started way back, only to move down to cruiserweight because “there were not enough heavyweights in the country at the time”.
“Of course, it would be nice to get the chance at the title. Right now we need to build our way into the top 10 in the world. And we need to have more fights and more experience in the division. But we can’t just fight anybody, we have to fight credible opponents.”
His promoter, Rodney Berman of Golden Gloves, and his trainer Peter Smith have said they will try to get him two more fights in front of his home crowd before he goes overseas.
“I’ve got to keep winning. I must try to be flawless in every performance. Everybody talks about hard work but everyone does work hard.
“What is it that you do that is better than the other person? What’s that 1% that differentiates you from the rest?”
Lerena believes he has that Xfactor.
“As a boxer you’ve got to win special. You’ve got to be special. What makes me special? Well, I am the hardest worker I know out there.
“And I’ve got no amateur fights but look where I’ve got to. That’s special enough, right?” he says, chuckling, before calling on his 7-year-old son Brooklyn to not punch his 5-year-old sister Ivana too hard.
The two are wearing gloves and mimicking daddy inside the ring before Brooklyn comes over and says to me: “Daddy beat that guy up and I jumped into the ring.”
Not to be outdone, little Ivana chimes in: “I didn’t go in because daddy was all sweaty.”
He is fully aware of what he has got himself into, moving up to the division.
“Of course, it is a glamorous division. But it is also the hardest. You have two guys of 100kg plus in the ring. They hit harder, they are bigger and stronger, so to make it there you have to be a lot more durable than in the other weight divisions. There is no room for error in the heavyweight division.”
And how does he foresee himself getting to his goal, given such obstacles? “My skill set has got me where it has and it will continue to be my route to success. And the way my trainer trains me is to ensure that I do not get hit as much, to not take unnecessary punishment. If you take too much punishment, you are going to not last enough – especially in this division.”
How grand it would be were he to realise his goal in the kind of environment where the boxing bug bit him.