WHEN asked about being this close to fighting for a WBA heavyweight title against Daniel Dubois this Saturday in Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Kevin Lerena laughs.
“It’s pretty surreal, isn’t it?”
Oh, it is.
Forget that the WBA title up for grabs is a spurious one at best, with the “real” champions among the big boys being Oleksandar Usyk and the man headlining this weekend’s event against Derek Chisora, Tyson Fury. But the surreal part of this matchup is that a year ago, South Africa’s Lerena had just announced that he was leaving the cruiserweight division to compete with the big boys. Two wins later, here he is.
That’s a lot to take in, but if he’s rattled, you can’t hear it in his voice.
“I’m just grateful to be in this position and obviously we’ve worked really hard to get here and I just want to capitalise and make the most of my career,” he said. “I’ve got maybe four, five years left, I’m 30 years old now, so the next four or five years, I want them to be the best that I could have imagined.”
A win over the Londoner would be a good start as he looks to join countrymen Gerrie Coetzee, Francois Botha and Corrie Sanders as heavyweight belt-holders for his nation, and he’s proud to not just represent South Africa, but to show that heavyweight standouts can be built at home, something he credits veteran promoter Rodney Berman for.
“A lot of people emigrate and travel overseas to seek more opportunity,” said Johannesburg’s Lerena. “Unfortunately, if it doesn’t go your way overseas, there’s nothing happening for you, and with the strong promoters I’ve got in South Africa, I’ve always been able to keep busy and have good fights against good names. For example, look at my last two fights: Mariusz Wach is a household name and a gatekeeper of the division, and Bogdan Dinu. Had I not had those fights, I wouldn’t have got this shot. Yes, I won those fights and I won them well, but if my promoter didn’t put those fights on I wouldn’t get this opportunity. So I always had the idea of staying at home until I got the call. And we literally got the call from Frank Warren.”
The reason was probably a simple one. Dubois is getting a payday before the end of the year, and as he hopes to get a crack at former cruiserweight king Usyk in 2023, fighting a southpaw who is a former cruiserweight is ideal. So yes, Lerena, who is 6-foot-1 and weighed in at 233 ¾ pounds for his last fight with Wach in September, is the underdog to the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Dubois. Not that Lerena hesitated when approached with this golden opportunity.
“When they phoned me directly, they said, ‘Would you like to fight Daniel Dubois for the WBA world title.’ I said, ‘Yes, send me the contract.’”
It’s understandable, whether Lerena truly believes he can win or not. In a boxing ring with heavyweights, anything can happen. But the South African was impressive in halting Dinu in four rounds and nearly shutting out Wach over 12. And having avenged the only loss on his 28-1 (14 KOs) record to Johnny Muller in 2014 by stopping his rival two years later, he’s shown to be able to deal with adversity, something many skeptics still wonder about when it comes to Dubois after his only loss to Joe Joyce in 2020. Lerena is not one of those skeptics.
“Me and Joe Joyce are very different fighters, to be honest,” said Lerena. “And obviously, Daniel Dubois lost that fight, but a man comes back from a loss a lot stronger usually, so I don’t look at that. My benchmark’s not the Joe Joyce fight; my benchmark is the man in front of me and how he looked in his last fight and in his last fight [against Trevor Bryan] he was a success and he looked really good, so I’ve got to beat a really good opponent who I know is very strong, it’s no secret, but, at the end of the day, skills are what win the fights and we have a game plan and we know what we need to do to win.”
If Lerena does pull off the upset, his whole world will change overnight. I ask him if he’s ready for what happens after December 3 if he goes home with a championship belt in his carry-on bag.
“I can tell you what I’m ready for,” he said. “I’m ready to experience boxing at the highest level and whatever comes with boxing at the highest level. I’ve worked so hard my whole career and things are starting to unfold now, and whatever comes afterwards is just part of the package; it’s part of boxing. So I need to embrace it and appreciate it.”
It’s here where being a big fish in a small pond in South Africa helps him. If Lerena was competing in the UK or the United States, perhaps he wouldn’t be followed by all the major papers and media outlets like he is at home. And after testing positive for the banned substance Clomiphene in November 2018, he was firmly in the crosshairs of coverage that attacked from all angles. Ultimately cleared by the IBO for the VADA violation because he mistakenly took the female fertility tablet which was actually prescribed for his wife, Gina, Lerena did find out how life is on the other side of the spotlight, and when he gets closer to the biggest fight of his career he shouldn’t be a deer in headlights, even if there are 70,000 headlights beaming down on him.
“What I can say is I’ve got a lot of nerves for this occasion,” Lerena admits. “It’s a big occasion, but nerves are your greatest ally if you use them for you. I’ve got everything to gain. He’s got a lot of pressure because I’m coming for what he’s got. So I’ve got those nerves that I’m channeling in the right direction, and 70,000 people will be shouting for him and jeering me, but it’s only me and Daniel Dubois fighting center ring. It’s two warriors colliding. I don’t back down and I’m sure he doesn’t, so it makes for a great fight.”