Ilunga Makabu by Pete Moscardi

There is a strong Gallic resonance in the voice of Ilunga “Junior” Makabu, the 24-year-old southpaw cruiserweight from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But for someone who arrived in this country in 2008, speaking not a word of English, Makabu’s knowledge of the English language and his articulation is surprisingly good.

I had the opportunity to chat to the likeable fighter, alongside his manager Brian Mitchell in an Eastgate coffee shop. “Junior” had just come off a strenuous twohour training session at Harold Volbrecht’s Turfontein gymnasium which, today, is his permanent sweat-shop. But, to my astonishment, he tells me that his day begins long before the 9am gym session.

“I am always up and about at around 4am when I go for a 1.5 hour run – sometimes even at 1am in the middle of the night. I train when the mood takes me – no matter the time of the day, and I am always itching to work out,” he says.

“Junior” Makabu packs a record of 11 wins in 12 fights – all inside the distance. He assumes a rueful look when I question him about his one and only loss – his first fight in this country. “My problem was not my opponent (Khayeni Hlungwane) who I met at the Carousel Casino in June 2008. My problem was my complete lack of knowledge and understanding of the English language. My opponent managed to get in a punch to my lower ribcage in the first round which temporarily winded me. I took a knee and was up and raring to go at around eight. The referee then asked me if I was OK to continue and I didn’t have a clue what he had said to me. I second-guessed that he might have said something like ‘are you still hurt?’ and I must’ve shaken my head. He took that as a signal that I did not wish to continue and he waved off the fight. This was an absolute catastrophe for me as I was so keen to make an impression in my first fight in this country,” he says.

But the story is running ahead of itself. “Junior” comes from a large family in the DRC – mum, dad and 10 children (five boys and five girls). He was destined to box from the moment he came into this world as both his dad and his uncle were ex-professional fighters. “The DRC is full of fighters who would be terrific prospects. But the problem is that there are few promoters to promote them and a boxer is very lucky to find himself fighting more than once a year.”

“Junior” racked up a record of 12 amateur fights, with 12 wins – all inside. He also fought eight times as a professional with eight wins, also all inside the distance. “You will not find this part of my career in boxing records as there was no one in the DRC with the mechanism to convey these statistics to record compilers. Therefore if you search for my record in the usual places it will show you that my professional career commenced at the Carousel Casino in Temba in the North West Province in June 2008 – with the aforementioned result.”

Makabu tells me that he left the DRC when he was 19-years-old. “It was my sole intention to come to South Africa to further my boxing career. I had seen the great Cassius Baloyi fighting on television and I ascertained from watching these fights that his trainer was Nick Durandt. As Nick had done a terrific job with Cassius I decided that I wanted him to train me. Therefore when I arrived in Johannesburg I immediately enquired how I could locate Nick. I finally arrived at his gym but discovered that there was a language problem as he could not understand a word of French and I could not speak a word of English. However, you don’t need a language other than that spoken by your fists when you enter the ring, and after a couple of sparring sessions I got the message home to Nick that I was there to fight.”

“Junior” put his stuttering start behind him and followed that first fight disaster with a first round TKO victory over Elvis Moyo at Emperor’s Palace three months later. Diverting briefly from the subject of boxing, I ask him if he is married. “Yes, I am married to Christel-Ilanda and we have two children – both boys. Junior is two years old and Emmanuel is six weeks old.”

I notice a brief expression of softness enters his eyes as he tells me: “I live for my family. My family is my life and I lead a clean family life. I do not drink, and I do not smoke and I do not go to clubs or misbehave in any way. Boxing, next to my family, is my first love and my business and I know that I have to be in the best condition possible if I want to succeed.”

The majority of “Junior”s fights up and until November 2011 were for promoter Branco Milenkovic, to whom he was contracted. In November 2011 he got a major break when Damien Michael, a new-boy-on-the-block promoter appeared from nowhere to stage a mammoth show at Montecasino. “Junior” found himself fighting for the vacant WBF cruiserweight title, with his opponent being Petro Otas, a Brazilian with a 23-1-0 record. Makabu handed out a merciless beating to Otas with an errant referee making a horribly belated stoppage of the fight in the 11th round. Makabu was to glorify in the moment of having his WBF belt around his waist. But it was a belt he was never to defend.

“Junior” was back in the ring in March the following year when he scored a crushing fifth round TKO victory over a tough Ghanaian, Michael Gbenga, who came into the ring with an 11-5-0 record. “Then suddenly my career stuttered to a sudden end,” he says. The reason for this was boxing’s worst enemy – in a word – politics. “The SABC stopped televising boxing. This, in turn, put an immediate block on Branco promoting any fights, and however hard Nick tried to keep me active there was simply no work,” he explains.

The frustrations of training daily – which he did – with no prospects of a fight finally wore him down. “I had to get away from it all and so I went back to the DRC in June to see my family for the first time since I’d left the country. I stayed there until October before returning to South Africa.”

Things looked desperate for “Junior” as a year had elapsed since he had won his title and there had been no defence. He could see himself being stripped of his most prized possession. “My career was saved by Brian Mitchell and Rodney Berman whose Golden Gloves Promotions took over from Branco and put me under their management.”

Brian Mitchell enters the conversation at this stage. “Junior” and I met up in 2009 and have been chatting to each other off and on since then. But I did not make any overtures to get him to come over to us as he was contracted to Nick and Branco, “ says Brian. “Junior” made his move to join the GGP team when his contract with Milenkovic expired. He was immediately put under the care of Harold Volbrecht whose gym contained ideal sparring in the form of Tommy Oosthuizen, Flo Simba and Johnny Muller

Makabu’s first opponent under the GGP banner will be at Emperor’s Palace on 16 February where he is matched against the unbeaten Georgian cruiserweight, Gogito Gorgiladze. He is also penciled in to fight on a major promotion which Berman is staging in Monaco in March, although no opponent has yet been identified. “My fight on 16 February will be for the IBF youth title,” he says. “But I am looking at this fight as just a stepping stone for bigger honours, and even though I only have 12 fights (not counting the eight in the DRC) on my record, I am still confident I can beat any fighter at my weight in the world today. I am not taking my opponent lightly, but I am aiming to crush him and to move on to Monaco which will be my next step towards my ultimate goal,” he says.

I come away from the meeting with a good feeling about Ilunga “Junior” Makabu. I have met with a young man whom I have found to be intelligent, articulate and with a solid sense of values. He is a man on a mission and a fighter with fire in his belly. Keep a close eye on “Junior” Makabu, for he is going to go far.