Ryno Liebenberg - by Pete Moscardi

When I ask 28-year-old Ryno Liebenberg what he considers to be the best moment of his life, his response is both unexpected and unhesitating. “My best moment was looking down on the prostrate fi gure of Tshepang Mohale in the sixth round with the referee saying ‘eight…..nine…..out’”, he replies. The thought crosses my mind that he might have been the recipient of a sharp dig in the ribs had his wife been present.

Their X-rated fight at Emperor’s Palace Casino in August last year was not for the squeamish or the faint-hearted. Liebenberg, who was then being trained by Gert Strydom, was a rank outsider and a raw novice with only four fights under his belt. “When Gert offered me this fight it probably came far too soon but I thought ‘what the hell, let’s do it’. I knew Tshepang, a former supermiddleweight champion and the then current light-heavyweight champion was going to be a very tall order. But fights are few and far between and one can’t be a chooser in this game,” he says. What occurred in this fight was an epiphany for Ryno. It produced a profound soul-searching experience in which he learnt a lot about himself.

Ryno was born in Krugersdorp, and went to school at Monument High. “Although my dad was an outstanding amateur boxer and there were medals and certificates of his achievements all over the house, my passion when I was a ‘lightie’ was rugby. ’Monners’ is traditionally a rugby school and I desperately wanted to play for the first team, as did most of the other kids. But I was under 14 when I started to play rugby and I was far too small for the much larger boys who were also my age.

“ I decided that I could not make progress as the smallest guy in the side, so I looked at boxing. My dad took me along to the Krugersdorp West Club and put me straight into the ring to spar. I dropped my sparring partner with a straight right and from that moment I was totally hooked on the sport,” he recalls.

Ryno had it tough from the start as his father made him run the nine kilometers from his house to the gym. “He was kind enough to come and fetch me though,” he says with a wry grin. Ryno’s first three fights were won on 1st round KOs and it was not until his fourth fight that he went the distance, winning the decision. While still 13 years old he had 13 fights with only one loss – a controversial decision.

Ryno’s first taste of amateur club championships was in his second year when he was graded in a ‘C Bronze’ category at the Masikane Games at Vanderbijlpark. “There were four fights in total and I came into the final to find myself up against a kid from the Avante Club in Krugersdorp. I beat him on points, but scored two KOs in getting to the finals,” he says. His junior amateur career lasted over three years – 1997, 1998 and 1999. In 1998 he boxed in the SA Championships and lost on points in the finals. However, he won the finals in 1999 in the championships which were held in Brits.

“My amateur career was suddenly cut short in 1999 when I was 16. I was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident in which I ended up with my arm broken in two places. I was completely heartbroken. I put aside all thoughts of boxing until 2007 and found that, with my natural growth, my fighting weight had gone from 45kgs to 91kgs.”

Ryno resumed his amateur career and entered the Gauteng championships in the heavyweight division which he won. He then went on to enter the S A Championships which were held in Port Elizabeth in 2007. “I lost my fight on a disqualification which I was most unlucky to do,” he recalls. “I had my opponent down and when he got up he fell into a clinch. I landed a punch on him and was ruled out for doing so. I felt the decision was a rough one as I had not heard the referee order us to stop boxing or to break.” After another couple of fights in 2007 Ryno became disenchanted with the amateur side of the sport and stopped boxing. “I ended my amateur career with 50 wins from 56 contests and managed to score 23 KOs,” he says.

Ryno was attracted back to boxing when driving past Gert Strydom’s ‘No Mercy’ boxing gym in Newlands which had its signage displayed. Getting the urge to take up the sport again, he went into the gym one day and asked Gert if he would train him. “Gert agreed to look after me and in July 2010 I turned professional, having my first fight at the Wembley Indoor Arena on the undercard of the return fight between Mikey Schultz and Tinyei Maridzo. I recall being a bundle of nerves but I got a 3rd round KO win over my opponent, Caster Ndou. I was then fighting in the light-heavyweight division.”

Four more wins later (all inside) and Ryno found himself matched with the South African Champion, Tshepan Mohale, at Emperors Palace. It was a defining moment in his career as Mohale, whose then record was 10-3-1, was recognized as a huge puncher who had spectacularly KO’d Johnny Muller to win the light-heavyweight title.

“Mohale is tall and gangly – a Tommy Hearns-type fighter – with wicked punching power. He cracked me with a thunderous punch in the first round and I was dropped for the first time. I got up only to be staggered time and time again by his punching power. I was shaken badly in both the second and third rounds and I remember going back to my corner at the end of the third praying that I would not be knocked out. Gert’s instruction was for me to go and brawl, but I remember thinking that I was capable of also boxing smart as well, and so I decided to come out for the fourth round and box him. This was the turning point in the fight and I was suddenly catching Mohale flush and blocking his punches. I caught him with a cracking combination in the sixth – and there he was, flat on his back and being counted out.”

I suggest to Ryno that this was the fight in which he “came of age”. Before the question could be answered Colin, who is sitting in on the interview, interjects. “No, that did not happen in this fight. It happened in Ryno’s last fight which was against Tinyei Maridzo at Emperor’s in July. Maridzo, who is far better than his record suggests, is a tough and seasoned fighter who brought out the best in Ryno before losing a majority eight-round decision. This was the best I have seen Ryno box – and against the best opponent he has fought.” Ryno does not disagree with his trainer’s observation, but says: “Maridzo was a very tough fight, but Mohale took me to hell and beyond that night. It was a fight which tested my courage and character and I learned a lot about myself.”

It was following this fight that Ryno switched trainers, going over to Colin Nathan at the latter’s HotBox gym in Glenhazel.

Ryno, I discover, possesses a somewhat quaint and strange outlook on his chosen profession. “I honestly get into the ring and fight simply because I enjoy it. I can’t understand boxers who do this simply for the money and I would fight for nothing if I had to,” he admits with naïve honesty. I sense Colin Nathan grimacing next to me, but the trainer restrains himself from interjecting. For anyone doubting the sincerity of this statement it needs to be said that Ryno Liebenberg does not need boxing – from a financial viewpoint anyway. He is married into a family which owns a leading paint manufacturing company and his family’s financial security is assured. Ryno’s day job is as a paint salesman with his in-laws company.

Ryno has now racked up eight wins with five inside the distance. And although still a work in progress, he has shown that he possesses all the tools needed to do well. His boxing career is complimented by a happy and stable home life which is shared with his wife, Chantal, whom he married in 2008, and the couple’s one-year-old daughter, Lume.

Dedication is not a problem for Ryno – a fact which is emphasized by his brother-inlaw, Neil Shaw, who trains with him. Neil, who sits in at the interview, joins the conversation with a short story. “I recall one evening we had put the kids to bed and my wife, Charlene and I had settled down to watch some TV. I had changed into my night clothes and it was around 21.00. I heard the gate bell ring and I recall wondering who was calling at this hour. It was Ryno who was asking me to change into my running togs and to go and do a 9km run with him!”

Boxing for this promising prospect is a family affair, and he is supported at his fights by all the immediate members of his family. “While Neil joins me in a lot of my training, my other brother-in-law, Sean von Abo, is both my close friend and my conditioning coach. My own immediate family is awesome as well – there is such a good energy around me when I fight. I have a younger brother, Morne (26) who is always at my fights, and an older brother, Isaac (32) who attends my most important fights,” he says. While training happens on six days in the week, Sundays are totally dedicated to his family and to church activities.

I ask if there is anything about him that people would be unaware of. “Please mention that I can’t stand cage fighting. I don’t regard it as a sport,” he says.

Ryno says he is looking forward to 22 September and his fight with Johnny Muller for the vacant IBO Africa light-heavyweight title. “I am aware that this fight is for bragging rights for this country’s light-heavyweight division. I have a lot of respect for Johnny whom I regard as a good fi ghter and a hard puncher. But he is not going to stand in my way and I will come out a winner on the night,” he says. The words are said with confidence, but not with any false boasting or brashness

For Ryno Liebenberg, the time is now.