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Ilunga Makabu, Thabiso Mchunu Rekindle Rivalry Seven Years After Their First Bout

Photo Credit: David Martin-Warr/DKP

Stepping into the Grand Resort’s press room in Warren, Ohio on a cold, frigid day with temperature dropping into single digits, 90-year-old Don King arrived (fashionably late) to a press conference for a card he is promoting in the city on January 29.

Although the focus from many people curious about the card is a heavyweight fight between Trevor Bryan (the WBA’s “Regular” beltholder) and late replacement Jonathan Guidry, it’s the main event that could, and likely will, steal the show. After all, the main event bout between Ilunga Makabu and Thabiso Mchunu for the WBC cruiserweight world title is a rematch nearly seven years in the making.

Their first fight was a classic, though not many people on this side of the world were able to watch it back in 2015. There was no DAZN or ESPN+ and online streaming was still in its relative infancy compared to the point boxing is at in 2022. But now, their rematch will be shown in front of a worldwide audience on pay-per-view.

Before we get to the rematch, it’s important to note how we got to this point and there is no better way to take a look at that than by examining their first fight.

Mchunu was not exactly a complete unknown to boxing fans heading to 2015. Prior to that, Mchunu was a regular on boxing telecasts shown on NBC Sports Network promoted by Kathy Duva. By the mid-2010s, Mchunu had established himself as one of the best pure boxers at 200 pounds, quickly climbing up all the way up to the top of the WBC rankings and putting himself in position to challenge for a world title.

At the time, it had been nearly three years since Mchunu last fought in his native South Africa, winning the Super 8 tournament and crowning himself as Africa’s best cruiserweight. Mchunu hoped a return to his home country would include a world title victory, joining the likes of Brian Mitchell, Vic Toweel, Jacob Matlala & Zolani Tete (to name a few) as South African boxers to win a world title. But just as notably, Mchunu was on his way to becoming South Africa’s first-ever cruiserweight world champion.

On the flipside, Makabu was on a rampage across Africa and Europe, knocking out opponents left and right. After Makabu’s pro debut disastrously lasted 29 seconds in defeat, Makabu would go on to knock out or stop 17 of his next 18 opponents. The win that put him on the map was a 2013 bout against then-unbeaten Dmytro Kucher, turning Makabu into a bonafide contender.

Fast forward to May 16, 2015. Makabu and Mchunu traveled to Durban, South Africa to face off in a battle of Africa’s two best cruiserweights with the winner being the mandatory challenger to the WBC world title. It was a classic clash of styles; Makabu was a strong, heavy-handed brawler while Mchunu was a slick boxer who has fought his own fair share of veterans and rising contenders.

More than anything, their first bout was a classic tale of two fights. The first half was dominated by Mchunu, who utilized the Philly Shell to avoid getting hit cleanly by Makabu’s deadly hands. Makabu didn’t have much of an answer to Mchunu’s style early on and things seemed to be coming to a close early when Mchunu landed a big flurry of punches that hurt Makabu in the third round. The combination of Mchunu’s hand speed, Philly Shell defense (which was notably used by Floyd Mayweather Jr.) and constant movement gave him the early advantage.

But the moment Makabu, who is typically a slow starter in fights, got hurt by that right hand by Mchunu, Makabu woke up and started to fight back.

That’s not to say Makabu started winning rounds from that point onwards. Makabu still didn’t have much of an answer in terms of breaking through Mchunu’s defenses. But, Makabu was strong enough of a puncher that he didn’t need to think of a way to box his way to the inside. He simply needed to smash his way in.

The sixth round proved to be the beginning of the end for Mchunu. By that point in the fight, Mchunu was relying exclusively on the Philly Shell to fight Makabu, thinking that Makabu wasn’t skilled enough to adjust and therefore, Mchunu didn’t have much of a plan B. That proved to be his biggest mistake as Mchunu struggled to keep up with an increasingly more confident Makabu, who was letting his hands go more as the fight progressed.

Fatigue quickly got to Mchunu as he started to move less, fight more flat-footed and retreat to the corner more, becoming a sitting duck for Makabu. Makabu finally gained the momentum in the seventh round, staggering Mchunu with a straight right. Makabu may have been down on the scorecard entering the eighth round, but he had all the momentum in the world to take down Mchunu.

The surging Makabu dominated the second half of the fight by attacking Mchunu’s body, preventing him from catching his second wind. Halfway through the 11th round, Makabu ended the fight with an incredible left uppercut that dropped Mchunu face first to the canvas, winning the fight by knockout.

Both Makabu and Mchunu would spend years coming close to the world title only to fall short. Makabu lost to Tony Bellew a year later in Makabu’s first title shot. Mchunu did get his eventual title shot against then-WBO champion Oleksandr Usyk in December 2016 but was thoroughly thrashed and knocked out by the future undisputed champion.

Only Makabu would reach the pinnacle of boxing and win a world title when he defeated Michal Cieslak in 2020. Mchunu hoped to win the WBC world title in his home country years ago, but it was Makabu who was able to do it, beating Cieslak in Makabu’s birth country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Now carrying several more years of fight experience onto Warren, Ohio, it’s a matter of whether or not Mchunu can still withstand Makabu’s power and can he make the necessary adjustments deep into the championship rounds.

Mchunu has had a history of struggling in the second half of big fights. The fights against Makabu and Usyk are two examples and Mchunu doesn’t have the sturdiest chin at cruiserweight.

For Makabu, a slow start again could prove detrimental. Mchunu is possibly on his last legs as far as being a top contender and Mchunu could attack Makabu from the start. Mchunu has showed that he can hurt Makabu early in the fight and a repeat of that might end with a new cruiserweight champion.

While their first fight is a modern-day hidden gem in boxing’s upper weights, their rematch will have the whole world watching.

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