ESPN Africa Boxing goes global as India takes on the DRC for IBF title

When DR Congo’s Emmany Kalombo and India’s Shiva Thakran square up for the IBF International Super Welterweight title in Johannesburg on Dec. 9 at ESPN Africa Boxing 24, both boxers will driven by personal missions.

Thakran (25) and his manager, Brijesh Kumar Meena, view this fight as a chance to take the sport to new heights in India. If Thakran wins, he will become the first boxer from India to claim a major global title in pro boxing from one of the four sanctioning bodies.

Meanwhile, Kalombo (30), the reigning IBF International Junior Middleweight champion, says he is on an ambitious quest to become “the face of boxing” worldwide.

Kalombo’s journey started in Kinshasa, where his parents sold tickets to the famous Rumble in the Jungle fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in 1974.

Although he grew up hearing about the famous fight, won by Ali, Kalombo was drawn to boxing by something else: initially a versatile defender on the football field, he wanted to learn to defend himself against older bullies in his neighbourhood.

“I’ve been bullied — not even in school but in my area. People who were older than us used to take our money and take our stuff without asking. [When] I [decided] I must do something, I chose to start fighting,” Kalombo told ESPN.

“I moved to Johannesburg in 2014 and after one year, I started fighting [professionally], because when I moved, I wasn’t that good,” he recalled, adding that he made the journey to Johannesburg specifically to become a boxer.

Kalombo’s mother and late father embraced his career choice despite initial hesitation from the latter. The reigning champion credited ESPN Africa Boxing for making it a more viable career option for local fighters.

“Before ESPN came, it was difficult for boxers to be fighting every month. Since ESPN came, I see a tournament every month. For us boxers, it’s a big blessing,” he said.

Kalombo, who was crowned the IBF International Junior Middleweight champion at ESPN Africa Boxing 18 with a TKO win over Rayton Okwiri, has ambitions of becoming a household name beyond the continent.

“I think I still have a long way and I’m still going. My biggest goal is to one day be the face of boxing. This is what I’m chasing and I know it’s difficult, but it’s not impossible, because I believe in myself,” he said.

His opponent in the next fight is, according to Thakran’s manager and fellow boxer Meena, already a household name in India, a country with a vibrant amateur boxing scene but not much of a professional history.

While Kalombo’s record stands at 16W-1L, Thakran is six years younger, but already has comparable experience at 16W-3L-1D.

“Shiva [was one of a group of] small boys going to school and play-fighting each other, so he started like this… Now, Shiva is a big star in India,” Meena said of the WBC Asia Continental champion.

“All of my investments go to Shiva. Shiva is a youngster and he has very good potential. He started pro boxing at 19. Before, he [was in] amateur boxing. Now, he is a great star in India.”

Assessing the challenge ahead of him from Kalombo, Thakran said: “He’s a very good boxer with a very good attacking game and counter game, but I also have a good game and if he’s attacking, I will also attack.

“If he uses his counter-game, I will also use mine. I’m confident I will KO him in round 8 or 9. If not by KO or TKO, I will win on scoring.”

Although Kalombo returned Thakran’s praise, complimenting his speed in particular, Kalombo responded to his opponent’s fight prediction through his own ESPN interview, saying: “If you have to speak to him again, tell him there’s no way he’s going to knock me out.

“He’s just going to be there for some rounds and then afterwards, I’m definitely going to knock him out. He doesn’t have [enough] power to knock me out.”

When asked if this was the biggest fight of Thakran’s career, Meena said: “This is the biggest fight for all Indians, not Shiva only.”

Meena added: “In South Africa, many Indians are there. If Shiva wins this fight… many good boxers, promoters and sponsors will come to India and build other young boxers like Shiva – future world champions.”

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