He collects exotic pets, dyes his hair outlandish colours and brings a ferocity to the ring starkly at odds with his boy-next-door persona.
Hekkie Budler might fight in boxing’s lightest weight division – he is the WBA and IBO strawweight division – but he ranks among South Africa’s biggest boxing heroes and crossover stars.
In a country where racial divisions still exist, Budler is popular among both black and white fans, who adore him for his buzzsaw style and the excitement he generates.
In a fortnight, on June 21, he will reveal himself to a European audience when he fights Pigmy Kokietgym on the “KO at the Casino” tournament in Monte Carlo.
Martin Murray tops the card against Max Bursak for the WBC’s Silver middleweight belt.
Although Budler (25-1, 8 KOs) has held the IBO belt since 2011, he only shot to real prominence last year when he outboxed countryman Nkosinathi Joyi, a former IBF champion. Joyi, who once enjoyed recognition as the division’s top man, was dominated by a man who used to idolise him.
Two subsequent fights produced two stoppage wins and also the interim WBA belt (later elevated to full championship standard). Perhaps more importantly, the 26-year-old is many experts’ pick as the number one fighter in the division.
Although he has fought overseas previously, in the US and Canada, this will be his first foray into Europe. His buildup has been outstanding – “I’m going brilliant and am fit already” – and he is looking forward to fighting Kokietgym (52-6-2, 22 KOs), the Thai veteran on a run of 10 straight wins.
“I’ve watched him fight on YouTube. He’s very strong, very capable and tough,” says Budler. “He’s a come-forward fighter and a good body puncher. I’m convinced I will beat him though. I have to with so much out there.”
Indeed, Golden Gloves promoter Rodney Berman is negotiating with IBF champion Katsunari Takayama for a potential unification bout in October, provided Budler is successful later this month.
Budler will potentially have more than just the Japanese to focus his mind in late 2014. He is getting married in November and is preparing for an altogether different ring.
Fortunately his fiancée, Roxy, is used to his passion for exotic pets. He owns two one-metre-long iguanas, but had to get rid of his python, which kept biting him.
“The damage to my hands was too hectic and my trainer didn’t approve.”
Budler’s lone career defeat came against fellow South African Gideon Buthelezi, who dominated him on points in 2011. Budler hints at “other issues” playing a role in the setback, but he does concede that he had the wrong gameplan and failed to listen to his corner.
“I learned my lesson. I was undefeated and was getting cocky. The loss made me work harder and made me improve my defence. I’m always learning and wanting to learn more. Every day I learn something new.”
A decorated amateur who earned his national Springbok colours, his early heroes were Baby Jake Matlala and Oscar De La Hoya. More latterly it was Joyi, Budler telling his friends: “I wish I could be like him.”
Having since done that and more, his ambitions are no less lofty. “I want to be considered one of the best boxers to ever come out of South Africa.”
Monte Carlo on June 21 is another step towards fulfilling that goal.
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