Saturday, February 7, 2009

An Unknown Emerges from the Dark Continent

As sometimes happens in the bizarre world of professional boxing, an unknown mandatory challenger to one of the alphabet soup title belts is about to step out from the hinterlands and into the spotlight.

The one thing these mysterious #1 contenders all seem to have in common is their peculiar names, glittering records - and the fact that few folks outside the friendly confines of their native country have ever seen them before.

Such is the case for one Ali Funeka, who has emerged from the dark shadows of South Africa and will challenge lightweight champ Nate Campbell in Sunrise, Florida next Saturday night.

Hailing from a town called Mdantsane, the unknown Funeka is from a line of people that were forcibly removed from what was then known as ‘East Bank’ in East London, South Africa due that nation’s former apartheid policy. Much of the populace from Funeka’s township scrape by in extreme poverty and are stricken with a host of contagious diseases from HIV to hepatitis.

Funeka’s life was one of similar struggle as his mother passed away when he was very young and he was raised by relatives. When he first began to learn how to throw punches as a young boy in the dusty and hopeless setting, he did so with empty milk cartons on his hands in place of boxing gloves.

With a record of 30-1-2 (25)KO’s, Funeka is ranked in the top spot according to the International Boxing Federation, but he has never fought outside of his native South Africa. His fights have taken place in venues with names such as the Red Cross Hall, the Oliver Tambo Sport Centre and the Nasrec Indoor Arena. The guess would be that those places don’t look much like Madison Square Garden in New York City or the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas.

Thus far, Funeka has toiled away in relative obscurity. But on Saturday night he'll be fighting Nate Campbell for the lightweight championship of the world.

Take a look down through Funeka’s list of opposition and you see a whole lot of names that contain so many more consonants than vowels that you need a lesson of ‘Hooked-on-Phonics’ simply to pronounce them. You also see that Funeka’s primary claim to fame is that he was once the proud holder of the South African super featherweight title - which is probably akin to being the heavyweight champ of Oklahoma.

But the one thing on the 31 year-old Ali Funeka’s pro ledger that is interesting and does make you raise your eyebrows a little bit is that he destroyed Philadelphia’s Zahir Raheem in four rounds when the two met in an IBF title eliminator last July in South Africa. It was the first time Raheem had ever been knocked out despite the fact that he had faced big punchers such as Erik Morales, Acelino Freitas and Rocky Juarez.

Funeka is a monster of a lightweight at 6’1” tall. His long arms would keep a middleweight at bay and his high defense and good head movement frustrate his smaller opponents. Funeka is an aggressive fighter who actively marches ahead behind quick left jabs. The style allows him to keep his opponents at long range and on the end of his sneaky right hand which was responsible for the stunning victory over Raheem who was drilled to the deck four times before finally going down and out in the 4th. It was as complete a victory as you will see and it sent a message that Funeka could be a serious threat to Campbell on Saturday night.

Trained by former longtime IBF super bantamweight champ Vuyani Bungu, Funeka goes by the nickname ’Rush Hour’ and he went 96-22 on the South African amateur circuit before turning pro 14 years ago. He comes from a long line of top prizefighters that have plied their trade in South Africa.

As the 25 knockouts in 30 wins would attest, Funeka has above average punching power - especially early in a fight - as 21 of his 25 knockouts have come within the first five rounds. But he, too, is susceptible to what comes back at him as he has been down three times in his career and always in the 1st or 2nd round.

A husband and father of two daughters, Funeka recently signed some sort of promotional contract with American promoter Gary Shaw. The fight against Campbell is part of what Don King is calling the ‘St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’ and will be televised by HBO. The fight has now been elevated to main event status after Ricardo Mayorga hastily pulled out of his fight against Alfredo Angulo at the eleventh hour.

Funeka, who sports a shaved head with a long scruff of hair on his chin for a beard, says he is more than ready for the fight against Campbell and feels no apprehension in fighting in Campbell’s home state of Florida.

“I'm glad the fight is taking place in America because that's where I want to introduce myself,” Funeka told South Africa’s Dispatch On-line. “I'm at my physical peak and I don’t see anyone in the lightweight division stopping me. I can take them all in one night.”

Campbell, the outspoken lightweight champ known as the ‘Galaxxy Warrior’ is also in the dark along with the rest of the boxing world when it comes to knowing about who Funeka is. But he claims he doesn’t spend too much time worrying about it.

“He expects that my lack of knowledge about him will concern me, but it doesn’t,” said the always engaging and self-assured Campbell. “It’s no different than being an amateur fighter and walking in and fighting somebody else. I know how to fight, so what he has to do is do what he does - and I’ll do what I do.”

In fact, Funeka is such an unknown commodity that many sports books are not offering odds on the fight - because they have no idea who Funeka even is or what kind of hand he will be able to bring to the table.

Nate Campbell from Jacksonville, Florida is the recognized Lightweight Champion of the World. Has has a tall order in front of him for a Valentine's Day clash.

Campbell, a 36 year-old veteran with a record of 32-5-1 (25)KO’s, is making the first defense of his championship and is as good a trash talker as he is a fighter.

“Funeka is stupid enough to believe that he can beat me, which I like because it means I‘ll get a fight,” says Nate as he shrugs and smirks. “I’m gonna’ beat him like he stole somethin’ and I’m gonna’ do things to him that border on criminal. When Funeka gets here, I’m gonna’ hit that 6’1” tall body everywhere that’s legal. And if the referee ain’t lookin’ - a few places that ain’t.”

While that is yet to be decided, what is certain is that Ali Funeka and Nate Campbell will likely both do what they do and if the mysterious South African manages to do his thing a little better - he’ll be unknown no more.

February 2009

No comments: