The division is strong with newcomers such as Ilunga Makabu, who fights out of South Africa (by way of the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Makabu surprised Dmytro Kucher, winning a close decision only a couple of months ago before quickly returning to beat American fringe contender Eric Fields. Not to be outdone, unknown South African Thabiso Mchunu headed stateside and promptly gave Eddie Chambers a boxing lesson in Chambers’ cruiserweight debut.
A new name to add to the already swelling weight class is 25-year-old Youri Kayembre Kalenga, who lives in France by way of Democratic Republic of the Congo). In early June, Kalenga travelled to Germany for what would be his first fight outside his adopted home. He was matched with fellow unbeaten Iago Kiladze in an audition of sorts. He made the absolute most of his chance, knocking his Russian opponent out cold in two rounds (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyJZiUbrU1g). With the win, Kalenga moved to 16-0 with 10 stoppages, saying with a smile, “I went to Germany totally self-confident. It doesn’t mean I underestimated Iago. I saw his fights on YouTube and I knew he was good...but I felt like my moment was coming and I wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity which I got. And boy, did I take full advantage.”
One of the pitfalls of boxing is you never know what’s around the corner. When Kalenga was unable to secure a fight of note, he took a recent, stay-busy bout in boxing outpost Latvia. He was matched against tough local Arturs Kulikauskis, for all intents and purposes, a journeyman. Kulikauskis, who has a reputation as a spoiler, stunned the previously unbeaten Kalenga, winning a unanimous decision via scores of 100-93, 100-94 and 99-97. Kalenga was deducted a point in the opening round for hitting behind the head.
It’s not certain where Kalenga will go from the upset loss but he remains confident, humbly saying, “I do trust my trainer, manager and mentor, Jo Kimpuani and I will strictly follow his advice.”
He hopes to have the opportunity to again fight in Germany for powerhouse promoter Sauerland Event, which controls the cruiserweight division somewhat like Don King once ruled the heavyweight division. Says Kalenga, “It would be a pleasure to come back to Germany. All of the folks at Sauerland Event were very nice and thoroughly professional. I would like to be back and keep showing my skills to the German fans.”
Nicknamed “El Toro” (“The Bull”) due to his offensive style, Kalenga believes he has boxing skills and likes to use them with the heart of a warrior but describes himself as more of a fighter than boxer. He’s modest when commenting on his skill set, saying, “Well, you really never stop learning. I know I need to keep hitting the gym and adding new skills and tricks, day after day after day. Like I already said, I put a great deal of confidence in Jo Kimpuani and in assistant Renaud Vegriete.”
Kalenga currently trains in France under the aforementioned Kimpuani’s trusted eye, getting solid sparring from perennial European light heavyweight contender Thierry Karl as well as heavyweight duo Johann Duhaupas and Carlos Takam.
Originally, Kalenga was born in Kinshasa, Zaire before moving to France at the age of 22, having won an African title in the amateurs. He elected to forego the opportunity to fight at last summer’s Olympics instead fast-tracking his pro aspirations when his father (Tshiamala Kumba Kalenga, a journeyman who fought in Italy at light middleweight in the early 1980’s, going 5-6-1 (3)) realised he had what it takes to make the grade as a boxer. Kalenga adds, “So I can say boxing was in my blood. I started my amateur career at the age of 15 - with the full support of my dad.”
Regarding the move to France, Kalenga says, “My dad realized I had some potential - and he knew that in Africa, I’d have enjoyed less opportunities.” Upon arriving in France, they teamed up with former European light welterweight and two time world title challenger Kimpuani, described as a legend in the Congo. “So it was a natural for a young boy from Congo to move to his gym in France!”
While he’s still learning and honing his craft, evident in his recent loss, it is Kalenga’s long-term goal to win a world title. When assessing each of the cruiserweight champions, he respectfully says, “I have the utmost deal of respect for all of them. They are great champions. But I know that with hard work and the proper guidance, I can move up to their level!” For now, the self-proclaimed gym rat says boxing is what he spends most of his time doing. “When I do not train, I hang out in the gym and help Jo and Renaud taking care of the other boxers. I am fully focused on boxing and I am sure my dedication will bring me to the world title!”
One advocate of Kalenga’s is former Maxboxing scribe Marty Mulcahey, who likes what he sees, “In body type, is an intimidating image that reminds of a young Evander Holyfield and a vicious kayo of undefeated Ukrainian prospect Yago Kiladze (which left him unconscious) is validation that those looks are not deceptive. Obviously lacks the refinement of even an early Holyfield but there is some thought and accuracy behind still-crude punches as a great body punch kayo of Jozsef Nagy showed.” Though he believes there are areas that could use improvement, Mulcahey added, “He needs to emphasize the basics and perfect his jab to get the most of the fantastic groundwork that his athletic body provides,” before continuing, “Even that may not be enough in an exceedingly deep and talented cruiserweight division but with hard work, Kalenga has top-10 and title potential.”
He’s heavily influenced by former WBA middleweight ruler Sumbu Kalambay, the only fighter from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to have ever previously held a world title. It must be noted however that Congo is split into two parts, the Belgium part (formerly known as Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and the French part (called Republic of Congo). The latter is where former cruiserweight world champion Anaclet Wamba hails from. That said, the two countries have always been separated.
The effects of Muhammad Ali’s win over George Foreman, who fought over a decade before Kalenga was even born, aren’t lost on him. Chuckling, he comments, “Hey, I was born and raised in Kinshasa...of course I love Muhammad Ali.”
But Kalenga did leave a message for the cruiserweight division, “Yes, pay attention because ‘El Toro’ is coming!” They’d be wise to take note. He seems to possess a lot of upside and is one of a handful of new fighters looking to make a name for themselves in the suddenly fashionable realm of cruiserweights.
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