By Anthony Cocks
Eighteen months ago featherweight prospect Ibrahim Balla’s career was at the crossroads.
It was June 2016 and the reigning Australian featherweight champion was matched with hardnosed Filipino Neil John Tabanao 12-1 (8) for the vacant WBO Oriental 126-pound title in the regional Victorian centre of Bendigo.
With a glossy record of 9-0 (6), Balla was headlining his first show for his new promoter Lynden Hosking. The world-class Bendigo Stadium was packed. Sports fans from the 110,000-strong town turned up in their numbers to get a glimpse of the former Olympian who was being marketed as the next big thing in Aussie boxing in the lighter weight classes.
It should’ve been a coming out party, a reason to celebrate. But everything went wrong from the get-go. Issues outside the ring had Balla in a bad state of mind leading up to the bout. Training camp was disrupted. And for the first and only time in his professional career, he failed to make weight.
The fight itself was close. After two rounds the judges were split on who was ahead. But Balla looked flat. There was no snap on his punches, no urgency to his work. Signs were ominous. Then came the uppercut. Balla staggered back on his heels, touching the ropes and hitting the canvas. Down but not out, he was quickly back to his feet before smartly deciding to prop on one knee while referee Ignatius Missailidis administered the mandatory eight count.
There was blood in the water and like a shark, Tabanao was quickly on the attack again. A wild overhand right missed. Missailidis separated the fighters. Another overhand right from Tabanao. Then the crafty Filipino feinted a right to disguise the left uppercut that he threw from way downtown. It clipped Balla right on the point of the chin. He collapsed backwards on the canvas. And again, he was quickly back on his feet.
But referee Missailidis decided he had seen enough. He stopped the fight to save Balla from further punishment.
Balla was counted out at 1:47 of round number three.
“I wanted to continue to fight on,” said Balla. “I’ve been down before in my amateur career and came back to win fights, so I knew I could do it.”
It was a heartbreaking loss. But Balla is adamant that everything happens for a reason.
“I lost that fight fair and square,” said Balla philosophically. “Making excuses doesn’t get you anywhere. At the time you feel the disappointment, but I feel for you to become a better fighter you must accept it, take it on the chin.
“I reflected on the loss and what I could do better, what changes I needed to make, and used the negative as a positive. That loss has made me so focused and determined it’s made me want it more, which I hope others have seen in my last four performances.”
Those last four fights have shown a marked improvement in Balla’s performance.
Six months after the Tabanao loss he bounced back with a fifth round knockout of Indonesian journeyman Agus Kustiawan on the undercard of Punches at the Park II, featuring undefeated twin prospects Andrew and Jason Moloney.
And in his best year to date, Balla boxed a combined 30 rounds to dominate former world title challenger Silvester Lopez, tough and durable Vergil Puton and undefeated Salimu Jengo in 2017, almost doubling the amount of rounds he has boxed as a professional.
These quality rounds have been invaluable in his development, sharpening his skills and hardening his resolve.
“I feel I have grown so much as a boxer and gained a lot of experience from the last few fights,” said Balla, now 13-1 (7). “Fight rounds experience is priceless and during these three fights I’ve felt comfortable, more composed and been able to implement our game plan by taking my time and controlling the fights with difficult opposition, picking my shots.”
In a marked difference to his early fights, Balla displayed a renewed focus and patience in the ring.
“I appreciate you saying that, coming off the back of 2016 my trainer Lim and I worked very hard on my training, dedication and patience,” said Balla. “I trust the work we have been doing in the gym, which has taken me to a new level and I believe it’s been reflected in the ring. I want to reach the very top in boxing and have a rewarding career and I know I need to adjust, listen to my trainer and continue to learn.”
After his fight with the Filipino wildcard Balla was determined the loss was not going to define him as a boxer.
“I’m a fighter and I would have fought him again that night if the governing body would have let me go back in the ring,” said Balla, a second generation Aussie of Albanian descent. “I know I’m better than that loss, I feel I have what it takes to take on the very best in the world.
“I’m still building my career and heading to the top and I know I need to build on each fight, take the necessary steps by fighting quality opponents, learn and continue to improve. I’m very excited about 2018 and the future.”
These days Balla says the fight was a blessing in disguise. It serves as a reminder to him that you cannot afford to be anything less than 100% when you step into the prize ring.
“I do feel like it was a blessing in disguise and I’m glad that it happened early in my career,” said Balla. “I got caught and lost that fight fair and square.
“I have embraced that loss and I draw on it when needed. It has made me more determined. I put in 100% effort every day, whether I’m running, sparring or doing strength training. Boxing is my craft and it’s on me to ensure I train hard, learn and get better each camp.”
At the Grand Star Receptions Centre in Altona North on March 11 Balla will be headlining his first show since he hit the bump in the road at Bendigo.
“It’s such a privilege headlining a show, it means a lot to me especially right in the heart of the western suburbs,” said Balla of the card that is being called ‘Westside Rumble’.
“This is a great initiative by Hosking Promotions and everyone has been so supportive of the event and we are selling out tables fast. The Grand Star reception venue is a great venue for boxing, everyone that comes along will be very close to the action.
“I am really looking forward to fighting in front of a packed, loud hometown crowd. This is my year to take the next step in my career toward a world title shot, so being main event is very exciting.”
Balla will be facing his second undefeated opponent in a row when he defends his WBA Oceania featherweight title against hardheaded Thai Norasing Kokietgym 22-0-1 (15).
“I’ve seen a bit of footage of my opponent, he likes to come forward and is a tough guy that definitely comes to fight,” said Balla. “My trainer Lim Jeka has been studying his fights and he has worked on our game plan focusing on my opponent’s strengths and areas that we can use to our advantage.
“Norasing has won two significant regional titles, PABA and WBC Asian, so he knows what it takes to fight in a 10 round fight. As you mentioned, he is undefeated with a lot of experience so I need to ensure we are fully prepared as he will come here to win.”
Kokietgym came to boxing as a 24-year-old after a successful Muay Thai career that saw him twice win championships at Thailand’s world-renowned Lumpinee Stadium. As a boxer he won the PABA super flyweight title in just his fourth professional bout and picked up the WBC Asian Boxing Council belt in 2014.
In his sixth pro bout Kokietgym was held to a draw over 12 rounds in the first defence of his PABA title by Danilo Pena. In a rough and tumble affair, Kokietgym found himself on the canvas twice in the 10th round courtesy of some wild body shots from the mauling, unorthodox Filipino challenger. The 10-7 round eventually cost him the win.
Now 31, Kokietgym has developed a surprisingly effective jab, a good body attack and maintains above average power in both hands. The occasional recklessness of his earlier pro fights has been largely replaced by a more measured, methodical attack.
While Balla leaves the game plan up to his capable coach Lim Jeka, he is confident that they have identified areas of weakness in his opponent that they will able to exploit on fight night.
“I feel every fighter has chinks in their armour during a 10 round fight, and yes, we have identified opportunities in his style,” explained Balla. “I don’t want to give away our plan. But I truly believe I can negate his strengths and attack gaps in his style.
“I’ll take my time, stick to our plan and build on each round. Opportunities will come and I will be ready to take advantage of those opportunities.”
The 27-year-old from Rockbank in Melbourne’s outer western suburbs has developed into a mature boxer-puncher in the past twelve months under the guidance of former Australian junior middleweight champion Lim Jeka.
“Whether it takes two rounds or ten rounds I know I need to box smart and not get drawn into a brawl,” said Balla. “In the past I would jump straight into the fight, but as I have matured as a fighter I have learned by working closely with my trainer Lim Jeka to be more patient, sharper in my movement and more efficient with my punches.”
Balla is excited to be fighting back in the western suburbs on a card that will also feature his equally accomplished brother, lightweight Qamil Balla.
He is expecting Kokietgym to bring the best out of him.
“I believe it is a great match-up for fight fans, he likes to come forward and so do I, he likes to take control of centre ring, in each fight I watched I didn’t see him take a step back, so it will be interesting how the fight unfolds,” said Balla.
“I like to engage, my natural style is aggressive, but I know I need to be patient, box smart, rely on my timing, speed and movement, always looking for openings.”
With the fight taking place in front of his hometown crowd, Balla insists there is no additional pressure on him headlining his first show since Bendigo.
“That’s an interesting question,” said Balla, who goes by the nickname ‘La Bala’. “Mentally I get in a zone which kicks in before a fight. As an amateur I was fortunate enough to be exposed to large events and crowds. I fought in front of thousands of people at the London Olympics in front of a worldwide audience and also at world boxing championships. I feel these experiences have helped me immensely in the professional ranks so I don’t feel any additional pressure. I know when I climb through the ropes and into a boxing ring I am comfortable.”
Most importantly, Westside Rumble will provide Balla with the opportunity to continue to build on his success of the previous year.
“It’s important to set goals and to improve on your previous year,” said Balla. “This year I plan to defend my WBA Oceania featherweight title, continue to fight decent opponents and build my ranking. It would be rewarding to hold a top 5-10 world ranking with another international or intercontinental belt around my waist by the end of 2018.
“I want to continue to build my brand and lift my profile with fight fans. At the end of the day I want to achieve my dream of being world champion, so 2018 will be a big year for Team Balla as I move closer to that goal.”
Stay up-to-date on Team Balla’s quest for world championship glory by following them on social media.