Eight weeks ago, Moruti Mthalane buried his little girl.
Thingo was just five months, the victim of a liver ailment that devastated her little body.
Tomorrow, the man they call “Baby Face” will defend his International Boxing Federation flyweight championship against Masayuki Kuroda in Tokyo. He will fight to put food on the table, and he will fight to honour his baby girl.
Mthalane, who grew up in Lindelani, south of Durban, might be South Africa’s most understated sporting superstar. He might be its most underrated too.
People within boxing recognise Mthalane as one of the sport’s best fighters, South Africa’s number one boxer, but because the profile of local boxing has so badly diminished, he can walk down the street unrecognised.
Modest to a fault, Mthalane himself won’t boast about his achievements.
Yet in a professional career that stretches back 19 years, the KwaZulu-Natal boxer has won 37 of his 39 fights with an unbeaten run for the past 11 years.
His last defeat came against Nonito Donaire in Las Vegas in 2008, a wretched outcome because he wasn’t beaten by the better man but by a deep cut. It remains his most disappointing moment in boxing.
He’s outhustled some of the best in the game, among them world champions John Riel Casimero and Zolani Tete, but somehow Mthalane still remains on the outer.
He should be a superstar, but he isn’t.
Which means he goes about his career like the workaday pro he is. Quiet and uncomplaining, he gets up before sunrise to pound the pavements, as he’s done in Tokyo all week, and doesn’t need urging to get to the gym.
“This is how it’s always been,” says the 36-year-old flyweight who has fought since the age of 13.
Two of his brothers were champions – Innocent is a two-time SA featherweight title-holder – and it was another, Thokozani, who trained him at the start. Sadly, tragedy has never been far from Mthalane, who lost his father when he was 15; several years later, Thokozani also died.
These losses could have crushed him. Instead, they made him more resolute and he embarked on a career equal parts thrilling and exotic.
His purses were modest – he earned R550 for his first fight at The Arena in Durban – but his goal was to be champion. After four fights under Rodney Blom, he moved to the flamboyant late Nick Durandt’s gym in Johannesburg.
He thrived in Durandt’s hothouse and won a world title, but later gave it up rather than accept a derisory purse in Thailand.
Happily, a move to top trainer Colin Nathan in 2016 brought instant dividends; a title shot and a victory.
He also began to earn the sort of purses he deserves, due recompense for a man who ranks among the classiest and hard-working of SA sportsmen.
He’s still fast and sharp at 36, but admits that his career is drawing to a close with perhaps two more years of the hurt game to endure.
After that, “Baby Face” looks forward to settling down as a farmer in KwaZulu-Natal.
It’s been a hard road, nothing less than a struggle at times, but Mthalane has always fought with a quiet dignity. You might not know it, but he is a South African hero.
We need more of them.