Championship Haul Tells Hekkie Budler And Colin Nathan That Their Incredible Run Together Was Not Just A Dream

Boxing Scene

It turned out it wasn’t just a dream, but waking up on Tuesday morning, Hekkie Budler knew life would never be the same again.

The day before, he was with his coach of the last 17 years Coin Nathan, and something hung in the air between them. 

In recent weeks, Nathan had been waiting for his moment, and Budler could sense there was something on his coach’s mind.

“We need to have the talk,” said Nathan.

Budler, his always willing student, was all ears, but perhaps braced himself.

The next sentence broke both their hearts.

“It’s time.”

Nathan then proceeded to explain to the 35-year-old affectionately known as “The Hexeutioner” that he felt Budler, who is still ranked No. 4 by The Ring at light flyweight, should call it a career. 

Budler has been victorious 35 times, with 11 stoppages, and he lost on five occasions. He has won more titles than any other South African fighter, a two-weight world champion who held the prestigious Ring magazine championship. He is arguably the finest South African boxer since Hall of Famer Brian Mitchell packed his bags and hit the road for his incredible career.

Budler’s unlikely path was somewhat similar. He didn’t get any favours, he didn’t ask for any, and many of his great nights also happened on his travels.

He did not want to hear what his coach had to tell him last week, but he immediately knew it was the right thing.

“When me and Colin had the discussion this afternoon, I thought I was going to take it worse, but I actually took it quite well,” sighed Budler. “My wife took it worse than me, Colin as well, I think.” 

Nathan was hurting, but he knew it was “time.”

And while Budler said he was okay with it, when asked what was the low point following a career of highs, he conceded this, the acknowledgement of the end, was it.

“I think probably this, giving it up. I think this is the biggest low of all of it,” he admitted.

They had been on the journey together and they were ending it united. That is the point in a fighter’s career where they often might branch off, to a less caring or knowing trainer, and continue with some fights that might become ill-fated. Budler was either on the ride with Nathan or he was off it

They stepped off boxing’s roller coaster together.

Their bond went far beyond boxing, to the point that Budler calls Nathan “Uncle Colin,” and that Uncle Colin is also Budler’s barber!

It was around 2005 or so when Nathan first read about Budler’s promise, seeing stories about this boy wonder amateur star who had to have written consent from his parents to fight seniors because he had cleaned up in the juniors and the cadets.

“I still believe I can hang with the guys, but that’s why you have people around you who should be looking after you as a fighter,” Budler said. “You have to have those people around you. I’ve always told people I’m lucky to have Colin, because he’s always told me straight and told me how things are, how things are happening, which fights are happening and how talks are going. When he’s arranging fights, he will tell me every single step, what’s going on, what the processes are and what’s going on at the moment, so I believe anything Colin says. 

“I feel like I’m going out on my own terms, my own time, I’ve decided I’m done now. It’s finished.”

It was in camp last September for the big WBA and WBC light flyweight title fight in Japan with champion Kenshiro Teraji when Nathan initially began to consider the end game. 

He watched Budler spar and noticed his timing was out, only fractionally and it probably would have been undetected by anyone who did not know their fighter so well. Two spars out from Teraji, Nathan felt things were off, again only marginally, and thought it might have been the final stages of the weight cut. 

But during the fight, Nathan felt the signs were there.

“Hekkie’s always been known as a volume puncher, not a concussive one-punch KO puncher with the equaliser, and that’s why he won a lot of his fights and how he would win rounds, just with that volume. And there were shades when he’d let his hands go [against Teraji] when he just couldn’t sustain the volume and the pace.” 

Then, before Budler succumbed in the ninth round in the Ariake Arena, he was shaken and Nathan’s alarm bells rang.

“It was the first time I’ve seen his legs buckled,” said Nathan, pointing to signs as to why it might be an idea to reconsider the future.

In the gym, Hekkie had been asking Nathan why he was getting hit a little more, and Nathan again noticed the margins were slender, but the differences now existed when they had not before.

“It was irritating me, because I never used to get hit with those shots,” Budler recalled.

“Those are the limits that make you cross the line to become a champion,” said the coach, of the small differences that had revealed themselves.

“Is Hekkie still world class? Yes. Can he beat up most of those guys? Yes. Can we get him in contention for another world title? Yes. Does he cross the line? I’m not sure. And I’m not willing to prolong his career to find out.”

Not many fighters decide to leave when there is still money on the table, or when there is still some juice to squeeze, but both trainer and boxer were thinking of life after boxing and life away from the ring when they made the decision.

Nathan has seen fighters get hurt, and take too much punishment. He is also aware about the sport’s inherent long-term dangers.

“Colin has seen it a few times, fighters getting hurt when they shouldn’t get hurt, but they won’t give up,” Budler added. “I’ve got a four-year-old. We’ve started our family, things are going good for us so why take the risk? Why?

“As a fighter, I’ve always said to people around me, especially someone like Colin, my wife, my dad, my mum, if they see me losing a step, it’s taking me longer to get fit, my timing isn’t there anymore, they should tell me and I want to hang it up. I want to hang it up when my mind is still there, I’m still able to talk fine, I’m still able to communicate right and I still feel good, then it’s the right time.”

The announcement was a burden off Nathan’s shoulders because it ended any uncertainty from both sides.

“It’s been on my mind [the talk],” Colin added. “It was kind of like the elephant in the room, and I’m sure Hekkie had it way more than me but it became a bit irritating in the end, ‘What’s Hekkie’s next move?’ ‘What’s happening?’ ‘Is he going to retire?’ And something that I owed to Hekkie was just to tell him how I felt and what I felt the most logical and practical, health-wise reason was, before I told anyone else. 

“It is [an important conversation] when you’ve got such a special bond with your athlete. Fighters chop and change, a fighter loses, they blame the coach, the coach gets fired, and then we move onto the next. I think if you truly care about your athletes and you view your athlete as beyond them being a fighter and you look at the holistic perspective of the fighter, you think beyond just another win.”

Nathan has had “the talk” with other fighters before, and it has not always been well received. Some fighters have just gone elsewhere, but there is no chance Budler does that.

Nathan wants Budler to cherish the next phase of his life as much as the boxing chapter.

“Hekkie’s had 158 amateur fights, he started boxing when he was eight, and I’ve been around the sport long enough to see the impact it has if you hang around it too long,” Nathan continued. “And that’s why I was brutally honest with Hekkie, because it’s not just about him now. It’s about other people, too. 

“There have been different scenarios playing out in my head, for us to come to this decision. There were options of having a farewell fight to say goodbye, there was a big money fight for us in December… But it’s not an easy conversation to have. When you’re 35 until you’re 45, those are like your prime years in life, really, and I think as you get into your forties you become more comfortable with yourself, but you still have so much to offer. When you tell a fighter to retire at the age of 35, that fighter doubts him or herself because they’d be like, ‘I still feel okay.’ So I had to be as brutally honest with Hekkie, and it was coming from a place of concern, empathy and love. As I said to him in the office, ‘it’s not just about you. You’ve got a daughter, you’ve got a family, and it’s about the quality of life that you present to them as well.’”

It says plenty about their relationship that two of Nathan’s three favorite moments they have shared have had nothing to do with the ring.

One was the birth of Budler’s daughter, Freya, and the second was when Budler went with Nathan to start his own management company, No Doubt Management, which fractured the trainer’s long-term relationship with Rodney Berman’s Golden Gloves.

Budler became Nathan’s first world champion. 

The third moment? “Beating [Ryoichi] Taguchi,” Nathan smiled. But boxing was, by this point, secondary in the retirement conversation and the coach changed tact.

“I owe Hekkie so much,” Colin added, pausing to swallow hard and choke back his emotion.

“I think it’s slowly sinking in… and it sucks. It’s like the end of an era. 

“The highs are amazing and the lows are terrible, and it’s interesting because I never took the Teraji loss as hard as I took the other losses with Hekkie. Maybe it’s a maturity thing, maybe it’s because I knew Hekkie was a veteran in the sport, but all the other losses hurt, this one was very accepting. Even though my heart was in my throat when I saw Hekkie hurt and buckled towards the end; simultaneously I threw the towel in and the ref jumped in.”

That was the last time they would be in a prize ring together, and they did not know it then but the mission had already been completed. Budler’s legacy in South Africa was assured and he had already accomplished what he had set out to.

“It’s always been my dream, to achieve what I did and win the things I did,” the fighter stated. “I would have liked to win some more, but I never personally thought I would be a Ring magazine champ. That was my biggest dream and Colin helped me do that. I would never have done any of it without him, and a lot of people will probably ask me, ‘If you feel good, why are you listening to Colin? Why are you taking what he says so much to heart?’ I’ve always told Colin, if he thinks I can beat this person, I’ll try and beat this person. If he thinks I can’t win, I won’t even get into the ring. I trust Colin with my life. I still trust him with my life, I’ll probably die trusting him with my life. It’s just the bond we have.”

Fighters often toil in retirement, missing the structure of a camp, the identity of being an active boxer, and the thrill of the fight night. For Budler, it’s the feelgood factor of leaving it all in the gym, and leaving nothing to chance ahead of fight night, that he will miss the most.

“I like testing myself,” Budler admitted. “I like getting to the gym and having to work extra hard to go and prove people wrong in the ring. I think I’ll miss that. I was never one for the limelight or anything like that, so I won’t miss that at all, but that thrill you get, that rush, getting to the ring, ready for a fight, that stress, butterflies in the stomach, I think that will be the hardest thing to get over.”

The next phase of his life might be more fulfilling, it might just not be quite so exciting. He trains clients for fitness, Nathan said he wants him around the Hot Box gym so he can lean on Budler’s experience and boxing IQ, but the path is clear for Budler’s future. Maybe he will coach fighters – with his old trainer.

“It’s still very raw, but some guys get content, some guys get depressed, some guys miss that feeling, and I think Hekkie’s probably going to go through all of that, but I think he is content,” Nathan went on. “I don’t think he’s going to be lost to the sport. A lot of guys walk away and they’re bitter, they’re angry, that boxing has broken more hearts than anything else, but not with this ride. This ride’s been incredible.  

“The highs were amazing. When we beat Taguchi, no one gave us a chance, no one back home even gave us a chance, I think maybe [South African boxing journalist] Droeks Malan thought we could put it off, but by and large, it was one of those memories we will always cherish.”

For Budler, his biggest wins have been what his successes have meant to others around him.

“I’ve always said the thing that makes me proud is if I make the people around me proud, make Colin proud, my wife says she’s proud, my family’s proud, and people that are close to me are proud, so I think I did quite a good job in boxing and I’ve hopefully, god willing, I’ve left a good legacy, and I made the most of it,” Budler said. “I still love it. I’m really proud of what I’ve done. Any fighter will tell you they’d do more, win more, have one more. Some of the losses I had, I shouldn’t have lost, but I did lose and they did beat me, but I’m still happy I was able to be in those fights and to achieve what I did.” 

Asked about lows, besides retiring, Budler – with his positive disposition – struggles to summon any memories, aside from maybe some barren spells of activity through the pandemic. Sure, there were the losses, but at least they are part of the sport.

“I didn’t have a lot of lows. I’m happy with what I did. Boxing has been amazing to me. I’ve enjoyed every single second of it,” he said.

Even in defeat, Budler had the knowledge that he was a top-tier operator, and while the journey has been colorful, it hasn’t always been plain-sailing. Nathan was criticized in some quarters for withdrawing his fighter against Hiroto Kyoguchi in Macau in 2018 as he lost his WBA light flyweight crown and his treasured Ring belt.

“I came in for a lot of stick over that,” Nathan recalled. “And it was, ‘Oh, it’s a championship fight,’ ‘he wasn’t’ really shaken or hurt,’ but I knew Hekkie going into the fight was sick. We were starting to ship a lot of punishment and his punches were losing shape, and I have been in bad situations in boxing, and I thought, ‘It’s not just about him fighting, he’s going to want to have a family one day and it’s my responsibility to stop it. ‘And I think that’s the difference. I genuinely care about my guys.”

And as time went by in recent weeks and months, Budler had spoken about retirement with his wife, Roxy, but she said any final decision was down to him. Budler had nothing more to prove, and when Colin made his case earlier this week, Budler could do little but agree with his words.

“In the back of my mind, I’ve been expecting this,” Budler said. “I just needed the right person to tell me he was thinking the same thing.

“It will always be hard to hear, I’m sure. But it makes sense and I understand.” 

“The relationship changes, but the love and respect stays the same,” Nathan said of their next steps. “Now we can sit back and reminisce on the trips, because we do. Like when we were stuck at the airport and sleeping on the floor coming back from Mexico after beating Elwin Soto, when we spent 18 hours in the airport, so that kind of thing. The wins and losses come and go, but the memories stay with you forever. 

“It’s incredible,” Nathan sighed, contentedly reflecting.

“I want to go back but I can always go back and reminisce. I can reminisce with Hekkie. I can reminisce on my laptop on YouTube. It’s been one hell of a ride. Incredible.”

Like waking up from a dream?

“Yes, except that Hekkie’s got the belts as proof that those weren’t dreams, they were real.” 

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