Two former world champions returned to the ring against each other Friday night in what turned out to be an entertaining comeback for both of them. The bout which took place in Centenary Hall in Port Elizabeth, South Africa saw former IBF minimum weight world champion Zolani Petelo (17-3-2  9 KOs) face-off against former IBO flyweight world champion Zolile Mbitye (25-11-3 10 KOs).

Fighting at junior bantamweight, both looked a lot bigger around the middle than they did in their prime, but considering the long time they’d been out of the ring, they both actually looked pretty good. It was clear that these warriors had taken their comebacks seriously and had been putting in the necessary training.

The 35-year-old Mbityi’s last fight was on November 6, 2003, when he lost a six round points decision to another former IBO world champion Simon Ramoni. Although that was the fifth consecutive loss for this plucky fighter, all were against credible opposition, including IBO bantamweight world champion Silence Mabuza and Dale Robinson for the Commonwealth flyweight title. He had, however, been relegated into the position of being a good steppingstone for younger fighters.

Petelo’s story is way different however. Although now only 29-years-old, Pethelo’s last fight was a loss against the legendary Ricardo Lopez for the IBF junior flyweight world title back in September 29 2001. Prior to that, Petelo had been on an eight fight winning streak; including six world title victories. Before moving up to the junior flyweight limit, Petelo had generally been rated as the best in his division. He’d beaten the great Ratanapol Sor Vorapin to claim the IBF minimum weight crown and seemed unbeatable while champion. But he was battling to maintain the weight limit and this forced him to move up and out of the division he had dominated for five years.

Having been on such a high, losing to Lopez was a hard pill to swallow. Win or lose, this fight was supposed to be the start of a promotional relationship with Don King. However nothing happened and Petelo quickly sunk into a world of disillusionment. He suddenly found himself sitting without any glory and with no fights to keep him busy. This inevitably led to the 25-year-old to start looking for his thrills elsewhere. He drifted off the rails and critics started to unfairly blame his boxing career’s demise on his wayward lifestyle. Of course they forgot all about the hardworking committed youngster who had caused one of the biggest upsets in his division when he won the title, and then sacrificed and worked hard to maintain his form for a successful reign, only to be dropped after losing one fight – and that to a legend.

All of this is now water under the bridge, and judging from the way he was fighting on Friday night, this is one former champ who could make it back into the big time. His fight with Mbityi was an exciting affair, with both boxers digging deep, throwing bombs, and putting on a good fight. I felt Petelo edged the decision, but it was given to Mbityi. It was a closely contested 8-rounder and one of those fights where neither boxer really deserved to lose. Perhaps a draw would have been fairer. But the important thing is that it showed that both these boxers still have something to offer. They may be a little slower and would struggle against fast-punching opponents, but they still have the tools and desire to compete. I was glad to see them back in action.

In the main event of the night Simphiwe Vetyeka (12-0 5 KOs) made the first successful defense of his South African bantamweight title with a seventh round stoppage over Luthando Maqolo (14-9-2 4 KOs) The champion made easy work of the challenger by keeping him at bay with a solid left jab and landed good right hooks to the body. He moved around the ring well and showed the confidence which comes with holding a title. Sterner tests are now needed to see whether Vetyeka has a future beyond the national level. Former WBC International and SA bantamweight champion Vusi Malinga will be returning to the ring in September following his suspension for using banned substances. A Vetyeka–Malinga bout could be in the offing and would be a good test for the young champion.