It’s not often that boxers are matched against each other three times in a row, and it’s even rarer that the fights get better or feature a fresh feeling of competition. Friday night saw such a match for the South African junior welterweight title between champion Samuel Malinga (16-4-1 10 KOs) and Lawrence Ngobeni (29-6-3 17 KOs) in Witbank.

The first time these two met was on July 30 last year. On that occasion Ngobeni won a split decision over six rounds. Their second encounter was on February 11 this year and was for the vacant junior welterweight national title. Malinga took the crown by a TKO in the 12th round in a fight which Ngobeni was leading on the scorecards.

Malinga, who also holds the WBF junior welterweight world title, started quick and took the first three rounds by circling the shorter challenger and leading with left hooks. Ngobeni, a former WBA International champion, did land some good body shots, but fewer than the champion. The fourth round saw the well conditioned Ngobeni moving forward and trying to push Malinga to the ropes. In doing so he paid the price by having to absorb some well placed blows to his head in order to get close enough to land some blows of his own.

In the fifth Malinga made the mistake of keeping his hands close to his body and allowing the challenger to get in close. Ngobeni landed some solid shots and shook the champion on two occasions. Cheered on by his home crowd, Ngobeni entered the sixth round with overwhelming confidence. Malinga wanted to prove that he is just as good as Ngobeni is and landed a number of telling blows to the challenger’s face. Ngobeni powered on, however, and showed disdain for the champion’s punches. Instead of backing off, he attacked the champ and looked the stronger of the two.

Realizing that he could not trade blow for blow with the challenger, Malinga went back to fighting from behind his left jab. Ngobeni still managed to creep in a number of solid rights, but he showed more respect for the champion and carried his hands high to block the blows he earlier took to get close. In the eighth Ngobeni continued moving forward, prepared to take four blows in order to land one. The big difference was that Ngobeni’s punches carried more authority, while Malinga’s merely bounced off Ngobeni’s head.

In the ninth Ngobeni put solid left-right combinations together and landed squarely on the champion’s face. Each time he did so, he raised his right arm to taunt his opponent and acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. On each occasion he caught him, so perhaps it would have been wiser to follow-up on the advantage instead of showboating. Ngobeni, who looked better and sharper than I have seen him in years, was relishing every moment and looked in no hurry to end the fight.

At the start of the tenth Malinga again came out behind his left jab but soon was drawn back into a brawl with the challenger. While the champion had little problem in finding Ngobeni’s jaw, the challenger was so fired up by his fans at ringside that the blows seemed to have little effect. In the eleventh, Ngobeni opted to fight from the outside, moving out of reach of the champion’s blows and making it a lot easier than in the earlier rounds. In the final round, Malinga again went after Ngobeni, who was just going through the motions and making sure that he stayed afloat till the end of the fight, believing he had done enough in the middle rounds to secure the decision.

Leaving decisions to judges is however always a risky affair – no matter how dominant a boxer is. The scorecards read 114-116, 115-115 and 115-113, making the bout a draw. Unfortunately, Ngobeni was the better man that night and deserved the decision. Even with him stepping off the gas in the last two rounds, I still had him ahead by a two point margin. As they say in the classics, that’s boxing and never assume victory; you’ve got to fight all the way to the end. It was a good match, nonetheless, so we may even see episode four, but it’s unlikely that Malinga’s handlers would accept it. He had a lucky escape and the odds would be against him were they to do it again.