Thomas Mashaba, 17-1-4 (10), put up a sterling performance in Nelspruit on Friday night in defeating Yober Ortega, 35-6-3 (24), to retain his IBO featherweight world title over 12 rounds. There were some fears expressed prior the match that the former WBA junior featherweight world champion would be too experienced and formidable opponent for the champion, but Mashaba showed he is a force to be reckoned with and is ready to face the highest level of opposition.

I’ve never seen Ortega in action before and was suspicious when seeing he’s already clipping the 40-year-old mark, but this man is not your average veteran. He was well conditioned and put up a fight for the full 12 rounds. One can assume that his timing is a few seconds slower than in his younger days, and if that was the case it’s easy to see why he carries such a good record.

A heavy cloud of anticipation hung over the ring as the bell for the first round rang.

Both boxers looked like seasoned professionals and you could see they both meant business, hands carried high and eyes probing for openings. Mashaba, 32, moved forward and managed to slip a few solid jabs through Ortega’s defense. He varied his attack and clean shots to the challenger’s head and body.

In the second round neither man had to look for the other as the two stood in front of each other and exchanged blows looking for openings in their respective tight defenses. A fast pace was established here, which was to maintain for the rest of the fight. Ortega used his uppercut to good effect but it was the champion’s right hand finding its target on the challenger’s left temple which had the most visible effect.

Ortega turned on the pressure in the third and started finding the openings on the champion’s body and also landed a good shot to Mashaba’s jaw. The champion was on the back foot for the majority of the round, but his defense stood up well and he also landed some solid shots of his own. This was not going to be an easy encounter for either man.

The pressure cooker continued in the fourth round with neither fighter giving an inch. Mashaba did pin the challenger down in a corner for a time and was certainly throwing more punches throughout, but Ortega’s experience was evident as he weathered the attack without suffering any serious damage. Both athletes were well conditioned, showed good skill and fighting temperament. This fight was fast developing into an intriguing chess match.

Nary had a wild punch been thrown up to this point as both pugilists threw every punch with a target in mind. The fluidity of the blows was good to see. Ortega’s chief problem was seeing Mashaba’s straight right hand which came crashing to his head almost every time the champion threw it. The challenger’s solid blows to the midsection were landing just as frequently however. Would it be the head or the body which would crumble first?

Round six was a battle on the inside. Both men crouched low and bolted blows into their opponents. Ortega still focusing on the body, but the champion came off the best with good uppercuts and short rights to the challengers head. The conditioning of Mashaba showed as Ortega connected him solidly in the solar plexus.

The flurry of free flowing punches continued in the seventh with neither man looking to tire. Ortega slipped two right hands through the champion’s guard, but Mashaba came back with a few solid right uppercuts to the former WBA champion’s jaw. The intensity of this fight was certainly something to behold and both men looked intent on staying the course. Neither would relent and neither would give the other an inch.

The tide was turning in the eighth round which was Mashaba’s best. He landed repeatedly to Ortega’s head. The challenger showed an inability to stop the younger man’s blows, but continued to throw blows of his own. An accidental headbutt towards to end of the round left a cut open above Ortega’s right eye and he turned up the heat on route to the bell. Too little too late however. Although he would have blood coming from the wound for the rest of the fight it seemed to cling to his nose and did not appear to hamper his vision or his spirit.

The challenger tried to bring the fight to the champion in the ninth, but the champion used the opportunity to pick him off with solid lefts and rights. To Ortega’s credit he kept trying and kept moving forward, but battled to find the gaps in the taller man’s guard.

The champion threw fast paced combinations to the challenger’s head in the tenth round. Ortega was taking strain and battled to keep his hands up to block the continued head attack. He kept firing back, but the fight was slipping away from him and he knew it. At the bell the challenger looked very weary and on the verge of being in serious trouble.

Ortega showed tremendous heart by coming back in the eleventh round and keeping the furious pace of the previous rounds. The champion was the fresher of the two however and continued to rattle the challenger with head shots. Despite being behind on points and needing a stoppage to secure a victory, Ortega never gave up. He was here to fight and would fight to the end.

The final round continued with the same ferocity with both men throwing good combinations. The result was never going to be a tight one. The judges scored it 119-110, 118-112 and 118-111 in favor of Mashaba. Although the scoring was correct, it doesn’t reflect the well-rounded performance delivered by Ortega. He is a fine athlete and it would not surprise me in the least if he were to claim another world title in the junior featherweight division. As with most fighters moving up, they are often just too short to instill their authority in the higher divisions.

Mashaba did well and would have gained tremendous experience from going 12 rounds with a craftsman the likes of Ortega. Although he proved he is ready to move to the next level, I would like to see him up against a fully fledged big hitting featherweight before pegging his full potential.

Former IBF heavyweight world champion Francois Botha, who co-promoted this bill, stated during the fight that he would be challenging for an Intercontinental title within the next 3 months. Watch this space for details.