Ilunga Makabu is a 34-year-old boxer who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and lives in South Africa.
He is the WBC cruiserweight world champion with a career record of 28-2. “The Junior” – as he is known – has fought in South Africa, Germany, France, Zimbabwe, England, Monaco, Russia and other parts of the world.
Internationally, there isn’t much that Makabu hasn’t seen. But for everything is a first.
“The first time in my life I’ve seen so much snow,” he told The News-Herald on Jan. 20.
Three days earlier, on the morning of January 17, Makabu and his team awoke in Eastlake to snow everywhere after the winter’s first major blizzard in northeast Ohio.
“Too much,” Makabu said with a smile.
The fact that Makabu is in Eastlake may seem a little unusual until part of his story is told. The longtime fighter – he turned pro in 2008 – will face Thabisco Mchunu for Makabu’s WBC belt on January 29 at the WD Packard Music Hall in Warren.
Hall of Fame promoter Don King is from the Warren area, thus the reason for the event in the region. It’s a huge fight for Makabu, who defeated Mchunu in 2015 by an 11th round knockout.
If Makabu wins again, it would set up a title match against Canelo Alvarez, who King reportedly said will be present in Warren.
To prepare for his January 29 fight, Makabu spent the past month training at the Left 2 The Chin Boxing Club, located in Eastlake (1888 E. 337th St.)
The facility opened at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so Painesville co-owners Marko Prpic, Ron Balante and Scott Sharpless took a chance. So far, things are going well, as membership has remained stable, Prpic said.
The arrival of Makabu and his team didn’t hurt either.
How Makabu and his camp were connected to Left 2 The Chin Boxing Club can be summed up in one word:
“Google,” said Makabu’s longtime South African trainer Damien Durandt.
Durandt wanted his fighter to train in an area similar to Warren’s, and after a few searches for boxing facilities in northeast Ohio, he set his sights on Eastlake.
All this came as a surprise to Prpic on a random night around midnight.
“I thought for God’s sake it was coming from South Africa to contact me or the gym,” said Prpic, recalling that night.
A few days later, a verbal agreement was reached and Makabu, Durandt and Co. on a flight to Northeast Ohio and soon after on to Eastlake.
“The idea was to be as close as possible to where we’re fighting, with ease. It just made sense,” said Durandt, whose father Nick was also a successful boxing trainer. “Having an international airport. All those variables were good for us, and we knew the conditions would be similar to Warren’s. we chose this beautiful facility.”
Left 2 The Chin looks like a converted car shop. Walk in and the atmosphere is old school – straight out of a Rocky movie. It is located off Lakeland Boulevard in Eastlake. Blink, and you could miss it. It’s one reason the facility was the choice of Durandt, who asked for Makabu’s gym presence to be approachable until recently.
“We didn’t even tell the members, and if they were here when (Makabu) was here, we told them, ‘Shut up about this,'” Prpic said. “But it’s been perfect. It’s been a blast all month.”
For Makabu, Durandt and the rest of the crew, this was their first ever trip to Northeast Ohio.
Makabu smiled when asked about his impressions of Eastlake and said, “I love it because the people here are so nice.”
Training sessions for Makabu on Left 2 The Chin will end on January 23. The team leaves for Warren on January 24, and while their time in Eastlake is all but over, it won’t be forgotten.
“I came here with an open mind,” Durandt said. “The city has been good. The weather has been something, but it was fun. Had a little snowball (fight). It has been good.”
Ilunga Makabu vs. Thabiso Mchunu
What: WBC cruiserweight title fight
When: January 29
Where: WD Packard Music Hall, Warren