No-one likes to lose – least of all boxers – so when Ibrahim Balla came up short against Filipino Neil John Tabanao in June last year, he was shattered.
The talented 27-year-old from Werribee in Melbourne’s western suburbs, who was undefeated in nine fights at the time, had a disrupted training camp and weighed in over the featherweight limit of 126-pounds.
The fight was split on the judges’ scorecards when Balla walked into a hard uppercut in the third round, followed by another. The referee took a long hard look at Balla and waved off the contest to save him from further punishment.
There is no silver for second in professional boxing.
“I wasn’t at my best, mentally or physically for that fight,” admits Balla. “You can make up a million excuses as to why you lost, but as a professional fighter I think the best way to look at it is he’s beaten me, move on from there and become a better fighter.
“I try to make no excuses. I lost fair and square.”
As a former amateur star who represented his country at the 2012 London Olympics, Balla had been largely untested in the pro ranks before being matched with Tabanao.
“That loss to Neil John Tabanao was probably the worst thing that could’ve happened, but it was the absolute best outcome,” says his trainer Lim Jeka, a former Australian junior middleweight champion.
“It made him have a look at himself and what he wanted to do and where he was going in the sport. It showed him what he needed to do to find that mental maturity. And that was something that had to happen for him.”
That maturity has been evident in his last three fights against increasing levels of competition.
In his last fight he put on a boxing masterclass against former world title challenger Silvester Lopez, who recently took Tasmanian featherweight contender Luke Jackson the distance.
In that fight Balla boxed superbly. His jab was sharp and accurate, his body shots were on-point and he moved fluidly around the ring.
Balla, 12-1 with 7 knockouts, will be looking for his fourth straight victory when he takes on Tanzanian Salim Mtango, 9-0 with 6 knockouts, at Hosking Promotions’ Punches at the Park 6 on 21 October at the Melbourne Park Function Centre in the heart of Melbourne.
Balla admits he hasn’t seen much footage of his opponent but says that he is ready for anything he brings.
“I’m definitely looking for the stoppage, to excite the crowd a little bit,” says Balla. “It’s always part of my game plan to chip away at my opponent, break them down, slowly take them into deep waters and eventually drown them. That’s always one of my goals towards the end of the fight, to actually stop my opponent.”
Balla isn’t the first boxer dreaming of a world championship to have a loss on their ledger. Nonito Donaire lost his second fight, Bernard Hopkins lost on debut, while Manny Pacquiao tasted defeat in his twelfth bout. All three went on to become world champions in multiple weight classes.
“Since his loss everything has just been getting better and better and better,” says Jeka. “His style is more developed and he’s more comfortable in his own skin. He’s just doing everything right now. He’s very content with where he is and with his style and what he needs to do. And he’s really looking forward to the future.”
IBRAHIM BALLA QUOTES
On maturing as a boxer: “I think I’ve grown a lot as a fighter. Matured as well as a fighter. I am taking a little bit of time setting up my shots now, not rushing so much. That’s what my trainer Lim has been putting into my head, taking my time, setting up my shots. We do a lot of work like that in the gym.”
On his opponent Salim Mtango: “I haven’t seen too much of him. All I know is that his record is nine wins, six knockouts, so he looks like a decent customer. You never know what you’re going to get when you’re fighting people you haven’t seen much footage of. I’m expecting anything so I’m ready for anything.”
On his last fight against Silvester Lopez: “I thought I executed our game plan really well, with a little bit more sticking of the jab and setting everything up from there. A little bit of foot movement as well, which worked really well against Lopez. I was expecting a tough fight from him. He fought for a world title so he had a lot of ability and experience to him. I knew he was going to come out and try and focus on left hooking and body punching as that’s his strength. I was able to take away his strengths and use them against him.”
On his 12 month plan: “In twelve months’ time I want to crack the top ten in the world. I want to have a serious opportunity, even be fighting for a world title. I just need the actual sparring experience. With my amateur record I’ve been all around the world – fighting world champions, Olympic gold medalists – but the seasoning really happens in the sparring in the gym. I believe I have the talent to not just mix it with the best but to beat the best. I just feel like a couple more fights and a little bit more experience and I’ll be at that level.”
On his large supporter base: “It’s extremely important. Your supporters are pretty much what keeps our sport alive. I’m happy that I’ve got a lot of people that support me and help me out with everything. At the end of the day, it’s sad to say, but boxing is a bit of a business. If you can’t put bums on seats you’re not going to be put on cards. I’m happy that I’ve got a lot of support and a lot of people follow me and I hope to get a lot of people on the bandwagon again.”