Ilunga ‘Junior’ Makabu enjoyed a repeat win over a familiar foe in hopes that it will lead to the biggest prize in the sport.

The 34-year-old southpaw defended his WBC cruiserweight title for the second time with a questionable twelve-round, split decision win over Thabiso Mchunu. Judge Nathan Palmer (115-113) scored in favor of the counterpunching Mchunu, overruled by Steve Weisfeld (115-113) and Jamie Garayua (116-112) who saw Makabu’s come-forward style as enough to retain his title Saturday evening on FIte TV Pay-Per-View from W.D. Packard Music Hall in Warren, Ohio.

“I already beat Thabiso the first time and did it again,” Makabu said after the fight. “He’s a counterpuncher. I didn’t come for a knockout. I just came to box.”

The dangling carrot looming over the fight was the belief that the winner will next face four-division champion and current pound-for-pound king Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez. The storyline began with Eddy Reynoso, Alvarez’s head trainer and manager formally requesting with the WBC during last year’s annual convention for his charge to receive a straightaway shot at Makabu which would require a two-division leap from his current undisputed super middleweight championship reign.

Naturally, the WBC approved the request while also allowing super middleweight mandatory challenger David Benavidez (25-0, 22KOs) to next fight for an interim title in lieu of a shot at Guadalajara’s Alvarez. The request by Alvarez and his team appeared to be a ploy to avoid an immediate mandatory title defense versus the unbeaten former two-time WBC titlist. It didn’t prevent Hall of Fame promoter Don King from shamelessly using the callout to promote Saturday’s event, even alleging in a previous press release that Alvarez would be ringside for the fight.

Of course, Makabu still had to win the fight. At no point was that guaranteed, as evident by his sweating out a widely disputed split decision verdict.

Mchunu took a similar approach to the rematch as was the case in their May 2015 encounter in Durban, South Africa. The veteran contender from Cato Ridge, South Africa knew his role as the boxer in the equation, using his jab to disallow Makabu to plant his feet long enough to throw or land anything of consequence.

Makabu worked his straight left with greater regularity in round two. Mchunu quickly adjusted, avoiding most of the incoming and catching the defending titlist with a counter left hand.

Makabu found his rhythm in round three, timing Mchunu’s movement to land his straight left. Action picked up on the inside, with Makabu getting the better of the exchanges and managing to land a digging right hook to the body. Mchunu drew a warning for landing a punch after the bell, though seemingly unintentional.

Momentum swung back in favor of the challenger in round four. Mchunu’s slick infighting skills troubled Makabu, who avoided a fall to the canvas after tripping over Mchunu’s foot. The Congolese southpaw—who now lives and trains in Johannesburg, South Africa—never managed to get back into a rhythm for the balance of the round, as Mchunu boxed with confidence and continued to beat Makabu to the punch.

Mchunu took a more aggressive approach in round five, feeding off Makabu’s desire to trade early in the frame. Mchunu briefly stunned Makabu in the final minute, with the cruiserweight titlist managing to remain upright but finding himself being outfought in addition to being outboxed.

The trend continued in round six. Mchunu boxed well from the outside, avoiding Makabu’s right jab and straight left hand. Makabu was stationary in the center ring, where Mchunu connected with a clean right uppercut.

Makabu resumed his familiar role of aggressor in round seven, fighting with greater purpose after seemingly falling behind in the first half of the contest. Mchunu’s defensive skills allowed him to avoid most of the incoming, though slowly sacrificing offense as Makabu began to pick up the pace.

The long jab of Makabu dictated the pace in round nine. Mchunu looked for counter opportunities that never quite arrived, his most aggressive moment coming with a warning as he was warned for hitting on the break.

Makabu stuck with his right jab in round ten, though unable to land a right hand behind it. Mchunu tightened up his guard, blocking punches more so than relying on head movement and infighting skills. A counter right hook by Mchunu briefly caused Makabu to lift his heel off the ground, though never to the point of threatening to hit the canvas.

Mchunu enjoyed his best moment of the second half in the opening minute of round eleven, catching Makabu with a counter left hand. It was a statement by the challenger, who fell apart and was knocked out in this round of their first fight, though showing far superior conditioning the second time around. Makabu was unable to untrack his offense, standing directly in front of Mchunu without letting his hands go and with most of his punches picked off when he did fire.

Makabu attempted one final surge, though to no avail. Mchunu refused to allow history to repeat itself, playing defense for much of the round and potshotting whenever the occasion called for it.

The extended bad blood between the two was evident in the end. Makabu attempted to embrace his challenger in a sign of sportsmanship after the bell. Mchunu wasn't having it, shoving Makabu away before the two were immediately separated. 

 Makabu repeats what he was able to accomplish nearly seven years ago, this time with the stakes significantly raised. The win marks the second successful title defense for Makabu, who advances to 29-2 (25KOs). He has held the belt since a January 2020 win over Poland’s Michal Cieslak in their vacant title fight in his Democratic Republic of Congo, where he also recorded a come-from-behind knockout win over Olanrewaju Durodola in his first title defense in December 2020.

Mchunu comes up short in his second major title fight, falling to 23-6 (13KOs). The 33-year-old southpaw earned the mandatory title shot following a twelve-round, unanimous decision over 2016 Olympic Gold medalist Evgeny Tishchenko last August on the road in Ekaterinburg, Russia. His lone other title fight resulted in a December 2016 ninth-round knockout loss to then-WBO cruiserweight champ Oleksandr Usyk, who is now the reigning WBA/IBF/WBO/IBO heavyweight titlist.

The next step for Makabu remains unclear in light of Alvarez (57-1-2, 39KOs) likely to either remain at super middleweight where he will next face Jermall Charlo or move up to light heavyweight to challenge WBA titlist Dmitry Bivol. That didn’t stop the defending WBC cruiserweight champion from pleading his case for a superfight of his own.

“My next fight with Saul CA-NE-LO, I’m going to box and knock you out,” vowed Makabu. 

Jake Donovan is a senior writer for Twitter: @JakeNDaBox