13/04/2024

Melbourne's Michael Zerafa faces off with WBA world middleweight champion Erislandy Lara ahead of their March 30 showdown in Las Vegas - Image: Sean Michael Ham/TGB Promotions

If you are to ask Michael Zerafa (31-4, 19 KOs) what the biggest difference is between the fighter that was knocked out in his US debut and the one that is a week away from a shot at Erislandy Lara’s (29-3-3, 17 KOs) WBA world middleweight title in Las Vegas, his response will be straight forward.

The short answer is experience. At the time of the then 21 year old’s savage knockout loss to Peter Quillin, he was, by his own admission, “a boy.”

Flash forward nine years and the Melburnian now sees himself as “a man.”

“You’re gonna see a different Michael Zerafa. I’m a lot better fighter and I’m ready to shock the world and make a statement,” he said on Friday.

“I’m better mentally, physically and really in every way. I’m more experienced and just a better fighter. I was 21 when I fought Peter Quillin, I fell short, but I do believe that now it’s my time.”

At face value, it’s hard to argue with Zerafa’s self-reflection. Yet, it is more than a case of banking rounds, facing various styles and cashing cheques from a further 18 fights.

Just as important as each in-ring lesson has been the build up attached to his high profile fights. Each time out, the 31 year old has been forced to either sink or swim in the murky waters the spotlight can sometimes create.

Over time, he has turned a doggy paddle into a freestyle stroke.

Narratives have, in turn, painted the picture of Zerafa as “The Bad Boy,” as opposed to his “Pretty Boy” moniker.

Domestically, a pair of 2019 bouts with Jeff Horn, a cancelled showdown with Tim Tszyu at the height of COVID lockdowns in 2021 and a grudge match with Issac Hardman in 2022, all saw him play the role of Bane to each Bruce Wayne put in front of him.

As he squared up with the aforementioned names, the hopes of the boxing public ran on a common theme.

That is, the majority wanted to see Zerafa dealt punishment as a result of his physical and verbal challenges to Australia’s beloved fighting figures. When the many heated exchanges with Tszyu culminated in a non-event, fans dismay reached its most intense.

Yet Zerafa has taken the licks from the court of public opinion in his stride.

“I’m happy to wear it now. It is what it is,” he told the Tommy Talks podcast in late 2022.

“I still cop it to this day.

“It’s real easy to jump on and off with me, but I can front them (media).”

All of the negative comments have served to narrow his focus, preparing him for the fire associated with the elite scene within the fight game.

Rather than dwell on the criticisms, Zerafa has instead been steadfast in his conviction that he belongs at world title level. Belief in this has been unwavering.

Often, his evidence for this claim has come from citing the fact that he went 12 heart fueled rounds against former welterweight world champion Kell Brook in 2018.

Now, it stems from his willingness to bide his time, sitting out for 16 months and waiting for boxing’s decision makers to grant a shot at Erislandy Lara’s WBA crown.

Each day he has waited has, in his view however, been a step towards the inevitable.

“Lara has been in there with the best. It’s just another day for him,” Zerafa said.

“But this is my life and I truly believe this is my time. I’m ready to make a statement. This is more than a fight for me.”

On the other side of the coin, Lara will be unwilling to cede his title in the name of the Australian’s personal growth.

As boxing’s oldest current champion at age 40, the slick and evasive Cuban southpaw believes his belt will remain in his clutches.

In preparation for Zerafa, his focus has also turned inward.

“I don’t pay attention to the rest of the middleweight division, I focus solely on me. It’s all about March 30 on pay-per-view,” he told.

“I’ve stayed focused on everything that’s in my control and I’ve used my training camp to make sure there won’t be any rust when that bell rings.

“I don’t need to send a message to Michael Zerafa, he knows he has to be ready on March 30.  We’ll be ready for him.”

In giving a corresponding prediction, Zerafa has laid bare that he has other plans for the Easter weekend showdown.

Confident, with a sprinkle of the brash ‘villain’ that dubbed himself “Mickey Hatton” to spite long time rival Tim Tszyu over father Kostya’s final fight, he sees proceedings ending early.

Ultimately, they culminate in a man fulfilling the boyhood dream.

“I have a lot of respect for Lara, but I truly believe this fight is not going the distance. Everyone I’ve fought has said I have ridiculous power and I will show it,” he concluded.

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