Yesterday the spidery 5ft 9in South African spoke at length about his life and career to boxing writer Glynn Evans.
Tell us about your early life growing up in the troubled Mdantsane township in Eastern Cape. What attracted you to the sport of boxing?
My early life was a bit difficult – not many opportunities – but my family raised us in a good way. My father was a pastor at the church and, even today, I spend my spare time singing in my brother’s choral choir. I was never a street fighter, always a shy, quiet kid. I hated fighting.
I started boxing with my brother (Mahazole, now a 14-1-1 pro) when I was eight. A few young bullies beat us up and we ran away. Shortly after, we looked through the window of a gym at the school. We didn’t even know it did boxing but the trainers hauled us in and we took a hell of a beating!
But I grew to enjoy the sessions and exercises. Shortly after, I warned the bullies: ‘Don’t try that again.’ But they didn’t listen so I had to show them my new skills. The bullying stopped!
You joined the professional brotherhood when you were only 18. Did you have much of an amateur career?
Oh yes. I had more than 400 amateur contests and just three losses, one to my brother. We met in a provincial final. He was older and I was underweight. I was always very small and light. I had to put stones into my underwear to make the minimum 26KG (4st 1lb)!
I won three national gold medals and a bronze at the African zonal tournament but only had two or three senior bouts before turning pro. (Ex IBF World Super-Bantamweight bosses) Vuyani Bungu and Welcome Ncita were also from Mdantsane and visited our gym regularly. I saw how they’d changed their lives. They were my heroes as a boy.
You first surfaced at world level in September 2010. However, aged just 22 and operating in only your 14th paid start, you were dropped and stopped in five rounds by compatriot Moruti Mthalane in an IBF flyweight challenge. What went wrong that night?
That was a learning curve. I trained all by myself at a poor facility, a public gym. I couldn’t get any sparring whatsoever until one week before the fight. Mthalane, a very good fighter, never really hurt me. I just wasn’t fully prepared so knelt down to fight another day. I had to let it go.
You forced your way back into contention the hard way, conceding wafer thin decisions in IBF Super-Fly eliminators in Sinola, Mexico, then Cordoba, Argentina.
I believe I won in both. First, against (Juan Alberto) Rosas, I proved smarter; hit and move, hit and move. But I had a point deducted in the final round and the judges took it from me. Argentina was worse. It still pains me to think of that night. I won all the first nine rounds and when I heard the decision was for him (Roberto Domingo Sosa) it was the shock of my life. Still, I kept rolling until we got it right.
Eventually you took the judges out of the equation by icing Mexican southpaw Juan Carlos Sanchez Jr, in round ten of a brutal war over in Mexicali.
Against Sanchez, it was like fighting the true champion. He’d only conceded his (IBF Super-Flyweight) world title on the scales. It was a very hard fight but eventually I managed to knock him out; the highlight of my life at the time.
You had to travel again, to Kobe, Japan to finally capture the IBF title from Teiru Kinoshita.
Ah, 18th July 2014, Mr Nelson Mandela’s birthday, the birth of my daughter and the night I became world champion (Zolani won a landslide 12 round unanimous decision). A blessing and a great night for my team; we’d endured a lot.
British fans were mesmerised by both your skill and power when you flattened Ellesmere Port’s Paul Butler to retain your belt in March 2015. Was that the finest performance of you career?
It was certainly one of the best because I beat a good boy, a talented fighter with a big heart, himself a true champion. But Paul’s style perfectly suited mine. I didn’t need to fight him, I could just outsmart him. I’ve a great boxing mind, a big asset.
In addition to your homeland, you’ve rucked in Mexico (twice), Argentina, Japan and England, cementing you as a proper world champion. Is the travelling something that you enjoy?
At first, I didn’t enjoy boxing overseas because I’d have a 24 hour flight then be inside a ring shortly after. But the experiences have improved me as a fighter, made me a good man. Now I know exactly how to face a crowd that is against me.
Paul was a big crowd puller so I was not shocked that everybody was so crazy for him. But the Liverpool people are proper boxing fans and once they saw my style, they turned around. When I heard all their beautiful singing, I pretended it was for me!
Having forsaken your world title – after rejecting a derisory offer to face Golden Boy’s McJoe Arroyo – you committed to a promotional deal with Frank Warren late last year. What do you expect him to deliver?
Frank Warren is one of the best promoters in the world and I believe he can bring me a lot of opportunities, make me world champion again.
It was very painful to have to surrender my world title without getting beaten after struggling so hard for five years to capture it in the ring. But I was a true world champion – I’d won my title in Japan and defended it in England – and I deserved to be treated as such after making a name for myself.
This weekend you debut at bantamweight, squaring up to Mexican hardman Jose Santos Gonzalez over 12 for the IBF International belt. You’re 5ft 9in tall and there’s plenty of big names operating four pounds north at super-bantam. In what divisions do you intend to compete?
Yesterday (Wednesday 9th), I actually made super- flyweight after my training session so it’s still no struggle at all. I’d really love to fight (Japan’s unbeaten and highly feared WBO 115lb emperor Naoya) Inoue, a wonderful fighter. I’m surprised we’ve not met already. To be considered the best, you have to beat the best and he’s in my way.
I’d love either (IBF bantam boss) Lee Haskins or (WBA bantam champ) Jamie McDonnell in my next fight. I’ve not really studied either and I definitely don’t underestimate them but I’m confident that I’ve got everything required to take both of them out. As I can comfortably make super-fly, realistically, it’ll be a year or so before I consider ‘Rigo’ and Mr Frampton at super-bantam. I’m not rushing. In time.
Opponent Gonzalez, 25, brings an identical record to yourself (22-3) and has yet to be stopped. What can fans inside the arena or watching live on BoxNation expect to witness from Zolani Tete tomorrow?
The Liverpool fans can expect fireworks. I’ll put on such an entertaining show that they’ll forget all about ‘Rigo’ letting them down. I’m quite disappointed myself that he’s not here because I wanted to meet up and study how he trains, watch him live. Hopefully, I could pick up something new. You never stop learning until you die.
I’ll even outshine Terry and Derry. As fans are leaving the Echo Arena, it’ll be my name on their mouths!