California dreaming: Constantin Bejenaru and Stivens Bujaj battle far from home
As a result of recent legislation requiring New York promoters to put up $1,000,000 in health insurance for each of their boxers, an attractive tiff between a pair of undefeated New York-based cruiserweights finds itself scheduled out west in the cement lot of a stucco manufacturing company in Corona, California.
Constantin Bejenaru, 11-0 (3), of Brooklyn (by way of Moldova), will take on Stivens Bujaj, 16-0-1 (11), of the Bronx, in a 10-round bout on a Banner Promotions card, Nov. 4. It will support the main event between welterweights Taras Shelestyuk and Jaime Herrera. Televised by Showtime as part of its “ShoBox” program, the series brings Bejenaru back for an encore performance following his upset of Alexey Zubov last April. Bujaj, a two-time New York Golden Gloves champion, is looking to regain his footing in the division after a near two-year layoff due to various injuries.
In more sensible times, this fight would have taken place at a local arena like the Paramount Theatre – a popular venue for Star Boxing, Bejenaru’s promoter – or the Aviator Sports Complex, somewhere, in other words, that would draw a partisan crowd. “If it was up to me, I’d fight (Bejenaru) in the Garden, you know?” Bujaj said, chuckling, in an interview with UCNLive, “but I understand that that’s the way boxing works right now and there’s a reason for everything.”
Bejenaru, who resides in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn, agreed, noting that the match wouldn’t carry the same luster. “I’m a Brooklyn fighter. I train here; I live here. I know a lot of people here. We should have the fight here in New York and bring a lot of fans and make it a big event.”
Indeed, Bujaj’s manager Don Majeski, the tireless middleman for promoters such as Interbox and Sauerland (Promotion), sees a lost economic opportunity. “We are fighting a New York fighter with whom we could’ve sold $50,000 worth of tickets fighting, instead, out in California,” Majeski said. “It’s a shame! Anyway, the TV will be there so that’ll help but we would’ve had a really nice crowd (in New York).”
The Nov. 4 bout is, perhaps, another reminder of the desultory ramifications wrought by the New York State Athletic Commission. The new insurance bill is a distortion of logic, promptly calling for any promoter in New York State to fork up $1,000,000 in brain-damage insurance for each of its fighters. For smaller promoters like Star Boxing, Salita Promotions and DiBella Entertainment, the terms are a non-starter and tantamount to shutting down their businesses. (DBE announced last Friday that it would cancel all its scheduled shows in New York for the remainder of 2016.) The bill, they claim, is overly ambitious and hurts the very people – from the promoters to the trainers of fighters – it intends to protect.
“It’s bullshit,” said a frustrated Ron Katz, matchmaker for Star Boxing. “Everybody’s pissed off. It is what it is. Our hands are tied and nothing is happening. It’s affecting everybody. It’s a horrible situation.” Indeed, in December, Star Boxing will send another one of its own, Joe Smith Jr. (of Long Island, New York City), to square off against Bernard Hopkins, Philly fighter, in a fight that really has “East Coast Clash” scrawled all over it. Things could be worse for that fight and the crowd at The Forum (in Inglewood, California) will figure to be good, regardless, but it’ll lack the dynamism that only organic, homegrown zeal brings.
No doubt, New York promoters will come up with creative responses to the new law but looming over the issue is the distressing reality that there is very little meaningful dialogue taking place the between Albany bigwigs and industry people. This is, at least Majeski’s thinking. “We are the punching bag of politics,” Majeski said with a sigh. “It’s terrible. Say anything; do anything to boxing and nobody has any power to do anything against it. You just suffer.”
In Bejenaru’s camp, the feeling is one of discontentment. Few aspects of his career, they believe, have improved since his last appearance on ShoBox. Their main gripe with Star Boxing is inactivity. At 32, Bejenaru is still looking for a marquee win. When it was mentioned to Ilia Mesishchev, Bejenaru’s trainer and manager, that the current insurance issue in New York might have played a role in Bejenaru getting only his second fight of the year, he lashed out in exasperation. “He had two fights last year! It doesn’t matter about the insurance policy. They don’t give him fights anyway!”
Bejenaru was more charitable. “This is hard business for Joe (DeGuardia) – they closed his business.”
You can add Bejenaru to the already long list of fighters, of all levels, who have fought less than three times this year. With a child on the way, Bejenaru expressed some anxiety. “I’m ready,” Bejenaru stated. “If Joe gives me a chance to fight in December, I’m ready. After a fight, I don’t have a lot of rest. One day is enough. After Zubov, I had one day of rest before I was back in the gym.”
“We’re actually ready to fight anyone,” Mesishchev pointed out, before making it clear that his has been less than enthralled with Star Boxing in handling Bejenaru’s career. “My only concern is that he will be in the same place, like after the Zubov fight. No change, nothing. It’s just a question of time, of preparation. We don’t want two weeks or six-to-eight days to fight so and so – no we don’t go like that. Hopefully, we get the right opponent because, up to today, he’s been fighting for some…funny sums…I don’t think a lot of fighters today go into fights for these kinds of money.”
A title shot in the cruiserweight division is an enticing prospect for any 200-pounder in the world, now that there is legitimate interest in one of boxing’s traditionally overlooked weight classes. Names like WBC titlist Tony Bellew and WBO beltholder Oleksandr Usyk have brought the weight class the kind of panache it lacked when associated with recent names like former WBO titleholder Marco Huck and current IBF/WBA titlist Denis Lebedev. The larger cruiserweight picture is what makes Mesishchev grin – just long enough for him take a break from his long kvetch. “For sure, we’re running after belts. Let’s make this fight; let’s win and then we can talk about what’s the next step. This is an opportunity.”
Maneuvering into title contention is the goal of any ambitious fighter and, on Bujaj’s behalf, Majeski has done a good deal of legwork in persuading the WBC to accord Bujaj a surprisingly high ranking of No. 16. Unlike Bejenaru, who is signed to a promoter, Bujaj is a free agent and benefits from Majeski’s long-cultivated relationships without having to worry about the nettlesome stipulations of a promotional contract. (To get Bujaj onto the Nov. 4 card, Majeski simply made a phone call to Artie Pellulo, whom he considers a friend.) “The three (letters) we can owe our whole careers to are the WBC,” said Majeski, who did not pull back his gratitude for the sanctioning body. “They have supported us throughout everything. I know ‘Steve’ (Bujaj) took a lot of criticism for that but I said, ‘Look, you’re rating him on potential as much as you’re rating him on performance but, I’m telling you, he’s a good fighter.’ They stood by us and now they said, ‘Go ahead and fight – and really justify his (ranking) – by beating an undefeated boxer.’ They’ve done everything to help us. I couldn’t ask for more than what they did. If there’s anybody that has helped us consistently, it’s been them.”
Such support, needless to say, is rare in prizefighting and Majeski’s reliance on the organization’s goodwill illustrates how thin the options are for managers handling the careers of unheralded boxers. “So far, he’s been more of an investment than anything else,” Majeski admitted, “but I think this is the fight that will (be Bujaj’s breakthrough).
After breaking his jaw against Junior Wright in May of 2014 (a fight that was ruled a draw), Bujaj got back in the ring against Zack Page only leave it with a torn right shoulder. The next year was lost to surgery and recovery. After an 14-month absence from the ring, Bujaj started 2016 with a win over Larry Pryor and picked up two more along the way. Bejenaru will be his fourth fight this year.
Having sparred former WBO beltholder Krzysztof Glowacki, WBC light heavyweight titlist Adonis Stevenson, former IBF super middleweight titleholder Lucian Bute and, most recently, light heavyweight contender Marcus Browne, Bujaj isn’t worried about any stylistic challenges that Bejenaru might present. “They were all southpaws and honestly I dominated all of them. I don’t have a problem with southpaws.” The layoff has not ebbed his confidence. “I see myself as one of the best fighters in the division. I know I’m going to win a world title.”
Still, there are some concerns. Bujaj, who briefly transplanted to Las Vegas to “get away from distractions” before moving back to New York to finish up training camp, admitted he is unsure of whom will accompany him to the ring on fight night. “That’s something I don’t want to get into,” Bujaj said. “I’ve been through so much with changes in my trainer. It’s just been a big hassle.”
However, Majeski, made it clear that the hardscrabble life isn’t restricted simply to the fighters. “This fight is costing me $5,000 out of pocket,” he said, almost ruefully. “Steve’s not really making much on the fight but we need it. It’s a WBC fight and you’ve only got a couple of weeks to train but you bite the bullet and I said, ‘This is it. This is exactly where you were two years ago. This is one of those fights where you have everything to gain and everything to lose.’
“This is an experiment going back to the old days. Had I known before what it would cost me, I probably wouldn’t have done it this way. In deference to Steve, I have to give him credit. He has made tremendous sacrifices as well.”
“I didn’t realize how much, at this level, how much obligation you have to a boxer,” Majeski continued. “Not only are you in charge of their career but you really become a very important component in their life. And he’s been willing to take less. He lives at home with his family and he knows it’s been tough with the tragic passing of his father a few years ago and the injuries…
“I just told Steve, ’Let’s go for broke.’”