From amateur to pro, the Olympics don’t tell the whole story
Boxing at the 2016 Summer Olympics is now finished and gone for another four years and, with that, once again passes a huge platform showcasing some of the brightest talents that may transition to the professional ranks. Some fighters win medals and some are done after their first fights but this doesn’t tell the whole story for those who aspire for a pro career. Medals are a great accomplishment and certainly indicative, in many cases, of the level at which one lands and whether there exists potential to do well as a pro. However it’s what is shown in the fights that really matters and gives one a gauge of what to expect in the future with smaller gloves and the vests off.
It’s foolish to dismiss a fighter for losing his or her first fights or just not making the Olympics at all. While the majority of pros have relatively good amateur backgrounds, you’ll find that many never or medaled never even made the Olympics in the first place. There are many variables in the amateur game, including bad judging. For some, three rounds just isn’t enough time to work or the judges just don’t like their style of fighting or just flat-out won’t give them a decision no matter what, due to politics or whatever reason. Certain tactics work better in three-round fights than others and those same tactics may not be effective in pro fights over longer distances. While a lack of success on the big stages of the amateurs shouldn’t be a reason to dismiss a fighter, a prominent pedigree loaded with medals doesn’t make one an automatic shoe-in for pro success either. Even with the current amateur game’s more pro-style approach, and with some fighters having World Series of Boxing and AIBA Pro Boxing experience, nothing is guaranteed.
The end of the Olympics can be the end of the road or a completely new beginning. Many on the wrong end of officiating get fed up with the amateur game and the rife ineptitude, to put it lightly, surrounding how it’s handled. Transitioning to the pro game can be somewhat of a new lease on life. If you didn’t get that Olympic medal, you can seek redemption and try for a world title and, of course, large amounts of money. Even with an Olympic medal, the pro game is what is most important in many cases, depending on which area of the world from which a fighter hails. That’s not to say that the pro game is squeaky clean either but the earning potential is certainly higher and, for many, the glory and fame are much greater.
For a fighter like Michael Conlan, who was screwed out of a medal and rightfully went on a tirade about it, there’s no point in staying and fighting under a banner where that’s more prone to happen. For a fighter with his talents and accolades, the expectations for a pro career are high but, then again, so are the earning potentials. He’ll be a very sought-after prospect by promoters from all over and is a big name on the Emerald Isle.
In Vassily Levit’s case, he was blatantly robbed of a gold medal. Coming from Kazakhstan, he was paid $250,000, the reward for a gold medal, instead of the $150,000 for a silver. At 28 years old, there have been rumblings that he’s wanted to go pro and Russian promoter Vladimir Hrunov was even in Brazil to offer him a deal. On the other side, Evgeniy Tishchenko has Andrey Ryabinskiy wanting to sign him after being given the gold. You can also bet that Tishchenko made a hefty sum for that gold medal. They come from countries where it isn’t necessary to ever go pro if you’ve been as successful in the amateurs as they have. They can be comfortable where they are or might want even more.
On the other hand, you have fighters like Artem Chebotarev and Mihai Nistor, to name a few, who lost their first fights at the Olympics. Chebotarev is an APB champion and has fought 10 rounds. His opponent was allowed to hold all night. Nistor got robbed and battered his opponent in the second and third rounds, even though it wasn’t a great performance. He’s also a current APB champion, having gone up to nine rounds. In cases like this, it’s ill-advised just to judge them off one fight, not reflective of their full ability as fighters, especially if they were to go pro. At least for Chebotarev, he’s said he’s done with the amateurs, like Conlan.
Greats like Roberto Cammarelle never bothered to go pro. He was comfortable with his job as a police officer and his spot on the Italian national team. At 34 years of age, Clemente Russo, so far, has done the same thing, despite receiving offers in the past and even once meeting with Don King. Hypothetical questions about how fighters like that would do in the pros will always remain unanswered.
Pro boxing, in itself, is a completely different sport and business altogether. A lot of success is determined upon many things that have nothing to do with the actual fighting. If you have good backing from a major promoter, then that’s half of the battle. But if you’re boring, don’t sell many tickets or don’t draw much interest commercially, then it’s an uphill battle. WBA junior featherweight titlist Guillermo Rigondeaux, one of the great amateurs, has a hard enough time getting any fights, despite being one of the top fighters in the sport. Part of that is also a result of his own doing. Cubans don’t exactly have a huge bastion of boxing supporters in the United States either. You can be the best fighter in the world but there has to actually be some interest to see you fight. This is, to a degree, “sports entertainment,” after all.
IBF/WBA/WBC middleweight titleholder Gennady Golovkin and IBF/WBA/WBO light heavyweight beltholder Sergey Kovalev have carved out their own positions in pro boxing, despite not having the ethnic fan-bases in the United States that Mexicans have, for example. Not only are they great fighters but they’re exciting, knock opponents out and have personalities. Kovalev didn’t even make Russia’s Olympic team. Golovkin was an Olympic silver medalist in 2004. But both had to come up through the pros in darkness. Golovkin spent years in No Man’s Land in Germany before finally breaking free from Universum and hooking up with K2 Promotions. Kovalev was living in the woods in North Carolina before Main Events scooped him up.
In recent years, the scene has changed and there seems to be more opportunities out there, especially in the US. If you can springboard from making the Olympics to getting a deal with a good promoter who can back you, then you’ve done well for yourself and it will probably hinge on the individual performances to speak for themselves.
Scouts are always at the Olympics looking for talents to sign and they’ll surely have done enough research to know that a handful of three-round fights are more than meets the eye and certainly what happens in the ring is more important than what happens on paper. Whether a fighter lost his or her first fight or went on to win a gold medal, there are variables and circumstances to everything. Kovalev sure is doing better than his amateur conqueror Matvey Korobov.
Tony Yoka may have won the gold medal at super heavyweight but I still have Filip Hrgovic as the best pro of the group. I had Hrgovic and Joe Joyce beating Yoka and so did most people but they won’t go down in history as the gold medalist. When you dig deeper, you’ll see the extensive World Series of Boxing success that Hrgovic and Joyce had compared to Yoka’s results in the pro-style WSB and APB, which were very mixed. Watching the fights, you’ll see that those two maintained a pace much better over a longer distance. We’ll see how things turn out but visual evidence is always a strong indicator.
Making the transition from amateur to pro is a big leap and some handle it much quicker – and better – than others. It takes a bit to adapt to the longer distance, smaller and less-padded gloves, more lax rules and the modified style of fighting that is required. From the amateurs, a lot of information can be gathered to determine the potential of fighters turning over. The Olympics aren’t the be-all/end-all of determining success as a pro, whether you win gold or lose right away. What’s more important is how one performs in the ring and whether or not that can transfer well over to professional fighting.
Olympic years are always big for prospect signings, as those are when many choose to end their amateur careers. Many who don’t make the Olympics opt to turn pro and then Olympians get signed after the Games. It all comes down to the individual and how he or she can adapt to the pro game, influenced by the trainer who molds their styles and the handlers who put them on the right path of progression. To me, it’s always interesting to see whom ends up signing with whom and how each fighter is moved distinctly and developed. It’s an important and underrated part of boxing to see fighters develop and adapt before our eyes.
You can follow Rian Scalia on Twitter @rian5ca.