Sergey Lipinets: Crowning a new Kazakhstani king
Americans love a straightforward action fighter, no matter the nationality or ethnicity, and Kazakhstani slugger Sergey Lipinets is maturing into such an attraction. In only his 13th fight (not the superstitious type), Lipinets challenges for the vacant IBF junior welterweight title, as the opener of Showtime’s tripleheader on tonight (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT). Pushing the limits drives Lipinets; daring inside the ring, he throws punches and pressures foes from the opening bell. A former kickboxing champion, he turned pro three years ago and has not taken a backward step of any sort. Methodical in his approach, Lipinets usually delivers in the end, knocking out 10 opponents, while only facing one boxer with a losing record. Fellow title aspirant Akihiro Kondo brings the requisite heart, with which all Japanese boxers enter the ring, but is a considerable underdog, fighting outside of Japan for the first time. Their meeting should be an action affair, given the limitations of one and aspirations of the other.
The 28-year-old Lipinets, 12-0 (10), is fighting for one of the belts relinquished by Terence Crawford. Lipinets was the mandatory contender but Crawford gave up the IBF version of the junior welterweight titles after unifying the titles, in order to move up in weight. This is disappointing, since Crawford just joined former middleweight champions Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor, as the only men in the four-belt era to hold every sanctioning body title simultaneously. The hard-charging Lipinets had been installed as Julius Indongo’s mandatory challenger but Indongo was given an exemption to face Crawford in their unification showdown. Lipinets knocked out Australian tough man Lenny Zappavigna to earn mandatory contender status and now gets a deserved shot at the vacant title.
The punching power Lipinets displays seems legitimate, at any level, especially to the body, which many young boxers disregard and, given a relative lack of experience, his punches appear as strategic as intuitive. It is one reason manager Alex Vaysfeld refused to put constraints on his fighter, “He is nearing on to be a complete package, even though he has started his career being quite a raw product. Sergey is a natural gem. It’s not that shocking, given the fact that Sergey wasn’t a boxer at all – he is a world-class kickboxer, with some belts and titles on his resume. He has been forced to re-invent his approach to a different sport, to be re-configured for a new job and, thank God, he is very teachable, very smart, while learning something new.”
Some new techniques are being instilled by trainer Buddy McGirt (Lipinets split with Rodrigo Mosquera last year), with whom Lipinets has trained for his last two fights. Lipinets has nothing but praise for his new partner, “Buddy and I are working great together. He comes up with fantastic game plans and he’s able to see flaws in my opponents. I’ve been working really hard to improve on every aspect of my game. I’m seeing improvement in a lot of areas, especially fighting on the inside. Being that he’s a former fighter, I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. We both know what it’s like to be in the ring and that’s very important to me. I’m happy with his instructions.”
That praise has been reciprocated by McGirt, who has someone to work with, who is an almost perfect physical reflection (Lipinests is a lithe 5-foot-7) of McGirt’s prime ring self. McGirt values the mental as much as the physical, “Sergey is an unbelievable athlete. His work output is incredible and he listens to everything I tell him, then executes in the ring.” However, McGirt pointed out that he does not have a finished product just yet. “We need to work more on his jab, distance and head movement. We’ve worked on (Lipinets’) jab, his straight right hand and on setting up the body shots. Sergey has a helluva jab, so I have him using that more and we worked on his balance in sparring.”
Lipinets has moved to the sunny and relaxing climes of California, regularly sparring with Ray Beltran, Mike Perez, Miguel Vazquez, Victor Ortiz, Jose Benavidez and Shane Mosley in the past. When evaluating himself against the elite, Lipinets points to one failing he and McGirt are actively trying to correct. However they see it as more as mentally than physically. “You can say I’m a slow starter but if I see an opening, I will take it early. I pace myself and study my opponent and then, if the guy is still standing in the last half of the fight, he better run.” Lipinets has stopped six opponents in the seventh round or later. Displaying that kind of patience, breaking opponents down when an early KO was not in the cards, is a rare attribute for maturing prospects.
Team Lipinets recognize that winning the title is only half the fight in a battle for recognition in the boxing marketplace. The other half is getting on television and, more importantly, looking good in those performances, while developing a ring personality (outside the ring, Lipinets enjoys playing chess or visiting museums with his wife and young child). That is why Lipinets was thankful for the opportunity to show his wares on a high-profile card. “I feel very privileged to be in the position to fight for this world title. I will prepare to face the best possible fighter on that night and I promise that I will not disappoint. I know how to contain my emotions and direct them in a positive way. The lights will be bright but I have trained too hard not to leave the ring as a world champion.”
The list of kickboxers or mixed martial arts fighters who excel in boxing is neither long nor accomplished, with Vitali Klitschko, Nigel Benn and Marco Huck serving as notable exceptions to the rule. To kick bad habits from previous combat sports, Lipinets trains regularly at Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club, trading punches with anyone from top-notch amateurs to established world champions. Lipinets did not jump into pro boxing directly from the kickboxing scene; he ground himself in the basics, competing in a talent-rich Kazakhstan amateur boxing system, registering a 35-5 mark. If successful, Lipinets will add his name to those of unified middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, former IBF cruiserweight titlist Vassiliy Jirov, former WBA bantamweight titleholder Zhanat Zhakiyanov and former WBA “regular” cruiserweight beltholder Beibut Shumenov as champions from that proud country.
In Lipinets’ first major test, on “ShoBox,” where many champions get their first trial by fire, he dispatched fellow undefeated prospect Haskell Rhodes over 10 rounds. Lipinets told Anson Wainwright, of THE RING Magazine, this was the performance of which he is most proud. “I was the guy with only six fights and coming in against the guy with 23 fights, that was already on the map. He was a very difficult fighter that was moving a lot but I still managed not only to beat him but also made it an exciting fight, which is almost impossible against the guy like that. At the end of the fight, the whole arena was cheering for me.”
In his most recent step up in competition, Lipinets took out former IBF world lightweight title challenger Leonardo Zappavigna in a blood-filled, eight-round battle, in which both men were staggered. Despite knocking down the tough Australian in rounds five and eight, the scorecards were even between two judges, at the time of stoppage. Lipinets dealt with a large cut on the right side of his upper scalp, from accidental headbutt, from round four onward. Zappavigna bled from a cut right eye, from an accidental headbutt, as well, and, in the fifth round, his other eye was cut underneath from a slicing right hand. True to his reputation, Lipinets’ incessant aggression wore down Zappavigna and referee Tom Taylor stopped the fight in a responsible manner.
In the other corner will be IBF No. 3-rated Akihiro Kondo, who rose high in the rankings, by winning the Asia Pacific title. Although, it has to be said, Kondo looks wholly unqualified on the basis of his record, having recorded zero wins over top-notch opposition. The 32-year-old sports a 29-6-1 (16) record and has won eight fights (six by knockout) in a row. Kondo is basically a mystery to all who do not follow the Japanese boxing scene with fervor but says he is ready to introduce himself, “I want to put on a performance that will guarantee that people will remember my name. I’m going to do my best to avoid the big shots and use my skills. I think it’s going to be a really good fight and make me more well-known throughout the world.”
With all due respect to Kondo (yes, that is code for a less-than-flattering evaluation to follow), this fight will not tell us if Lipinets is of a world champion caliber. Most boxing fans recognize the difference between a titleholder and champion. Defeating a boxer of Kondo’s blue-collar level does not elevate Lipinets above the distinction of “titlist.” It does put Lipinets in the conversation for larger fights against the established elite like WBC lightweight titlist Mikey Garcia and Terence Crawford. Even a victory over someone like former WBC junior welterweight titleholder Viktor Postol or former IBF lightweight beltholder Rances Barthelemy, in the near future, would earn Lipinets the champion status his team envisions. For now, this is a validating step that serves to develop Lipinets and introduce us to an exciting new force.