The Russians are coming
The Russians are coming. They’re not just supposedly influencing the 2016 Presidential election; they’re changing boxing as well – and so are the Kazakhs, the Uzbeks, the Ukrainians, the Lithuanians and the citizens of various other former Soviet countries. They’re coming to America en masse and they’re coming to fight. Have gloves, will travel. They’ve been coming over more frequently over the past five years or so and the wave isn’t slowing down any time soon.
That was on full display this past weekend in Oxon Hill, Maryland as HBO broadcast a card featuring three Ukrainians – Vasyl Lomachenko, Oleksandr Usyk and Oleksandr Gvozdyk – as its house fighters. Three Ukrainians with very deep amateur pedigrees – with a combined three Olympic golds and one bronze – who came to the United States to pursue and further advance their pro boxing careers.
As this trend continues to grow, it goes to show that, even though most of these fighters don’t speak English, a major selling point is what happens in the ring. It’s part of why IBF/WBA/WBC middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin initially ascended the hierarchy of present-day boxing stars. From an unknown fighter from a place most Americans only know about from the movie/character “Borat,” his performances in the ring were the defining factors in the increase of his profile. The same can be said of former IBF/WBA/WBO light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev. The two initially spoke broken English but, after years or living and fighting in America, have developed the language skills necessary to bring out more of a personality which established a presence outside of the ring.
Lomachenko, Usyk and Gvozdyk are in a similar position. They can all fight really well, which is probably the most important part. Lomachenko and Usyk are already world champions. Gvozdyk speaks good English while Lomachenko and Usyk are coming along. Lomachenko has just recently started doing interviews in English. Aside from carrying an HBO card, they sold out the venue – yes, it only seats less than 3,000 – and brought a plethora of Ukrainian fans from the homeland and around America, notably Chicago.
This show, which was the first boxing event at the new MGM National Harbor, was a building block, in multiple aspects. The fighters performed well; the event sold. Their English is coming along and the ratings were at least better than recent outings on HBO.
The bottom line is, nowadays, if fighters can fight at a high level, then there will be a place for them somewhere, no matter where they’re from or what language they speak. It’s most important that they’re, at least, entertaining in the ring and, as time goes on, that they start becoming engaging outside of the ring and developing a fan base. Social media is one way to do the latter. Lomachenko has over 200,000 followers on Instagram and gets thousands of likes on each of his posts, including the recent infamous video of him dancing with the dumbbells that went viral in the boxing world. It may seem like an afterthought but every little thing adds up.
The Ukrainian Dream Team, at the least, can now bring out their own fans in select markets, while gradually getting more of the broader public on board by consistently fighting on HBO.
As for the wave of fighters from ex-Soviet countries coming over and basing themselves stateside (this is also happening in Canada), it’s going to keep happening particularly because of the success of their predecessors like Golovkin, Kovalev and now the Ukrainians. Promoters in North America have bought into them, and for good reason. Even if many of these fighters go pro at later ages, they’re further along and much more developed than homegrown talent, meaning they can be moved quicker.
Take a look at BoxRec.com and chances are, almost every week, there will be a fighter from the former Soviet Union fighting somewhere in America. They’re everywhere, from the big fight hubs of Southern California, Las Vegas and New York to small club shows in the most random of places.
In Canada, mostly Quebec, foreign fighters like Romanian-Canadian Lucian Bute have become stars and been built up from the beginning. Montreal, Quebec, a fight hub in itself, is now the base for an increasing amount of ex-Soviet talent with GYM’s Artur Beterbiev at the forefront, along with his stablemates Vislan Dalkhaev and Arslanbek Makhmudov. Kazakhs Batyrzhan Jukembayev and Ablaikhan Khussainov have been punching up a storm for Eye of the Tiger Management and Interbox, whom just announced the signing of three more fighters from the Soviet bloc earlier this week.
Aside from the most attractive signings – the Olympians and medalists – the amateur systems in these countries are so deep that many fighters who aren’t top of the queue on the national team are still good enough to do damage in the pro ranks. In numerous cases, the guy who goes to the Olympics and fights at all the major tournaments isn’t necessarily the one who will make the best pro and, in countries like Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, there are fighters well far from from the top of the national team who make better pros than the gold medalists.
In addition to the success of figures like Golovkin and Kovalev encouraging fighters to turn pro, many pipelines to the pro ranks in North America from the former Soviet Union have opened up. Most notably, manager Egis Klimas is the biggest player. He now owns the Boxing Laboratory Gym in Oxnard, California, and his fighters have everything set up for them to succeed. Other notable figures are manager Vadim Kornilov on the West Coast and Fight Promotions in New York. There are numerous other ex-Soviet fighters being brought over all across the country.
Even with the initial success of former IBF cruiserweight titlist Vassiliy Jirov, the wave of fighters from the former Soviet Union coming to America in numbers didn’t really start until the last seven years or so and really picked up in the past five years after the 2012 Olympics. There were fighters here and there, like the Klitschko Brothers before but the rise in numbers seems to correspond with the social media era. People are seeing and following things from around the world, several times every day, through multiple platforms like Facebook, Twitter, VK and Instagram, so it seems natural that fighters would become aware of more opportunities outside of the amateur system at home.
December marked the 25th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It took about 20 years or so afterward for a high number of top amateurs to turn pro, en masse, so it really is just the beginning of what’s to come.
You can follow Rian Scalia on Twitter @rian5ca.