Why many great amateurs never turn pro
From a western perspective, especially from North America, we typically look at professional boxing as the pinnacle of the sport, in which every fighter has the goal of winning world titles, making money and creating a legacy. It’s easy to get caught up in our own world and never take a look outside of this sphere we’re in to further comprehend the pro game.
With the Olympics over and done, we’ll see the typical signing spree from promoters in the coming months as many fighters transition from the amateurs to the pros. On the other hand, many stay amateur and never go to the pros. Take a look at past Olympics and you’ll see that quite a lot of the participants in boxing never turn pro or either do so quite late, as more of a fling.
There has existed somewhat of a myth for a long time that amateur boxing is the “unpaid ranks” and the use of that term is quite common. That certainly is partly true in some parts of the world, particularly in North America, where amateur fighters don’t make much money at all. Mexican bronze medalist Misael Rodriguez and the national team were out on the street essentially begging for money last year due to lack of funding, so they could go to the World Championships in Qatar.
There are other places outside of North America where the situation is similar. Nigerian super heavyweight Efe Ajagba is now going pro after a lack of support from the government in the lead-up to and during the Olympics. He went to Rio de Janeiro with just his coach and had no one to spar with, as well as not being able to go to World Championships last year due to lack of funding. Kenya’s Benson Njangiru had to pay his own way just to get to the final qualification tournament in Venezuela, which ultimately secured his Olympic spot. National athletes in Egypt get paid the equivalent of $189 USD a month. In places like these, there isn’t much of a pro scene and what little pro boxing there is doesn’t pay much. The conditions are pretty dire all around.
On the flipside, there’s a reason many good amateurs never go pro, which doesn’t exactly include the Cubans here, for obvious reasons. In many countries, one can secure his future without ever going pro and be well taken care of during his career. There are all types of incentives to stay amateur and compete for the national team, ranging from monetary to political. These countries, of course, are made up by a large number of ex-Soviet nations such as Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, among others. Furthermore, fighters from many Arab countries rarely ever go pro. There isn’t much of a pro scene in that part of the world, so it’d be almost necessary to move somewhere else. The fighters are well-known and regularly get “Athlete of the Year” awards, as well as enjoying fame and being well taken care of. Morocco’s lone medal in Rio came from Mohammed Rabii in boxing, who rose to popularity after his undefeated run in the World Series Boxing in 2015, as well as his gold medal at the World Championships. Venezuela and China are a few others. Countries like Qatar will pay fighters from other countries to represent their national team. This happens in pretty much every sport.
Using Kazakhstan as an example, gold medalists get around $250,000 USD, silver medalists get around $150,000 USD and for bronze, around $75,000 USD. Vassiliy Levit and Adilbek Niyazymbetov both won silver but were paid as if they won gold. Adding to the prize money, medalists got new Toyota SUVs as well as apartments, ranging from three-bedroom for gold and one-bedroom for bronze. Then there’s all the political incentives and ranks acquired. Numerous former Kazakh Olympians have gone on to work as part of the national team and in other aspects of government, whether related to sport or not. Daniyar Yeleussinov was given a rank of lieutenant in the military for his gold medal. Before that, he had already had the rank of sergeant and was a senior instructor of sports for the National Guard. Aside from all these springboards from sports to politics, the athletes retain celebrity status well after their careers have concluded.
Gaydarbek Gaydarbekov. Does that name ring a bell? He beat Gennady Golovkin in the finals of the 2004 Olympics to win gold and then retired at the age of 27. Afterward, he went to work – and still works – as the Deputy Minister of Physical Culture and Sports in Dagestan, overseeing the boxing program and the Dagestan Boxing Federation. He received offers to go pro but never went through with any. Who can blame him? He’s got a comfy government job.
Essentially, in countries like these, there’s no need to go pro. Being on the national team, one lives well and if one’s career goes well enough, there are tons of options stemming from that afterward. It’s all about security. There isn’t a need to take the risk and take the plunge into a completely foreign world. For those that do go pro, good on them.
Kazakhstan has won four straight gold medals in the welterweight division at the Olympics. None of the three prior to this year have gone pro, including Serik Sapiyev, who won gold in London 2012. A gold medalist from Kazakhstan hasn’t gone pro since Vassily Jirov after 1996 and Kazakhstan has come a long way as a country, mere years removed from the collapse of the Soviet Union. None of their boxers from London 2012 have gone pro and only one from Beijing 2008 has gone pro, in Ruslan Myrsatayev, and his pro career only started this year at the age of 31, after he lost his spot in WSB due to injury. A lot of top Kazakh boxers are even retired before the age of 30 and the same goes for other countries in the region. Recently Azerbaijan saw four boxers on its Olympic team retire. The oldest, Rio silver medalist Lorenzo Sotomayor, is only 31 years old.
Even in Great Britain and Ireland, it’s much better being an amateur than in North America, especially within the last 10 years. It’s not uncommon for high-level Irish amateurs to not go pro and boxers on Team GB can afford to stay amateur for much longer, like current pro Luke Campbell or Anthony Fowler. It’s normal for a lot of top British amateurs not to go pro until their mid-20s. The oldest boxer on the British men’s team this year was 30, in comparison to Team USA, in which the oldest boxer was 20. Ireland’s oldest were Paddy Barnes and David Oliver Joyce, both at 29.
It’s understandable why some boxers never leave the security of the amateur ranks. Pro boxing can seem like the Wild West, at times, especially to someone looking to start out from a foreign country. A career can essentially be dead on arrival if one signs the wrong deal with the wrong people or has the wrong people giving advice. 50 Cent, anyone?
The percentage of boxers who make hundreds of thousands, let alone millions, of dollars is small in the grand scheme of things. With a top amateur background, that likelihood probably increases but if you’re already living comfortably, and with possible incentives down the line when your career is finished, it’s completely plausible to not take a risk and start a completely new career. From a fan perspective, it’d be great if some of the great amateurs that never turned over had gone pro, like Roberto Cammarelle or Serik Sapiyev. On their part, and for many others, never going pro isn’t and wasn’t a mistake for their livelihoods.
All over the world, it will vary from place to place on who goes pro and who doesn’t, depending on the benefits of staying amateur in a particular country. At least, right now, it seems there are more avenues opening up to go pro under decent circumstances for fighters, in the past, whom otherwise would’ve never made the move and that can only be a good thing.
You can follow Rian Scalia on Twitter @rian5ca.