The debate over immigration reform continues to rage in the United States Congress, but two fighters from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean are finding that temporarily sweating in pursuit of their boxing dreams while in the U.S. – or, for that matter, in Canada or Mexico – is enough to qualify them as semi-official North Americans.
To some – say, those geographically-challenged U.S. citizens who can’t quite remember that Pierre is the capital of South Dakota, or that Montpelier is the capital of Vermont — it might seem odd that Isaac “Golden Boy” Chilemba (23-2-2, 10 KOs), from Johannesburg, South Africa by way of his native Blantyre, Malawi, and Vasily “The Professor” Lepikhin (17-0, 9 KOs), from Gelendzhik, Russia, will square off in a scheduled 12-rounder for the vacant North American light heavyweight championship on March 14 in Montreal, Quebec. It is the opener of an HBO-televised tripleheader, the middle segment of which is the 12-round heavyweight matchup of Steve “USS” Cunningham (28-6, 13 KOs), a two-time former IBF light heavyweight champion from Philadelphia, and Vyacheslav Glazkov (19-0-1, 12 KOs), who is from Ukraine but now resides in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The nightcap to this United Nations smorgasbord of pugilism pairs WBA/IBF/WBO light heavyweight champ Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev (26-0-1, 23 KOs), from Kopeysk, Russia, but now based in Los Angeles, against former WBC 175-pound titlist Jean Pascal, who hails from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but now makes his home in Laval, Quebec.
Hey, we all were told decades ago that jet travel would make the world seem like a smaller place, but the long, international arm of boxing seemingly has accelerated the shrinkage.
So, what about the African and the Russian fighting for a North American championship belt? How can that be justified even under the strange and often arbitrary rules of the alphabet organizations, whose decision-makers seem to make things up as they go along?
Main Events CEO Kathy Duva, who promotes both Chilemba and Lepikhin, said birth nation or country of residence no longer are the only considerations for fighting for NABF or USBA titles, even though those designations would seem to be self-explanatory.
“They train in North America,” she explained. “All of the sanctioning bodies recently have taken to recognizing that the place where the fighters are based for training (that would be Los Angeles for Chilemba and Oxnard, Calif., for Lepikhin) is their home as well.”
But, really, what does it matter? The NABF championship is a nice but essentially meaningless trinket, sort of like the eighth-place finisher in a beauty pageant being named Miss Congeniality. What is of most consequence to fight fans everywhere in our global village has little to do with who holds some second-tier title or is the beneficiary of an NABF amendment written in crayon. All we want to know is, can the guy fight? Is he worth our time and effort for us to watch him ply his trade?
In Kovalev’s case, those answers are as obvious as the nose on Cyrano de Bergerac’s face. The lead stallion in the Main Events stable can box and he can punch, a nice package of skills that, coupled with his developing aura of charisma, stamp the most recent conqueror of the great Bernard Hopkins as a superstar of the present and probably quite a ways into the future. No, Kovalev isn’t the lineal light heavyweight champion – that would be WBC ruler Adonis “Superman” Stevenson (25-1, 21 KOs), who defends that title against against Sakio Bika (32-6-3, 21 KOs) in the Showtime-televised main event on April 4 in Quebec City – but the WBC has indicated to Stevenson that he must take on Kovalev for the whole shooting match in the near future, if they are both still in possession of their titles. If that were to happen – and it’s a big if — the survivor would be the first truly undisputed world champion since Hopkins rounded up the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO middleweight belts in 2001.
It should be noted that Stevenson is another boxing product of multiple countries and cultures, having been born in Haiti, relocated to Laval, Quebec, and then to Las Vegas. Oh, and Bika is a native of Cameroon who now lives in Sydney, Australia.
Even though shadowy power broker Al Haymon apparently is intent on signing every boxer with a pulse to a roster already more populous than the state of Montana (capital: Helena), Duva professes not to be concerned. If her guy, Kovalev, keeps winning, and especially if he were to meet and beat Stevenson, thereby fully unifying the crown for a few moments (one or more of the alphabet groups would surely find a way to subdivide his realm), most if not all roads at 175 would lead to the Krusher.
“I take the long view of things because I’ve been doing this for so long,” Duva said when asked about Haymon’s apparent goal of establishing a boxing monopoly. “I have seen so many people come along over the years with the intention of taking over boxing and owning it and changing everything about it. Yet I still sit here in my chair and Bob Arum (the CEO of Top Rank) is still sitting in his. There are a few others out there, most notably Golden Boy (Oscar De La Hoya’s company, not Chilemba’s nickname), probably the only upstart to become a major promoter that I can think of that survived. Let’s wait to see what happens in a year or two.”
Duva believes that the light heavyweight division, so rich in history and tradition – some of the legendary champions it has produced are George Carpentier, Tommy Loughran, Gus Lesnevich, Billy Conn, Archie Moore, Harold Johnson, Bob Foster, Matthew Saad Muhammad and Michael Spinks – is ready for a new era of prosperity, perhaps even to the point of becoming what the talent-deep welterweight division is now. And she has an inkling that the 27-year-old Chilemba, who is ranked No. 2 by the WBC, No. 6 by the WBO and No. 7 by the IBF, and Lepikhin, 29, ranked No. 5 by the WBO and No. 12 by the WBA, have the right stuff to become major factors. You might not know them so much now, but the winner – maybe the loser, too – could leave a deep impression by the time the March 14 tripleheader concludes.
“I think in the next three or four years you’re going to see light heavyweights vying for that top spot on the pound-for-pound list, like you see welterweights doing it now,” she said, a not-so-veiled reference to the May 2 unification megafight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. “This is the future. We have a few different things going. Sergey is always looking for the very biggest and best fights that he can get.”
On March 14, a pair of 175-pounders from thousands of miles away fight for the North American championship in French-speaking Canada. After that, who knows? The world isn’t such a big and strange place anymore, not for boxers without borders willing to have their passports frequently stamped.