The Russians are Coming – There were nine bouts altogether on the Pacquiao-Bradley card. The most electric moment came on the off-TV portion of the show when Oleksander Gvosdyk nailed Nadjib Mohammedi smack on the kisser with a straight right hand. It was lights out for Mohammedi, a Frenchmen who entered the contest with a 35-4 record. Chalk one up for Grovzdyk, a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist who advanced his record to 10-0, and then chalk up another one for the Russian contingent, a band of kindred spirits who have infused the U.S. boxing scene with fresh blood, and very good blood at that.
Mr. Gvosdyk, a light heavyweight, isn’t exactly Russian; he’s Ukrainian. But the term “Russian,” as used here, follows the long-established practice of using the word Russian as an umbrella term for people from all of the countries that were formerly part of the U.S.S.R. Many of the major cities outside the downsized Russia, such the Ukrainian cities of Kiev and Odessa, are still commonly identified as Russian.
The Ukraine produced the most famous “Russian” prizefighters, the amazing Klitschko brothers. They were part of the wave of Soviet fighters that dominated the heavyweight division during the first decade of the 21st century. Swelling the ranks were such notables as Oleg Maskaev, Nicolay Valuev, Ruslan Chagaev, Siarhei Liakhovich, and Sultan Ibragimov.
The new crop of Russian fighters – young men domiciled in the United States – is fundamentally different. There are no heavyweights among them and few lone wolves; as a general rule, they live and train with others of their tribe. There are two distinct hives, one in Brooklyn, which houses the world’s largest community of Russian immigrants, and the other in the LA area where the highest concentration is found in the city of Oxnard, home to the Robert Garcia Boxing Academy.
Twenty-seven-year old Sergey Lipinets, whose U.S. promoter lives in Beverly Hills, is a rising star in the super lightweight division. A former kickboxing champion, born in Kazakhstan, the undefeated Lipinets is already an established headliner after only nine pro fights.
A high-pressure fighter, Lipinets stole the show at the Toe to Toe Tuesdays event in Nice, California on March 15, halting Levan Ghvamichava with a wicked left hook to the liver. Middleweight Sergiy Derevychenko, a Brooklyn-based Ukrainian, also appeared on that card, continuing his upward ascent with an eighth round stoppage of Mike Guy.
Ten days later, three Brooklyn-based prospects, two Russians and a Ukrainian, feathered their nests on Showtime’s ShoBox: The New Generation card in Miami, Oklahoma. Ivan Baranchyk, a 23-year-old super lightweight, made the biggest splash, demolishing previously undefeated Nicholas Givhan (16-0-1) in 21 seconds. Nicknamed “The Beast,” Baranchyk has stopped nine of his 10 opponents, six in the opening round.
This Friday’s show at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York, another ShoBox presentation, is chock full of hot “Russian” prospects, six in all, including two fighters from the Republic of Georgia, a boxer from Moldova and a man from Turkmenistan. The most advanced of the bunch is 26-year-old bantamweight Nikolay Potapov, 14-0 (6), who opposes St. Louis southpaw Stephon Young (14-0-2) in a 10-round match.
Hailing from Podolsk, Russia, Potapov reportedly had 200 amateur fights. He is managed by Odessa-born Dmitriy Salita, the former welterweight campaigner who has been promoting club shows in Brooklyn.
Another of the TV bouts on the April 15 card is a crossroads fight between cruiserweights Alexey Zubov and Constantin Bejenaru, both of whom sport 10-0 records. A contest on U.S. soil between two foreigners from the same geographic region is a match that defies conventional matchmaking wisdom. One is reminded of the New York boxing scene circa 1930 when the ranks of Jewish boxers were so thick that they were frequently pitted against each other.
The Golden Boy Promotions card at the Belasco Theater in Los Angeles, on the same date as the Turning Stone card, also features a “Russian” fighter, namely light heavyweight Vyacheslav Shabranskyy. A 28-year-old Ukrainian with a kick boxing background, Shabranskyy (15-0, 12 KOs) opposes Derrick Finley (23-18-1) in the eight-round semi-main.
Shabranskyy, who has cracked the rankings of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board at #5 in his weight class, is coming off two tough fights. In his last outing, he upset Cuban defector Yunieski Gonzalez in a 10-round slugfest. His bout before that was a see-saw affair in which he came back from the brink of destruction to stop Paul Parker in the third stanza. Shabranskyy is trained by Manny Robles who also trains two-time Mexican Olympian Oscar Valdez, a rising star in the featherweight division.
Shabranskyy fits the mold of the new breed of “Russian” fighter. There was a time, notes boxing writer Steve Kim, when fighters from Shabranskyy’s region “were often seen as stiff, robotic and devoid of personality; now they seem to be more ‘Mexicanized’.”
Avtandil Khurtsidze, the Brooklyn-based middleweight from the Republic of Georgia, became an honorary Mexican with his rousing performance on the March 5 Premier Boxing Champions card in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The stumpy Khurtsidze stopped highly touted Antoine Douglas in the 10th frame, a double-edged sword as he boosted his stock a thousand percent but now finds it hard to find new opponents.
Khurtsidze is hardly one of the new kids on the block. He’s been fighting off-and-on since 2002. His first U.S. fight predated the pro debuts of the two best Russian fighters on the scene today, Sergey Kovalev and Gennady Golovkin (okay, Golovkin is actually from Kazakhstan), extraordinary talents. But Khurtsidze, who had labored largely in obscurity, is symptomatic of the new wave — a wave infusing the U.S. boxing scene with well-schooled and fan-friendly Russian fighters, some of whom — mark my words — are going to develop big followings.