Sergey Kovalev, Vasyl Lomachenko and Oleksandr Usyk are all making a huge statement in the boxing world as they head the fearsome Russian and Ukrainian charge.
The UK currently boasts 12 world champions, one more than the sport’s traditional rulers across the Atlantic Ocean, but there is a growing threat coming from the East.
Live Fight Night International
November 20, 2016, 2:00am
There’s no doubt that the US is still littered with some special yet underrated fighters. Terence Crawford and Gary Russell Jr are just two of the less glitzy names who deserve mentions in any discussion about the world’s pound-for-pound best. If you go beyond world champions, Errol Spence Jr could be the best welterweight in the world.
But what about Usyk? Vasyl Lomachenko? What about Artur Beterbiev? Murat Gassiev, Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Ievgen Khytrov? Have they really had the exposure their skills deserve, and will they ever? Does the English language and its importance to the ‘showbiz’ aspect of boxing mean that Eastern European fighters will forever struggle to enter Western markets?
It’s not to be taken for granted whether they actually need to, of course. Russia’s Andrey Ryabinsky is a man with a pound note or two – in 2013 he won the auction to stage Wladimir Klitschko v Alexander Povetkin with a bid in excess of $23m. Michael Buffer was the ring announcer. It’s not like there’s no showbiz in Moscow.
What would be disappointing about any stand-off between British and American promoters and those from Russia is that fans would be denied the chance to see the best facing the best.
Blame culture is by its very nature unproductive but given the drug testing sagas which followed Ruslan Chagaev v Lucas Browne and preceded Deontay Wilder v Alexander Povetkin, you can hardly blame WBC world cruiserweight champion Tony Bellew for stipulating that any unification clash with Denis Lebedev will not be taking place in Russia.
The system in Russia and the Ukraine makes for intriguing clashes of styles. Boxers there tend to stay in the amateur game far longer.
Take super-featherweight sensation Lomachenko, for example. The Ukrainian southpaw won two Olympic golds and three World Championship golds during an amateur career that saw him amass an astonishing record widely reported as 396-1. It wasn’t until he was 25 that he switched to the professional ranks and was hurried into a world title clash in only his second bout.
Lomachenko was unsuccessful in that bid for the vacant WBO crown, suffering a split decision defeat to Orlando Salido. This was the aforementioned clash of styles; Salido, a relentless pressure fighter from Mexico who had fought 59 times since turning pro against Lomachenko, a one-fight pro novice billed by some as the most exciting amateur boxer of all time.
Salido failed the weight and Lomachenko was successful in seizing the belt three months later by outpointing Russell Jr, joining the likes of light-heavyweight kingpin Sergey Kovalev, cruiserweight champion Lebedev and IBF world super-lightweight holder Eduard Troyanovsky as world champions of Russian or Ukrainian origin. He has since graduated to claim a world super-featherweight crown in his first fight at the weight.
With several already at the summit of the mountain, it’s important to make some attempt to throw light on those still awaiting their opportunity. Usyk recently grabbed his chance when impressively outpointing WBO title-holder Krzysztof Glowacki.
Like Lomachenko, Usyk is a skilful southpaw enjoyable to watch and perhaps the latter’s remarkable appearance – a once samurai-esque hairdo and distinctive gap between his front teeth – may make him more marketable than most. Being managed by the Klitschko brothers’ company, K2, won’t hurt either.
Beterbiev is perhaps next in line to add his name to the fearsome list having stopped all his professional opponents to date and is already being talked about as a major player in the light-heavyweight division.
Russia’s Beterbiev (10-0-KO10) is already ranked in the top 10 by three of the governing bodies and according to reports actually beat his compatriot – WBA ‘super’, IBF and WBO champion Kovalev – twice in the amateurs. A ring reunion with Kovalev would make for a great story and Montreal-based Beterbiev will surely also target fellow Quebec resident, WBC champion Adonis Stevenson.
There are countless more up-and-coming forces to acknowledge, of course. Kazakhstan is another country that used to belong to the Soviet Union. Gennady Golovkin’s exploits are well-documented and televised, and heavy-handed bantamweight Zhanat Zhakinayov (26-1-KO18) is now the WBA interim champion. Cruiserweight Beibut Shumenov has already been a world champion and remains highly ranked.
In the same division as Shumenov (and Bellew), Murat Gassiev turned professional relatively early but by the age of 22, his record of 23-0-KO17 has taken him to an IBF mandatory challenger’s shot against Lebedev on December 3. It’s one weight-class that seems on the verge of explosion.
Whichever way you cut it and regardless of your nationality, fans will be the primary beneficiaries if the top fighters from formerly Soviet countries manage to force their way into the consciousness of Western boxing. Think Lee Selby v Lomachenko. Bellew v Usyk (or any of the others), Nathan Cleverly v Beterbiev…
Events outside the ring may be harder to sell – the impact/spectacle of trash-talk will be diluted in proportion to its object’s understanding – but inside the ring, the world needs to see the best fight the best, so Eastern Europe should have a significant role to play.
Watch Sergey Kovalev v Andre Ward live on Sportsclubsociety for just £6.99 with a Sportsclubsociety Day Pass. No contract.