By Jake Donovan
Alexander Povetkin’s road to heavyweight glory nearly came without an atlas – Teddy Atlas, that is.
Contractual obligations and a breakdown in communication between all parties involved resulted in a much shorter camp than Atlas would’ve preferred for Povetkin’s heavyweight showdown versus Ruslan Chagaev this Saturday at Messen Halle in Efrurt, Germany.
The fight will be aired live in the United States on premium cable network EPIX (Saturday 5PM ET), and also simulcast on its website (EpixHD) as well as in New York City’s Time Square.
The renowned trainer, who pulls double duty as a color commentator for ESPN2 Friday Night Fights, joined his undefeated protégé three weeks ago in a microwave training camp for what is Povetkin’s biggest fight to date. It obviously wasn’t supposed to work out that way, but certainly beat the alternative – which was leaving Povetkin without a trainer altogether.
“It was a short camp, too short to be honest. I wanted it to be longer, but I had a commitment to ESPN for my announcing obligations,” Atlas revealed Wednesday morning while joining in from Germany on a media conference call. “There was an agreement where if a Povetkin fight took place during the ESPN season that they would come to the United States to train.
“For some reason, that didn’t happen. I stepped away from him and said that I wasn’t able to train him. Four or five weeks ago they came to me, and I had a decision to make from a moral perspective. So I decided to get on a plane and join them.”
The late change of heart left trainer and fighter with just over three weeks of actual training time. The issue could’ve been avoided had Povetkin’s handlers properly read the terms of their contract with the American-based trainer.
Camp was slated to begin stateside before moving to Russia once Atlas was free and clear from his contractual obligation with ESPN. However, it was decided – either by Povetkin, his management or possibly both – that they were going to stay in Russia and wait for Atlas to join them.
“I told him, ‘Get your ass over here, and asked, ‘Why don’t you keep your commitment?’ They said they would rather train over there. I told him I don’t care what they wanted, that they can’t train with their trainer if he’s thousands of miles away.”
Given the time constraints, Atlas believed in his head that Povetkin would be heading into this weekend’s bout with a different trainer.
Then came a moment that resulted in a change of heart – and expedited travel arrangements.
“What really got me was that after the press conference they had in Germany to announce the fight, they called me after that and said they asked him where his trainer was. They then asked, “Who is your trainer?” Nobody was answering except for Povetkin, who said, “I only have one trainer – Teddy Atlas.” It didn’t take Columbo to figure out that details weren’t making its way to Povetkin.
“After that, (Povetkin) called me just to say hello and without an interpreter. He speaks very few words in English but told me called just to say hello. It got to the point where - it was already late but there couldn’t be any more deadlines. I had to decide whether I’m not or I am (his trainer). I didn’t want to put the kid through that, so I got on a plane – it was the most nervous I ever was.”
Had Atlas not changed his mind late in the game, it’s possible that Povetkin would’ve been forced to contend with a corner on auto pilot for this weekend’s fight. A contingency plan was never made clear by Povetkin’s handlers, and the reunion between fighter and trainer came with its tense moments.
“I don’t think he understood there was an agreement where he had to come over here. When I got there, there seemed to be attitude and maybe confusion over why I wasn’t there earlier. That attitude only lasted a few hours. When I watched fight tape with him and laid out a game plan for Chagaev, they weren’t what he thought it would be. After that, he felt better and knew that his guy was there.”
With a vacant alphabet title at stake, Atlas is a win away from being able to claim to have guided two heavyweights toward a major championship.
The other is of course Michael Moorer, who won the lineal championship with a majority decision win over Evander Holyfield in 1994. The reign was short-lived; Moorer lost the title in his first defense, landing on the wrong side of history when 45-year old George Foreman rallied from a huge deficit to knock him out in the 10th round.
Povetkin – who captured a gold medal as a super heavyweight in the 2004 Summer Olympics – looks to become Atlas’ second student to sport heavyweight hardware, even if the belt comes under manufactured circumstances. The real belt belongs to Wladimir Klitschko, though alphabet politics allow for two champions within the same sanctioning body to exist when their orginal belt is unified.
Such was the case when Klitschko breezed past David Haye in their dud of a heavyweight championship bout earlier this summer. Once Klitschko won and became a “super” champion, a vacant “regular” title was declared, with Povetkin and Chagaev assigned to challenge for the belt.
The irony in the title fight opportunity is that Povetkin twice had a shot at the real deal. He was slated to face Klitschko in December 2008, only to be forced to withdraw after suffering an injury during training camp.
Klitschko decided that he wasn’t going to wait around for the bout to be rescheduled and began accepting other assignments, including a June ’09 showdown with Ruslan Chagaev, who at the time held the belt that is at stake this weekend. Chagaev was stripped of the crown weeks before the fight, and proceeded to lose by 9th round stoppage. He faded off into obscurity before returning last year, winning a title eliminator against Kali Meehan.
Atlas – a longtime critic of both Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko – joined Povetkin’s team shortly after Wladimir’s win over Chagaev. The move was interesting, as Povetkin was still the mandatory challenger and was actually staring at a potential September 2009 date for his first world title crack.
The fight would never happen, though. Nor would another attempt a year later to match together the pair of Olympic Gold medalists, when Atlas pulled his fighter out of a scheduled fight last summer.
While the opportunity and payday would’ve been grand, Atlas believed that his fighter – who turns 32 next week – stood to benefit from gaining more in-ring experience, even though such a stance has caused a rift with Povetkin’s management along with promoter Sauerland Event.
None of it mattered to Atlas, who is left with the responsibility of making sure the fighter is in the best possible fighting shape for such events.
“When I first got (Povetkin) he only had 17 pro fights and wasn’t very active. I didn’t think he was ready for Klitschko, I’ll be honest. I could’ve taken the Klitschko fight and taken the payday – would’ve been about $200,000 for me. But I wanted him to get experience before taking that fight. I didn’t want him in there with Godzilla, but wanted him to fight guys that would extend him, that would challenge him a little more each time.”
Atlas and Povetkin have been together for four fights, though the last one coming in December 2010. Povetkin won a 10-round decision over Nikolai Firtha, but injured his hand in the process.
The layoff and short training camp don’t make for the most ideal situation when taking on a challenge as big as a former heavyweight titlist like Chagaev, but Atlas still believes the fight to be the best fight in terms of his fighter’s progression.
“When the Klitschko fight came up, I know how the landscape can be. I thought that something else would come along that made more sense. And then this fight came along. This fight makes more sense than Klitschko did at the time.”
With a win this weekend, there will of course come demands from the viewing public – as well as within Povetkin’s camp itself – to purse a fight with either Klitschko. Atlas is well aware that the decisions he’s made and continue to make on behalf of his fighter don’t always sit well with everyone else surrounding them, but being the most popular guy in the room has never really been his concern.
“Right now, I just want to do my job. I really want to come through for the kid. I want to come through for my profession and for my family. I just want to get the job done and will hopefully be successful. I have to put all of the other crap in the rearview mirror and concentrate on why I’m here.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected].