By Jake Donovan, photo by Robert Levesque/AR Photozone
This weekend’s headliner at the Bell Centre in Montreal is designed as a confidence builder for Lucian Bute. The former super middleweight titlist returns to the ring for the first time since his devastating, title-ending knockout loss at the hands of Carl Froch, whom he plans on rematching early next year.
The proposed sequel is contingent – from a marketability standpoint – on the outcome of Saturday’s showdown with Denis Grachev. Bute’s handlers chose the unbeaten light heavyweight as the opponent for a variety of reasons, though with the overall perception that a win in such a fight will look good for the next step in his career.
Grachev really doesn’t care why he was chosen. All he sees is yet another opportunity to upset the apple cart.
“Lucian Bute is a tough fighter but he showed in his last fight that he can’t handle pressure,” believes Grachev (12-0-1, 8KO), who has scored three straight knockouts heading into this weekend’s affair. “That is what we are going to do, pressure him from round one.”
The Saturday headliner – which airs live on Wealth TV (7PM ET start time) – is hardly Grachev’s first trip to the lion’s den. In fact, several of the Russian transplant’s best wins have come on the road and against previously unbeaten opposition.
A Jan ’11 points win over Azea Augustama (9-0 at the time) in Miami was the first sign that Grachev’s transformation from established kickboxer to boxing prospect was the right career move. Four months later came what would rate as the biggest win of his career at the time, a 4th round knockout of Vladine Biosse (11-0) at Foxwoods Casino in Mashantucket, Conn.
Grachev was brought in as a last-minute replacement for Saul Duran, and had no reservations about traveling to New England to face the unbeaten Providence-based light heavyweight. The only regret would be on the part of Biosse’s handlers, watching their charge suffer through a cut and three knockdowns before being stopped in four rounds.
The pair of wins came in stark contrast to the start of his career, scoring big on the road after having his first eight pro fights take place in his adopted home region of Southern California. But then, Grachev’s entire run as a successful pro boxer comes as a pleasant surprise, as it was another sport that lead him to relocating to the United States in the first place.
Grachev was a world championship-level kickboxer in his native Russia before moving to his present hometown of San Diego, Calif. in 2006. Boasting a winning percentage of nearly 90% (123-18, with 40 stoppages), Grachev looked to make a big splash in the U.S. However, he soon discovered it was hard to make noise in a sport deemed largely anonymous in this corner of the world.
Boxing and MMA were viewed as more lucrative outlets, though Grachev simultaneously dabbled in all three sports. His pro debut – a 2nd round knockout of fellow debutant Rosendo Ruvalcaba in June ’07 – came just two weeks prior to his first stateside fight in his already well-established kickboxing career.
Within a five month span, Grachev fought and won seven times in three separate sports – three as a boxer and two each in MMA and kickboxing. As 2008 rolled around, he slowly gravitated towards becoming a full time boxer. Just two more fights would follow in MMA before leaving the sport, while taking just one more fight in kickboxing – after a three year break – before calling it a career in 2010.
Despite limiting himself to just boxing, Saturday night will mark just his 14th career fight. Grachev has yet to fight more than four times in a calendar year and by boxing terms is viewed as a novice not quite ready for the championship level.
Naturally, he sees things otherwise.
“The number of (boxing) fights doesn’t mean as much as experience,” insists the 30-year old. “I have experience in Muay Thai, mixed martial arts and boxing. I am ready for this fight.”
Going a long way towards swaying supporters his way was an upset knockout victory over Ismayl Sillakh earlier this year on national television. Once again, Grachev was paired up with an unbeaten prospect whose star was on the rise. In this case, Sillakh was viewed as a legit Top 10 contender on the verge of light heavyweight stardom, heavily hyped by nearly all major boxing outlets.
For several rounds, the inflated odds – upwards of 11-1 in some circles – appeared well-justified. Sillakh was in full control and even scored an early knockdown in their ESPN2-televised main event.
Grachev then dug deep and did what he does best – violently snatch the “0” from prominent fighters. A right hand rocked Sillakh midway through the eighth, at which point the underdog went for broke. Sillakh was well on his way to getting knocked out when he was rescued by referee Vic Drakulich.
Thus, a new star was born, though it was just another day at the office if you ask the winner.
“It didn’t change anything for me,” Grachev says of what rates for the moment as his career-defining win. “It just changed my career going forward.”
So far, the only thing Grachev has done since then is celebrate his 30th birthday. The Russian knockout artist had a hard time securing fights until Bute tapped his shoulder to travel north of the border for this weekend’s affair.
The fight takes place at a catchweight of 170 lb, which helps Bute in that it’s not a drastic trip back down to super middleweight. Conversely, it’s the lightest that Grachev has been asked to weigh for a fight in nearly three years, a fight that resulted in the lone non-winning performance of his career – a six round draw against Ernesto Castenada in Dec. ’09.
Just one month prior to that fight, Grachev came in at a career-heavy 185 lb. The balance of his career has hovered around the light heavyweight limit, though he doesn’t seem concerned about the compromised weight demand for this fight.
If anything, he’s grateful for the opportunity. The weight aside, the belief in the visitor’s camp is that this fight comes at the perfect time.
“After the Froch fight, we figure he is not ready for a brawl,” Grachev believes. “We are prepared for whatever he wants to do. We are prepared for a tough 12-round fight but will apply pressure from round one to round 12. Three minutes of every round.”
And that’s if it goes 12 rounds. Grachev is well aware that fighters don’t get paid for overtime. He’s also well aware of the unlikelihood of winning over the judges in hostile territory. At stake for Bute is a chance at redemption against Froch with a win on Saturday.
Grachev has every intention of leaving his opponent with a Froch-less future – and zero chance of the judges having any say in the matter.
“I am looking for a knockout,” Grachev bluntly states.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox