By Alexey Sukachev / Photo and video: Evgueny Solodov
“It’s totally my fault. I don’t like others standing the racket for me. It will never repeat in the future”, Pirog’s voice stands firm but quiet as he insists he was guilty in not informing his gymmates about the next sparring session. Marc Meltzer, an old Muscovite coach and a well-known personality in Russian boxing community, says nothing and just sits at the pull-out stool in the neutral corner.
It’s not the usual gym. KITEK is a self-promoted (and widely accepted) Russian school of various m artial a rts (but mostly boxing, kickboxing and muay thai) and even a “temple” to a certain degree which helps its novices to perfect themselves in various ways and to learn the art of fighting.
Pirog is neither a novice nor a constant visitor of KITEK. But he took a plane to Moscow with his head coach Vyacheslav Nepogodin when an opportunity loomed to sharp his skills in one of the most devoted Russian boxing centers. It’s not the first time Dmitry travels across the state to find a better place for his training camp. Originally from Temryuk in Krasnodar region and now living in neighboring Gelendzhik, the only active Russian world champion prepared for his breakthrough fight with Daniel Jacobs firstly in Samara (which is a base of both Nepogodin and his partner Victor Petrochenko) and then overseas, on the West Coast of the States.
Meltzer, a co-head and a chief trainer for KITEK, sighs and then quietly says (mostly to himself than to casual listeners), “I have never seen more intelligent champion, more intelligent fighter than you, Dima”. Meltzer continues to look after Pirog’s sparring session giving short but stinging tips to his pupil Edward Romanchuk (3-5, 2 KOs), who helps the WBO middleweight champion in his preparations. Dark-skinned and exotic Romanchuk, originally from Striy, Ukraine, is the stepbrother of a troubled world-class amateur star Roman Romanchuk; he was advertised as a future of Russian pro boxing but turned out to be more of a bust as he slowly transformed into a durable journeyman after suffering his first professional loss. Now he combines fighting with sparring sessions. Another fighter, whose help is vital for Team Pirog at this stage of his preparations, is Vyacheslav Povarnitsin (3-1-2), his childhood friend and a student of the same trainer.
Pirog sharpens his attacking ability against fluid Romanchuk and tests his defense against aggressive Povarnitsin. Both fighters change each other after each fought round (a total eight of them) while Pirog remains in the same ring and takes only a gasp and a gulp between rounds. He combines it with conditioning and a tough work with a heavy bag; then begins somersaults around the ring. Two training sessions every day, except for Saturday, when Pirog visits the Russian bath houses.
As modest as he is, Pirog allows everybody to watch his training session. He chats with boys and girls, who improve their skills at the same gym, answers their questions, and makes a photo or two with them. He can be easily talked into a conversation by local media and visits local TV executives for future programs and news reports. Don’t be fooled though. The WBO champion is fully concentrated on his next fight against WBO #9 Argentinean contender Javier Francisco Maciel (18-1, 12 KOs) on March 26 in Ekaterinburg, Russia, and doesn’t take his opponent lightly.
“I have already said before that he (Maciel) is quite an unorthodox fighter. I agreed with my trainer on him being a puzzling boxer who is right-handed but feels himself even more comfortable throwing strong left hands while changing his stance. He changes the stance also in a tricky way. He hits with his right with a simultaneous forward sideslip of his right foot converting himself to a southpaw for a left hook/left uppercut”, describes Pirog his opponent. “That’ll be a tough fight, not a walk in the park. It’s definitely a test for me”.
A few agree though. Javier “La Bestia” Maciel possesses a nice record, has wins over credible journeymen Juan Carlos Alderete (33-6-1, TKO 3) and Francisco Antonio Mora (55-14-1, TKO 3) and lost virtually no fights in his pro career (his TKO 4 loss to Matias Ezequiel Franco was forced by a bad cut which wasn’t necessarily created by the punches, but via a headbutt as was announced originally). However, he has no wins over any ranked opponents, and Alderete, 37, was well past his prime at the time of their fight. He will also compete for the first time outside of his native Argentina, while Pirog had successful voyages to the United States and to Germany. And he has also defeated much more acclaimed opponents (Daniel Jacobs, Kofi Jantuah, Sergey Tatevosyan and Eric Mitchell – just to name a few).
Expectations were higher for Pirog immediately after his chilling knockout of highly hyped middleweight prospect Daniel Jacobs, which quickly evolved into a highlight reel and one of the most memorable HBO’s sportive moments of the last year. The Russian technician, who combines a considerable punching power with an unusual style of fighting (talk about American old school approach), also became a web symbol of hidden and underhyped talents who suddenly appear in front of the “mainstream” TV audience to create a heavy buzz with an upset win over heavily favoured opponent (with a “heavily padded record” as someone writes). Hardcore fans were mostly so impressed with one of 2010’s biggest stunners that they seriously discussed Pirog’s chances against pound for pound elite competing in neighboring weight classes.
The subsequent road, however, was both rocky and unsatisfying for the team of the first ever Russian domestic world champion (Pirog became a champion, living, training and fighting almost exclusively in Russia under local promotion – unlike such gems as Dmitry Kirillov, Roman Karmazin and Nikolay Valuev who were developed with a significant aid from abroad; not to speak of the others). German Titov, Russia’s top boxing promoter nowadays, and his Moscow-based partner Kirill Pchelnikov were unable to secure a unification fight with long-time WBA mastermind Felix Sturm, which was reportedly in discussions, while their American counterpart Art Pellulo of Banner Promotions couldn’t help Pirog land another televised date on HBO or on any other elite network.
Both local and American parts of the team can hardly be blamed for that. Titov is a big figure in Eastern European boxing, whose role in Pirog’s career cannot be overestimated by any means, but his connections are limited to the continental scale. Pchelnikov’s support proved to be similarly vital in building Dmitry as a highly ranked contender but it was Art Pellulo and his promotional company who sky-rocketed Russian’s stock and brought him into a championship fight. However, recalling circumstances around the Jacobs fight, it becomes clear that Pirog was considered an opponent for Jacobs by a vast majority of those experts who didn’t bother to watch the tapes of “another horizontal European”; a belief which was seemingly supported by some “Golden Boy” executives who found no easier road for 20-0 New Yorker than to fight an unknown import from Russia. That’s not exactly the triumphant entrance of a new king but rather an Upset of the Year nominee.
Banner Promotions is quite a big promoter but not as powerful as some other major players (as those who handle Sergio Martinez, Kelly Pavlik, Paul Williams, Miguel Cotto and some other marquee names in neighboring weight classes). Having said this, it’s clear that even though they (both Russian and American handlers) put forward their best efforts to secure a major fight for the Russian champion (which comes without a doubt), their abilities aren’t unlimited which is a sad fact for many fans both in Russia and internationally.
Meanwhile, Dmitry is ready to fight anyone of note. “I haven’t changed my life considerably after winning the world title. Actually, I don’t want to become a home champion and to slowly pick up gimmies to retain my belt as many times as possible. My dream is to bring entertainment to Russian and foreign fans and to give them thrillers they deserve. I want to fight on American TV against the best possible opponents. That’s much more interesting than just to be a usual champion, and that is what I want to do and what I plan to do”.
It’s easier said than done, however, as Pirog is also for “blame” regarding his marketability. A tricky 30-year old boxer-puncher, who can give fits to the best middleweights around, isn’t a welcome figure for the elite of 160lb weight class. The Sturm fight has fallen through even though Pirog was ready to fight WBA super champion in his German citadel; Sergio Martinez’s promoter Lou DiBella explicitly stated that the division’s best fighter isn’t interested in clashing against the Russian sensation (which is both a wise choice and the champion’s right), while Kelly Pavlik entered rehab and now goes up north. The other two German champions – Sebastian Zbik and his namesake Sylvester – are guided carefully enough to match them with an upset master even on their home turfs. It looks like Pirog has suddenly become too good for his own good – a risky opponent with a big chance to lose and little fame to get as he is still not a household name across the ocean.
With other champions sitting at home or fighting on major scene against much more lucrative opponents, there was no other way than to look through the WBO ranks in search for suitable challenges for a homecoming. #1 Gennady Martirosyan was left out of considerations (and rightfully so as his promoter “Jab Promotions” suffered a major shakeup recently), while #2 Fernando Guerrero proved to be too expensive to be invited to Russia. #3 Pavlik and #4 Chavez Junior had other plans while #5 Maxim Bursak is promoted by K2 Promotions, a hard operator to deal with (and not so willing to risk their still developing fighter), #6 Matthew Macklin had set his sights on Winky Wright, #7 Daniel Geale is the IBF mandatory challenger, and #8 Daniel Jacobs has already been defeated. Down the list there’s #10 David Lemieux, who being combined with Pirog, can create an appealing and thrilling war. However, the power-punching francophone is scheduled to fight Marco Rubio in the WBC final eliminator soon. Little choice is left.
Team Pirog tried to bring Ishe Smith as a challenger but his name was rejected by the WBO headquarters (even though he looks to be a WAY harder opponent than some other ranked fighters in the list). That shrunk a reasonable choice to #9 Maciel, #11 John Anderson Carvahlo, #14 Peter Mashamaite and #15 Dionisio Miranda; the last three being lucky journeymen with little to no merits, the first being an almost unbeaten prospect. Props go to Titov and Pchelnikov for bringing home the toughest of those in Maciel. The Argentinean fighter looks to be a little step up in class in comparison with Pirog’s recent opposition (aside Jacobs and maybe Jantuah which is to be argued); he also seems to be a durable and awkward to give Pirog some fits.
What's next for Pirog? In the recent talk with this reporter, German Titov indicated #1 compatriot Gennady Martirosyan can be next in June or July if Pirog is successful against Maciel. The St. Petersburg based slugger is a popular figure in northwestern region of Russian and he possesses an entertaining style to fight with but, unfortunately, Russian TV bosses, as always, play possum and give little respect to the sport’s only competing champion. However, Martirosyan is a convenient opponent for Pirog in terms of his style and he is also ranked #1 by the WBO (with a minor title to go with) which can help the Russian champion to get along with his formal responsibilities. The fight can probably be held in China, which will be a funny thing for a battle between two Russian fighters.
“Next it’s an HBO [fight that] we are talking about”, reveals his desire Titov. “We want to get back on American TV in autumn and we shall work hard to do so”. A nice opportunity if the opponent is right. Given aforementioned notes, it’ll be hard for Pirog’s promoters to find a nice opponent for their gem. Two-time WBO champion Paul Williams can be one if he is left with no easier way back to the top or wants to test himself against a deserved opponent. Fernando Guerrero is slowly evolving into a versatile fighter with a large fan-base on the Eastern Coast; his name will undoubtedly be mentioned among others. Potentially the most intriguing variant for Pirog is unification against equally talented and also avoided Kazakh knockout terror and WBA regular champion Gennady Golovkin (20-0, 17 KOs). Both fighters are acquainted with each other with a mutual respect; ex-Soviet fans are also obsessed with such an opportunity; however, a relative obscurity of both fighters (and specifically Golovkin, who has fought his latest bouts on little-known channels and who has never fought in America) can be a spanner in the works.
A short step up for Pirog is here but at thirty years of age he is not a spring chicken (although a quite preserved one) and he needs to jump forward quickly and far to fulfill his dream of becoming not just a champion but a memorable figure to the fans worldwide. The potential is here but only the future will give an answer on whether it can be fully realized.
There’s even more Pirog to go around
This reporter and his trustee Evgueny Solodov entered Pirog’s camp in KITEK to observe Dmitry’s preparations for the upcoming fight with Maciel and to speak with him on camera.
An extended photo set of the champion’s training camp was done by Grigory Stangrit (Allboxing.ru). Edward Romanchuk’s impressions on Pirog (in Russian) in a talk with Alexander Kolesnikov (Akboxing.ru) can be followed by here .
Key fights of Dmitry Pirog’s professional career (11 of 17) can be observed on this reporter’s Pirog Youtube channel .
This reporter thanks his respective partners at Allboxing.ru for help in producing this article and Razzah Ali for putting up some of Pirog’s earlier fights on tap and bringing this reporter’s attention to them.
A bit about the undercard on March 26
In the main co-featured bout of the evening, WBC #20 lightweight boxer-puncher Alisher Rakhimov (21-0, 11 KOs), 33, from Uzbekistan, takes on rugged and hard-hitting plodder Rustam “Mangust” Nugaev (21-5-1, 12 KOs) of Perm, Russia, for a vacant WBO Asia Pacific interim lightweight title. 28-year old Nugaev is a known personality amongst American fans as he scored several big wins in mid and late-00’s, including previously unbeaten Anthony Mora (15-0), Efren Hinojosa (29-2-1), Justin Juuko (43-9-1) and Jose Antonio Izquierdo (17-2-1). Rakhimov, former Uzbek Olympian, had wins over world-ranked Vyacheslav Gusev, Oleg Yefimovich and Stanislav Merdov among many.
Czech Ondrej Pala (28-2, 20 KOs), 26, whose only stoppage loss against world-known Denis Boytsov was cut-induced, faces Ukrainian veteran and former Olympian Alexey Mazikin (16-5-2, 3 KOs), 36, for a vacant WBO European heavyweight title. Pala has wins over former champion Henry Akinwande and prospect Konstantin Airich, while won last “Bigger’s Better” Cyprus installment.
Finally, in the fourth title bout of the night, Kazakh cruiserweight Issa Akberbayev (6-0, 3 KOs), 27, battles Tanzanian Pascal Ndomba (9-2-2, 7 KOs), for a vacant WBC Asian Boxing Council 200lb title.
Two former amateur stars, co-promoted by Titov and Pchelnikov were originally set colossal leaps up in the level of their opposition in non-title eight-rounders. Firstly, 2008 Beijing junior welterweight Olympic champion Felix Diaz (8-0, 5 KOs), 27, of Dominican Republic, was penciled to test his skills against former WBA welterweight champion Yuri Nuzhnenko (30-2-1, 14 KOs), 34, from Ukraine. However, this fight has fallen through on a disagreement between German Titov and Vadim Bukhkalov who represents Yuri interests. Diaz will now face the much easier Andrey Berdyshev (5-0, 1 KO) instead.
Then 2008 Beijing super heavyweight bronze medalist Vyacheslav Glazkov (8-0, 6 KOs), 26, will reportedly (according to “Champion” Ukrainian media agency) fight 31-year old Russian veteran Denis Bakhtov (33-5, 22 KOs), 31. Finally, another former amateur standout out of Dominican Republic, Lennin Casillo (3-0, 2 KOs) collides with local Gennady Maksimov (3-1, 2 KOs), 21, in a four-round light heavyweight contest.
The show will be arranged at DIVS sports arena. Doors are open at 6 PM LT (GMT+5), the first bout is being held at 7 PM. The televised part of the show begins at 10 PM LT. Tickets can be purchased by phone: (343) 270 50 50. Watch Russian version of the trailer here .