By Alexey Sukachev
Of all the Russian fighters who have challenged world champions (or plan to do so in the near future), Evgeny Gradovich (15-0, 8 KOs) is one of the most mysterious. Having been living in Russia since his birth, he never fought as a pro in his Homeland.
Gradovich, 26, has been fighting overseas since 2010, and tonight, less than three years into his career of a prizefighter, he will have a chance for ultimate glory. The IBF #11 ranked featherweight goes after highly regarded champion Billy Dib (35-1, 21 KOs) of Australia, who has been on a steady ascent since his only professional loss more than four years ago.
Gradovich filled in a void as Dib, one year his senior, experienced huge problems in finding an opponent. First off was Jayson Velez, as negotiations between the respected parties were spoiled with the promotional beef between his guider 50 Cent and Floyd Mayweather Jr. Then IBF #1 ranked Argentinean Mauricio Javier Munoz chose to step away from his lifetime opportunity. And, finally, the Cuban expatriate Luis Franco (who had previously lost to Munoz in a controversial fashion) withdrew from the bout under quite scandalous circumstances.
Unlike Munoz or Franco, Gradovich did little thinking before nodding his head in agreement. The Russian fighter, who has never fought even for minor belts and has been showcased just twice in scheduled ten-rounders (against Francisco Reyes – UD 10, and Francisco Leal – TKO 10), will come into the ring as a huge underdog but it doesn’t trick him a bit.
In his exclusive interview with BoxingScene.com the Arapahoe-based fighter spoke about his past, his present and his future.
- Your fight against the Australian champion has come as a total surprise for the Russian boxing fans. Tell us the story.
- I was on vacation in Russia and came back in America on January 28. A week after I was dialed up by manager Egis Klimas. He told me of this great chance. “You can fight for a world crown, if you wish, and we can make it pretty soon”, he said. I took a couple of days to think about this opportunity. I was just two days into my training camp, so there were obvious misgivings. But, at the end of the day, this is a chance of a lifetime. There are throngs of fighters, who have never been given one. And I decided to risk. The next day the fight was done.
- You have just 15 fights as a pro; you have been fighting in paid ranks for less than two years; you have taken part in ten-rounders just twice. Is this enough to challenge an accomplished fighter for his belt? Are you sure you are up for the task?
- It’s an interesting question, which I want to answer on. I don’t think I’m that inexperienced. I think if you are ready mentally (and I am!) you can easily go ten round or twelve rounds or fifteen rounds, or whatever number you want. It’s not about you physical shape – and I don’t mean I’m not shaping myself up – but more about your psychological state.
- Billy Dib was previously scheduled to fight Luis Franco of Cuba but the latter withdrew from the title fight. There was much speculation regarding the certain reason, but there were quotes and rumors, that the Cuban contender was very unhappy to fight the IBF champion for $20,000. I assume you aren’t paid much more… Does the purse mean anything for you in this particular clash?
- No, in this fight it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a chance to become a recognized champion of the world, that why I’m ready to go after it even without getting anything paid to me. If I become a champion, nice purses will certainly follow.
- Have you seen Billy Dib’s tapes? What are his strengths and his weaknesses?
- Of course I have seen him fighting. He is a good boxer, a competent champion. I wouldn’t name his strong or weak sides. This will be evident only during and after the fight, when everything is settled down inside the ropes.
- Whom have you been training with for the Dib fight?
- I have been preparing for the fight at La Colonia Youth Boxing Club in Oxnard, California, under the chief tutelage of Roberto Garcia, the best trainer in the world. It’s like a family there. You are living there, you are preparing for the challenges there, and you are standing in pairs there also. I have no problems, finding nice foes in Oxnard.
- Brandon Rios is one of the most notable Garcia’s charges. He is a bit bigger than you are but, nevertheless, have you taken him on in the gym?
- No, actually, you are right – he is too big for me. He is way too large even for his former weight class (lightweight). But I did fight Mikey Garcia and Nonito Donaire in the gym. Both are class acts and a great school for young boxers and starting pros.
- What is your plan for the Dib fight?
- Well-well-well (chuckles). Let it be our small secret.
- Tell me more about your first steps in boxing. Where and when have you started to fight?
- I was born in Igrim, a small borough in Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug, one of the northern regions of Russia. Not much to do there and I started to learn my fistic lessons at the age of 11. Actually, I wished to become a soccer star, but there was no team to train with. So I started from lacing the gloves up and soon I’ve got mixed up with the game and linked with it forever. Then there were amateur competitions. I have come up as far as to be the Russian national team alternate before the 2007 Chicago World Championship. Unfortunately, I have nobody to back me up, and without a developed support system you can’t go all the way in Russian amateur boxing.
- How have you made a turn to the prizefighting?
- I owe much to Sergey Kovalev. In 2010 I have won the Oil Nations’ Cup. Soon I was approached by Sergey, who helped me to get acquainted with Egis (Klimas), and my road to the March 1 title fight started.
- Cutting in… Igrim isn’t too far from Beryozovo, a native city of another Russian prizefighter Ruslan Provodnikov. Ruslan will have a big challenge in front of him on March 16, when he faces welterweight mastermind Timothy Bradley in a huge step-up. How do you like his chances?
- Chances are always there. Ruslan is a hard hitter. I won't say that he has only a puncher’s chance. I think he can really surprise Bradley with his power – even enough to take the title from him.
- A day after you, another boxer from not so far away, one who competes in your weight class – Vyacheslav Gusev (20-2, 5 KOs) – will fight against Gary Russell Jr. (21-0, 13 KOs) What are his chances?
- I don’t know him personally but I’ve seen him a couple of times. He is a good, technically sound fighter. I think he will give fits to Gary Russell Jr. This kid (Russell Jr.), he does have a punch. But he is way overrated. Being a US Olympian doesn’t automatically mean you will be a star in pro boxing. Russell Jr. has much left to prove, and I think he has to work very hard if he wants to overcome Gusev.
- Coming back to you, why have you chosen to go after Sergey and join him in America, and in not in Russia, Germany or Japan?
- I was planning to start my career in Russia. But I asked Sergey, a good buddy of mine from the amateur days, when we competed for the same regional team, and he advised me to give a try in America. Kovalev has already been fighting overseas for about half a year. I gave him some of my tapes; he showed them to Egis, and soon I’ve found myself on board the plane.
- Was your style more suitable for pros than for amateurs, when you were fighting in Russia?
- My coach back there in Russia, he was a real old-school type of trainer. He was working it rough. You should have been in the tip-top shape and supremely conditioned every here and now. Hands up, guard is on, and pressing all the time. That is a part of the pro game, so I have just made some adjustments and went on to fight in America.
- Your nickname is “Mexican Russian”. Does it have something to do with your aggressive style of fighting, or have you beaten so many Mexicans during your rise in the recent years, that you have been given such a moniker?
- It was about a year ago, when that nickname had been brought up. I’m fighting fiercely, trying to break my opponents. That’s a Mexican style. One of the trainer in the gym, he called me “Mexican Russian”, and from that moment on I am the Mexican Russian!... So I decided to accept it and to use when I enter the ring.
- Of all the pro fights, you have been involved in, what was the most important or memorable?
- Every bout is very important for me. You should be fully determined and pumped up of every single opponent. There were weak boxers, some were professional losers but I remember tough ten-rounders, eight-rounders and even six-rounders. I don’t want to point out a single bout. I was in many hard fights.
- Are you a one-punch knockout artist?
- Definitely, I’m not. I don’t look for a single blow to end the contest. That is not what I’m about. I’m a combinational boxer-puncher. I used to fire off multiple shots and I used to overwhelm my opponent, but I cannot say I possess a killer punch. I’m not in the same league with Sergey Kovalev (laughs).
- Have you ever been knocked down?
- No, God has been merciful to me.
- Do you live in America, or do you travel from Russia for each of your encounters?
- Actually, I live in Russia, in Tomsk with my wife and my eight-month daughter. For the moment, I live in both countries. I spend four to six months in the States, training and fighting here, then I go back to my family and rest there for another two or three months. It’s not very convenient. I want to review this question seriously right after the Dib fight.
- Will your family join you to support the father during the upcoming championship match-up?
- No, I shall not allow it to happen. My wife is so concerned about each of my fights; she just cannot watch any of them. It’s a hard challenge for her, and I don’t want her to go through this yet another time.
- Will you be supported by any personal fans during the Dib fight?
- I don’t have any yet. I’m usually supported by local fans and aficionados of Russian origin in the cities, I’m fighting in. But this time I’ll perform in Mashantucket, Connecticut, and there will be no fans from the West shore. I hope my former compatriots from the Big Apple and neighboring areas will help me, and will make a travel to root for me. I’m glad and I’ll appreciate everyone, who will support me on March 1.
- Tell me about your manager Egis Klimas.
- He is from Lithuania, and he has recently brought up a pair of fighters – one from Lithuania (Donatas Bondarevas) and one from Uzbekistan – we live in the same hotel now. Egis is a wonderful man. He does his best to protect his fighters from the issues outside the ring. When you are with Klimas, you can concentrate solely on boxing, and that’s very important.
- Has America surprised you in one way or the other?
- Surely. The United States is a different country with a totally different culture and mentality. But I love Russia. As Americans would say: “East or West but the home is best”. My home is in Russia.
- Sergey Kovalev, who has recently got even more accolades by annihilating Gabe Campillo, fought in Russia twice (one of his wins being marred by a tragic death of his opponent Roman Simakov). What is about you? Will you consider fighting at home?
- Had I recognized such an opportunity, I would have certainly come after it. But no, there were no offers for me. There were offers to fight in Australia but that opportunity has also passed by.
- Will Sergey Kovalev work your corner on March 1?
- No, he won’t. Sergey will definitely be at ringside but he will support me from the audience, not from the corner. I’ll be guided by Roberto Garcia, and all of my teammates, who are able to fly over to the opposite corner of the States, will be at hand too. Brandon (Rios) won’t be there just because he is currently in tense preparations for his March 30 bout against Mike Alvarado. Had the fight been in SoCal, there would have been even more teammates and their men to root for me.
- Are you signed by Top Rank?
- Yes, I am. I haven’t been presented to Bob Arum personally but my manager had a long talk with him.
- You are fighting in a difficult weight class for Russian fa…
- (Cutting in)… Sorry, but I would like to disagree with you completely. I’m fighting in a great division. Featherweight is on the run now. So many great fights, so many fierce warriors, so many amazing boxers; the division thrives! Look at Nonito (Donaire). How do you not love these fighters?!
- What is your natural weight?
- As an amateur I boxed as high as at 132 pounds. However, I don’t gain more than 11-12 pounds before the fights. I don’t like to eat much. When I’m over it, I just cannot walk around. I feel myself bad then, so I try to come back to the gym as soon as possible.
- Tell me of the stars you have been fighting with in your amateur days.
- Lots of them. I was in the camp with our national team in Kislovodsk, and that was a fascinating experience. I fought or stood in pairs with Albert Selimov (2007 world champion) and Alexey Tischenko (2004 and 2008 Olympic gold medalist) – that’s huge!
- You are considered a big underdog in the Dib fight. Will it affect you in what direction will it move you?
- A good question it is. Yes, I’m an underdog. No, I don’t feel any additional pressure. I have worked hard for years to receive this chance, and I won’t let it flow away.
- Ending our conversation, please, give your message to the fans and all those, involved in your career.
- I want to thank everyone for their continuous support. I want to wish everyone much health and wealth. Please, take up the sports and you will be generously paid off! And don’t forget to tune up you TV sets to watch me fighting on March 1!
Billy Dib vs. Evgeny Gradovich fight will headline a big night of boxing, co-promoted by Lou DiBella and Curtis Jackson, also known as the 50 Cent, at MGM Grand at Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut. The show will be aired live by ESPN 2 as a part of their Friday Night Fights, and also in Russia – by Russia 2 TV Channel. The broadcast starts at 9 PM LT.