By Thomas Gerbasi
Contrary to popular belief, fighters aren’t made in the ring or the gym. Instead, that die is cast way before the gloves are laced up and mouthpieces are in. In the case of light heavyweight up and comer Ismayl Sillakh, his path was set on the streets of Zaporozhye, the city in southeastern Ukraine where he was born to a Ukrainian mother and West African father.
Favoring his father, a Sierra Leone native, Sillakh’s skin tone didn’t match that of most of his peers in the former Soviet Union, and racial slurs soon became a daily occurrence. Making matters worse was that his father traveled to England and left the family, which included Sillakh’s older and younger brother, when the future contender was just five. Soon, every day turned into a fight.
“My mother stayed alone with us three boys, and it was tough,” Sillakh told BoxingScene. “We were always fighting in the streets because kids would be like ‘hey n****r,’ and we would fight every day. Maybe this is why I went to boxing because I was fighting every day and my mother needed to put my energy in another way.”
It was a decision no one, save his future opponents, regretted. In the gym by the age of seven, Sillakh evolved into a top flight amateur, reportedly winning over 300 bouts, as well as a Silver medal in the 2005 World Championships. It was a love affair that started when he was young, through the power of video and local competitions, and still continues to this day.
“I always looked at Muhammad Ali tapes and I liked his style,” said Sillakh. “And I always looked at the top guys like Roy Jones too.”
What, a Ukrainian and no Klitschkos?
“I do like the Klitschkos too,” he said of the most accomplished Ukrainian boxers on the planet. “I like the Klitschkos because they’re pretty good boxers and good businessmen and smart guys.”
Sillakh may be the next in line to follow in their footsteps, and to prove that he was not only a good fighter, but a good businessman as well, he decided that the next step for him after his amateur career was over wasn’t to stay in Europe, but to make the trip to the United States. It was a decision that didn’t sit too well with his family.
“Everybody who was in Ukraine and Russia were scared for me to go to the States,” said Sillakh, who settled in Southern California in 2008. “My family said ‘no, don’t go, everybody lies, it’s a mistake.’ (Laughs) But I want to be a good champion, I want to be famous and rich, and it’s possible in the States. So I came to the United States to make my American Dream come true.”
The affable 26-year old laughs again. He’s still getting accustomed to English, but he’s got an affable personality and an evident charisma in and out of the ring, both of which bode well for his future success. But the last three years haven’t been ones for him to skate by on his natural talent, not if he’s going to reach that American Dream. There’s been plenty of work to be done, and he’s willingly taken it all on.
“Everything is different here,” he admits. “It’s a different world – food, language, boxing. But I came to the States because it was the Mecca of boxing. Everything here is good – sparring partners, trainers. That’s why I started my pro career here.”
Working with Shadeed Suluki, best remembered for his time with former heavyweight champion Lamon Brewster, Sillakh has taken the best parts of his amateur upbringing – a strong jab and good fundamentals – and he’s added in slickness, a good variety of punches, including an impressive body attack, and the type of improvisational flair shared by his childhood heroes Jones (who is now his promoter under the Square Ring banner) and Ali, a legend Suluki has said Sillakh reminds him of. High praise, and maybe even too much for a young boxer to handle, but when asked about such comments, the Ukrainian handles the query with ease.
“I’m not like Muhammad Ali,” he said. “He (Suluki) just likes how I move. I’m Ismayl Sillakh. (Laughs) Muhammad Ali is Muhammad Ali.”
And though this might ride high on the blasphemy meter as well for a boxer just 17 fights into his pro career, Sillakh’s lanky frame, offensive ease, and solid power can provide glimpses of Thomas Hearns at times, save the one punch stopping ability. When this is mentioned, Sillakh accepts the compliment humbly, but makes it clear that he is still a work in progress, one that basically started from scratch when he set foot in the United States.
“I changed everything,” he said. “Professional boxing is different from training for amateur boxing. It’s a different sport. Here with Shadeed, he changed my style and every day I take something new. Now my technique is good, but I’m still growing up. Maybe in five more years I’ll be like Thomas Hearns or Sugar Ray Leonard, but not now.”
What Sillakh will admit to being ready for is a bout with any of the men currently holding championship belts at 175 pounds. It’s a bold jolt of confidence from someone whose most notable wins have come over David Whittom (TKO6), Daniel Judah (TKO2), Rayco Saunders (W10), and 8-0 Cuban Yordanis Despaigne (W10), but what doesn’t show up on paper is how the NABF champion’s peers apparently feel about him.
In July, a WBC-ordered tournament to determine a mandatory challenger that included Sillakh, Jean Pascal, Zsolt Erdei, and Chris Henry was basically ignored by all involved except Sillakh. Then the sanctioning body again put Sillakh in the title mix last week by mandating Pascal to fight him for that mandatory slot, but the Canadian’s team has already gone on the offensive, claiming that Sillakh doesn’t bring anything to the table in terms of name recognition. It’s the classic case of not being able to get a job because of lack of experience, but you’re unable to get experience without a job. And Sillakh is stuck in no man’s land.
“I want to fight, but if Jean Pascal’s people don’t want to fight me, it will be bad for me and boxing,” he said, noting that he isn’t flattered by opponents’ reluctance to face him. “It’s not a compliment because if they want me to prove my abilities, then go into the ring with me and fight. I don’t understand why they don’t want to fight.”
Maybe it’s because of his abilities. He laughs.
“If I’m not good, this is good for him then; it’s an easy fight.”
Sillakh knows that he’s not an easy fight for Pascal or for a Chad Dawson, Beibut Shumenov, Tavoris Cloud, or Nathan Cleverly. He also knows that despite his lack of experience at the elite level of the game, he has the ability to take a belt – now.
“I’m ready. The WBC and Mr. Jose Sulaiman said that they need new names and new champions, so I’m here and I’m ready to be a champion.”
He’s not too picky about how he gets there either, confidently claiming that a fight with Pascal would be a good one for him.
“Pascal is a pretty good fighter,” said Sillakh of the former champion who has become box office gold in Canada. “We need good judges, but I think maybe I’ll just knock him out because he’s too wild.”
As for the next step in the journey, with a WBC-ordered rematch between Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson still up in the air and Hopkins not likely to go for anything but marquee matchups from here on out, Sillakh wouldn’t mind throwing hands with “Bad Chad” either.
“I like southpaws,” smiles Sillakh, something you never expect to hear from any boxer. “Dawson is a good, good boxer, but he’s not a superstar. He’s not a Roy Jones or Oscar De La Hoya. He’s a good boxer, that’s it. And there’s no problem to beat him.”
Those are fighting words from a fighter, one who didn’t pick up that mindset from a gym or from tapes. He can thank Zaporozhye for that. And in 2012 he plans on showing the world just how good he can be.
“I’m waiting for my opportunity to show my abilities,” said Sillakh. “People want to see the type of performance I can give.”