It was tough to tell who was having more fun: WBA Light Heavyweight World Champion Dmitry Bivol (12-0, 10 KOs), or the two dozen teens who met with him and watched him train at the Legendz Gym on Tuesday, February 20.
When Bivol learned about the partnership between gym owner Roger Ruiz and the Anaheim, California based "Faith Fighters International" youth organization, which teaches kids to use faith and sports to overcome personal obstacles, it reminded him of his own youth, and his own young children.
"When I heard about this, I thought about what I've been through, and how I got to where I am today ... Roger and Legendz Boxing told us about this organization, and the fact there are these kids coming in to train. We talked about it ... part of giving back is supporting a lot of these kids and giving them the opportunity."
Many of the teens live in foster care or group homes, and others have mental or physical challenges. Each received an invitation to watch Bivol train, and then meet and talk with him personally. Bivol presented every single participant with a set of signed boxing gloves provided by Everlast, and posed for numerous photos.
Even more valuable was the time Bivol spent with each teen, fitting the gloves and encouraging them to throw some punches at the formidable world champion. The smiles and laughter flew as fast as the fists.
Faith Fighters International Executive Director Kenya Lawson said Bivol's own personal story fits in perfectly with their mission. "Sports has really helped him, not only him but his entire family, create a whole different type of legacy. And that's what sports does.
"We want people to understand that these kids are really fighting for something greater than themselves. Through sports applications we can help these kids understand just what is possible if they stay grounded and believe in something greater than themselves," said Lawson.
Bivol understands. "I know a lot of people, a lot of friends actually, that have changed their lives due to sport, and due to boxing specifically. It has affected their life in a very positive way. That's why I like to tell people outside the sport, if they have the time, if they have the opportunity to spend time in boxing or other sports, it will definitely affect them and leave something useful for them in their entire life," Bivol explained.
Bivol's open nature and genuine encouragement transcended any language barriers. Despite their troubled backgrounds, the teens naturally gravitated to the warmth of the fearsome Russian champion who let them know he understood their struggles.
"I'm very happy that everybody who has taken part in organizing this event took the time to give some of the kids here the opportunity to take a look at the training, and see how I train. Maybe they will find the motivation to come here again and train, or do whatever they like in sports ... Boxing could be one of them," said Bivol.
Turning to the kids, Bivol told them in translated Russian, "Because I think that it will affect you guys, and it's a good way to find something for yourself that, really, you can relate to and be loyal, and maybe find a new outlet from it.
"It's important to consider that sometimes at the gym, you could meet the most loyal and closest people that you have. It builds a connection and a network ... You don't have to be a professional, you know, to become a champion."
Lawson of Faith Fighters says it's not enough to be a gifted athlete without good character. "You have to do what he's (Bivol) doing, you have to give back. That's super, super important to us. So to partner up with him, and Main Events, and all these wonderful organizations, that not only believe in winning, but believe in giving back. It's just a really big thing for us."
Bivol intends to continue his relationship with Faith Fighters International, providing his time and support on an ongoing basis. Bivol issued a standing invitation to the program participants to join him on sparring days when training for a fight, a rare privilege in boxing. "I don't like a crowd when I'm training," said Bivol with a smile. "But if people are around me to come here on training day and watch (from your group), that will be a pleasure for me."
For more information about Faith Fighters International: