Nearly 11 years ago, boxing was Mikhail Varshavski’s savior as he looked to the sport to help him deal with the loss of his mother from leukemia. On Saturday, “Doctor Mike” takes to the ring for the first time as a professional to face UFC veteran Chris Avila on the Jake Paul-Anderson Silva undercard in Glendale, Arizona.
It begs the question, what would mom think about her son, not just a doctor, but one named The Sexiest Doctor Alive by People magazine in 2015, getting into a sanctioned fistfight?
“She would probably hate it, to be honest,” said Varshavski. “I remember I would participate in taekwondo tournaments when I was younger, and she came to watch only one of them, and that was the only one I've ever lost in the first round. (Laughs) She saw me get kicked, she screamed from the audience, and I got all worried about her and forgot about the guy I was fighting. I'm not making that story up. That was in Atlantic City, New Jersey.”
These days, Varshavski makes his living in the Garden State as a primary care physician at Chatham Family Medicine. But it’s his following on social media that has made Doctor Mike a star. And with 4.4 million Instagram followers and 10.2 million subscribers to his YouTube channel, it’s safe to say that he’s not your average doctor. He’s not your average boxer, either, but after a May win over YouTuber iDubbbz in an exhibition bout, he’s going to be throwing punches for pay on pay-per-view.
Why, especially when the 32-year-old doesn’t need the money or the fame?
“I'm not doing this to gain some popularity,” he agrees. “I'm not making a buck because I'm donating my entire fighter pay to the Harlem Boys & Girls Club. It's strictly because I love this. I wanted to challenge myself, I wanted to live to the top of my potential. Thomas (Baldwin), my trainer, who I've been working with for ten years, has been constantly telling me he thinks I have the ability to go as far as I want in the sport, and this was an opportunity that I felt if I didn't take, I would regret it for the rest of my life, so I really wanted to push as hard as possible to try and succeed here.”
It’s a gutsy move, and whatever you think about the “YouTube generation” of boxers, they deserve respect for walking up those four steps into the ring, and in Varshavski’s case, he’s not fighting another celebrity here. Avila, despite his 1-1 pro boxing record, is a legit fighter with 17 pro MMA bouts also to his name, including two in the UFC. So for Varshavski to debut against the Diaz brothers protégé this weekend, that’s a telling sign about where his head is at. He’s in this to test himself, but can he make up for his lack of experience in a year of concentrated boxing training?
“I think it's obviously difficult to gain experience over the course of a year to the level of someone like Chris Avila, but I feel that with my intelligence, with my size - I am taller than Chris Avila, I do have a longer reach, he's coming up in weight, I'm dropping some weight, so I'll hopefully have a little bit of a power advantage – it helps me. We're trying to be as calculated as possible here, but the reality is, no, you cannot make up for a lack of experience, but you can try and put yourself in the best position you can by learning from these greats like Steve Frank and Thomas Baldwin, my main trainer, because these guys have been there.”
Hardcore fight fans will remember the Guyana-born Frank for challenging for Bernard Hopkins’ middleweight title in 1996. That fight didn’t go Frank’s way, but in personal experience working with the former contender, he knows the sport and all its subtleties, which will certainly aid in Varshavski’s quest to announce his arrival to the boxing world in a big way if he can translate those teachings to his hands on fight night. And as the bout draws closer, Varshavski is more than ready to get this started.
“I got the excited butterflies,” he said during our October 20 interview. “Yesterday was my last hard sparring session, and I felt like it was my best performance. Everything my training team did to get me ready has been perfect, it seems, because they timed everything to perfection, my weight's exactly where it needs to be, so it's like those butterflies of let's get out there and do the thing.”
Yes, it’s 2022, and we’re talking about Doctor Mike versus Chris Avila instead of Terence Crawford versus Errol Spence, Ryan Garcia vs Gervonta Davis, or Tyson Fury versus Anthony Joshua. Is it unfortunate? Not really, because as much as we want those fights with the biggest names in the sport, if they won’t fight each other, there are those willing to step up and do it. And even the curmudgeons are starting to grudgingly accept the new normal in boxing.
“I think it's become a bigger emphasis on entertainment,” said Varshavski. “So right now, the state of boxing is about protecting that undefeated record, trying to make sure that you keep all the belts, because that's how you get the money fights. But with these YouTubers and non-pro boxers in the past coming in, it kind of makes it a more entertaining sport where it's not all about world championships and protecting your undefeated record and more about putting on a good show. And I think that's a good place for boxing to go because otherwise, what happens is, you get your Top Ten fighters making good sums of money, and then everyone else is struggling to get some breadcrumbs. But now the YouTubers are coming in and bringing more attention to the sport. Even in my boxing gym, they've told me the impact YouTube boxing has had on their business, where people that they've never expected to have an interest in boxing are coming in and asking to take lessons, and I love that.”
The Russian-born Varshavski is someone who is hard to root against, despite the fact that he’s better looking and more popular than most of us – oh yeah, and richer. Why? Because despite all these reasons not to fight, he wants to, and he’s willing to do the work and put it all on the line to reach his goals. What goals might you ask? To see just how far his fists and wits will take him.
“I thought if we wouldn't get this fight or a fight of a serious nature, there was a conversation with my trainer to reach out to some promotional companies and literally just start working the circuit and working it up on our own without getting big-time fights and proving to people that we can hang in the ring,” Varshavski said. “So this is a phenomenal opportunity and I'm gonna make the most of it and we'll see what the future holds. I'm not an expert in boxing by any means, but I consider my trainers to be, and they're telling me that they can see me going past this into a bigger future, and I'm gonna go ahead and put my trust in them.”