By Jake Donovan
Denis Grachev is in a familiar place this weekend, and in more ways than one.
The Russian export heads to Monte Carlo for the second time in as many fights. Awaiting him is Edwin Rodriguez, yet another in a growing list of unbeaten fighters who have agreed to take on Grachev.
Rodriguez didn’t have much of a choice in the matter; he and Grachev both signed up for the same four-man “Million Dollar Super Four” tournament. There was a great likelihood that Saturday’s main event would be the eventual outcome from their preliminary fights in March.
Grachev was the only fighter among the four-man bracket to not boast an unbeaten record, which quite frankly is his preference. It gives him the chance to make sure nobody is undefeated by the time he’s done with them.
“I take everyone seriously, but I take an undefeated contender more serious,” Grachev admits. The rising contender has plenty of experience in that field – Rodriguez marks his fifth unbeaten opponent within his last seven fights, a span covering just 2 ½ years.
Grachev (13-1-1, 8KO) was unbeaten himself for three of those fights, the first of which came in January 2011. A majority decision win over Azea Augustama – 9-0 at the time – flew way under the radar, given the relative obscurity of both fighters. The bout took place in Miami, though off-TV.
The ESPN2 cameras were rolling in another part of Florida on that same evening – fittingly enough, with Rodriguez featured on the broadcast as he scored a decision win over Aaron Pryor Jr. Rodriguez was red-hot at the time, enjoying a breakout campaign in 2010 and capturing the attention of network brass on several platforms.
The same could not be said of Grachev, a former kickboxer who boxed in relative anonymity in his adopted hometown of San Diego and various other parts of California before expanding his horizons.
It took a while for Grachev to catch on beyond his immediate region, though not for a lack of trying. A second straight fight against an unbeaten opponent came on short notice, when Saul Duran dropped out late into the promotion for a fight with 11-0 Vladine Biosse. Grachev had no qualms about traveling to New England to knock out the house fighter in four rounds at Foxwoods, though once again without the benefit of the cameras rolling.
That opportunity finally changed for him last April, though once again as the perceived B-side of the promotion. For the first seven or so rounds against highly touted Ismayl Sillakh, the oddsmakers and critics were proven accurate. Grachev – fighting on ESPN2 for the first time in his young career – was dropped early and miserably behind against an undefeated light heavyweight who was being groomed for a future title shot.
Then everything miserably changed for said contender in the eighth. A right hand permanently turned the tide for Grachev, who had Sillakh badly hurt and went for broke before referee Vic Drakulich came in to rescue the battered contender.
Never again would Grachev fly under anyone’s radar. The 30-year old parlayed the career-changing win into a lucrative opportunity against Lucian Bute, who was on the rebound following the first loss of his career after a five-round thrashing at the hands of Carl Froch.
Grachev didn’t need the motivation of another unbeaten fighter in front of him. Claiming a name like Bute was reward enough.
“I knew Bute was a good fighter. I was ready for him,” Grachev recalls of the lead-up to their fight last November.
Many expressed concern over the bout being too much too soon – Bute was a few months removed from a lengthy stat as a super middleweight titlist, while Grachev was only five years and 13 fights into his pro career.
What many left out of the equation was his rich fighting background and competitive spirit.
“The number of fights doesn’t mean as much as experience” Grachev said at the time. “I have experience in Muay Thai, mixed martial arts and boxing. I’m ready for this fight.”
Grachev ultimately came up short, but gave Bute all he could possibly handle. It wasn’t enough to remain unbeaten, but served as self-confirmation that he was ready for the next level.
“I knew for (certain) that I am a world championship fighter after the Lucian Bute fight,” Grachev says. “I always believed it about myself, but I had even more confidence after that fight.”
His team had enough confidence to enlist him in the four-man tournament being planned in Monte Carlo. The upside is tremendous – the winner gets the favorable end of a 60/40 split of the $1 million pot at stake, plus will also be sold as a viable contender for lineal super middleweight king Andre Ward, who is in dire need of a stiff challenge these days.
There was no concern whatsoever about his draw for the opening round of the contest, taking on former light heavyweight king Zsolt Erdei.
“I was invited to the tournament and had the best opponent,” Grachev fondly recalled. “I told them I would beat Zsolt Erdei. I did.”
He also had the opportunity to share the card with current middleweight titlist Gennady Golovkin, who scored one the year’s most frightening knockouts with a three-round drilling of Nobuhiro Ishida.
Grachev considers Golovkin a friend, a bond which grew stronger during their most recent training camp spent together in preparation for their respective fights. Golovkin once again left the boxing world buzzing following a three-round destruction of the normally durable Matthew Macklin.
After spending a considerable amount of time in Big Bear with the Kazakh puncher, Grachev wasn’t at all surprised by the final result. His trip to hell – otherwise known as sparring sessions with the unbeaten knockout artist – also leaves him with no fear of Rodriguez or really anyone else.
“Gennady is hard and tough. Training with him gave me a lot of confidence. He hits HARD! Nobody can hit me harder,” Grachev believes, though not believing the same can be said of Rodriguez, or anything he has yet to experience in his career.
“I’m going to apply a lot of pressure and hit him hard,” Grachev insists. “Edwin is a tough fighter, but he has never fought anyone tougher than him.”
Whether or not that statement is true is one that only Rodriguez can answer. What can be confirmed is the Dominican’s similar experience in dealing with unbeaten fighters – three of his last four wins have come against fighters with perfect records.
However, it’s worth noting that he was heavily favored to win all of them. He didn’t exactly light the world on fire in his Monte Carlo preliminary bout in March, scoring a decision win over Ezequiel Maderna in an ugly foul-filled affair to secure his spot in the Super Four finals.
With Erdei and Maderna suffering losses in the mini-tourney, Rodriguez remains the last unbeaten fighter in Grachev’s immediate path. With an extra $200,000 at stake in today’s main event (the winner gets $600,000, the loser $400,000), the career spoiler has all the motivation in the world to come out on top.
But more so than the extra pocket change, Grachev prefers a future where nobody in any division in which he plans to compete can boast an unbeaten record. The mere sight of an “0” in the loss column of any present or potential opponent prompts the Russian to live up to his ‘Drago’s Son’ moniker.
“I… must… break… them… all,” Grachev deadpans. The line may be shtick, but the resume is all the proof you need that it’s become his mission statement.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox