By Thomas Gerbasi
Ask Iago Kiladze how he happened to settle in Los Angeles, and his answer is as to the point as you can get.
“I can get things here that I could not get there to go further in boxing,” he said through his sister and translator, Nino.
“There” is both his native Georgia and the place where he spent nearly a decade of his life, Ukraine. And though it may be 55 degrees and rainy in LA when we spoke on Tuesday, most days there are far removed from those in Europe, where he describes the January weather as, “Like New York.”
That’s a good thing, as the 31-year-old heavyweight will be in NYC next week, leading up to his Jan. 20 showdown with unbeaten Adam Kownacki. It’s his second consecutive bout in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and third overall in the Big Apple, but despite reports to the contrary, he never made his home in Kings County, moving from Ukraine to LA in April 2016.
Since then, life has been quite different for the 26-1 (18 KOs) Kiladze, who fought most of his career at cruiserweight. But just before his move to the U.S., a former heavyweight of some notoriety gave him some advice that he took to heart and capitalized on.
“The reason why I’m in the heavyweight division now is because of Klitschko,” he said of the recently retired former heavyweight champion, Wladimir. “He said I should move up and start fighting as a heavyweight.”
Last year, Kiladze – formerly trained by Joe Goossen and now working with Freddie Roach – made his first moves among the big boys, knocking out Byron Polley in a single round and Pedro Rodriguez in two frames. But his greatest education isn’t coming on fight night, but in the gym, where the list of names he has worked with includes Klitschko, Anthony Joshua, Murat Gassiev and Denis Lebedev, among others.
“I learned a lot,” he said. “They’re all different and I get from each of them something to get me more ready for my fights and to be in good shape.”
Yet he picked up even more from being around Klitschko, where every fight was not just a fight, but an event.
“Yes, of course,” Kiladze agrees. “Watching Klitschko fighting and being next to him, I got a lot of experience and learned a lot.”
And made a life change, one that wasn’t as foreign to him as you might think, given he already made a major move away from his family just out of his teen years.
“He moved to Ukraine when he was 20,” said Nino. “He used to live in Ukraine alone without family.”
These days, things are different, as his wife and sister are here in the States with him. His parents and other siblings are still in Georgia, but when asked if such a move was necessary for him to make it big in the fight game, he answers “yes” without hesitation.
Next week’s bout will go a long way in determining whether he’s on the fast track or a slow one to a world title fight. Already ranked 15th in the IBF, Kiladze will be on a highly-publicized show against the WBC’s 13th ranked contender, Kownacki, who crashed the ratings in July of last year when he wrecked former world title challenger Artur Szpilka in four rounds. The Poland native has a large following in the NYC area as well, thrusting Kiladze into the lion’s den of Barclays Center. But he’s unconcerned.
“I just watched his last two fights,” he said of his foe. “I know that I will win. I have more experience than Adam, more pro and amateur fights, and I’ve sparred with more famous guys than Adam.”
So is a win over Kownacki the ticket to move closer to a world title opportunity in 2018?
“I want to, but the promoter makes the decision about who I’m gonna fight with,” Kiladze said. “This is why I’m taking this fight, to make sure I show who I am so I can get to (Deontay) Wilder and Joshua.”