By Keith Idec
Igor Mikhalkin nearly quit boxing in the spring of 2016.
The Russian light heavyweight was just 30 years old and had lost only once as a pro. But the European Boxing Union suspended Mikhalkin for two years because he tested positive for meldonium, which was added the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances earlier that year.
The suspension cost Mikhalkin the EBU light heavyweight championship and any realistic shot he had then at fighting for a world title. Mikhalkin had an infant son, Makar, and no source of income other than boxing.
Seven months into that suspension, however, the EBU lifted Mikhalkin’s ban because it accepted his explanation for why meldonium remained in his system after WADA prohibited its use in January 2016. Mikhalkin admits taking meldonium, which was used by numerous Russian athletes, including former WBA heavyweight champion Alexander Povetkin and tennis star Maria Sharapova, to improve stamina by increasing blood flow and delivering more oxygen to muscle tissue.
“At one point, meldonium wasn’t forbidden,” Mikhalkin told BoxingScene.com through a translator. “I was taking it at that time. When they announced that it was a forbidden substance, they tested me for it and said it was present in my system. When they did the re-test, they said maybe I still had it in my system because I took it a long time ago. That’s when they allowed me to box again. They said it was probably just the remnants of what I used to take when the substance was allowed.”
If Mikhalkin’s suspension wasn’t shortened, he’d still be banned from boxing today. Instead, the unknown southpaw is preparing for by far the biggest opportunity of his 10-year pro career, a shot at WBO light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev.
Mikhalkin (21-1, 9 KOs), the IBO 175-pound champ, will challenge Kovalev (31-2-1, 27 KOs) in the main event of an HBO “World Championship Boxing” doubleheader March 3 in The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Most Internet sports books list the hard-hitting Kovalev as a 20-1 favorite over Mikhalkin, but based on the precarious position he occupied during his suspension, Mikhalkin is extremely thankful for this potentially career-changing opportunity.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me,” Mikhalkin said. “This is a great opportunity to fight such a great fighter. That’s been a huge motivation to train even harder, even though I always train hard for all of my fights. But this is a whole different level and a whole different level of training because of how big this fight is.
“This would be huge, to beat the best fighter at this moment in the light heavyweight division in the ‘Mecca of Boxing,’ in New York City, Madison Square Garden. I’m not well-known, but I’m getting to fight a dangerous opponent and a very popular opponent, with lots of fans. A lot of people know him, so beating him would change everything in my life. I’m very excited about this opportunity to become much more of a known fighter.”
Boxing fans and media in the United States aren’t all that familiar with Mikhalkin, but Kovalev knows him well. They were amateur teammates in Russia and have known each other since they were teenagers.
Even though they fought in the same weight class as amateurs, Kovalev, 34, and Mikhalkin, 32, never sparred against each other. That’s primarily because they lived so far apart – Kovalev in Kopeysk (in western Russia) and Mikhalkin in Irkutsk (in eastern Siberia) – and typically trained at different gyms.
When they were amateurs, Mihalkin didn’t think about boxing Kovalev once they turned pro because he never envisioned that they’d reach the elite level of the sport. It wasn’t even until Mikhalkin won the IBO title last year, according to Mikhalkin, that he began thinking that they’d fight.
“Back then, when we were amateurs, I didn’t pay it much mind,” Mikhalkin said. “I knew that he was a hard worker. As a professional, his work ethic didn’t change much. Sergey’s style didn’t change much. I believe all of that was put in him as an amateur and obviously he got to the level he’s at because of what happened when we were training as amateurs.
“Back then, I couldn’t have imagined that somebody from Russia would get to such heights. It wasn’t something we were thinking about back then. We were just making sure that we trained hard, all of us, and what happened, happened.”
While Kovalev has made millions of dollars and appeared on HBO or HBO Pay-Per-View 12 times since August 2013, Mikhalkin has honed his craft essentially in anonymity.
He has won 10 straight fights since dropping a 10-round unanimous decision to Poland’s Aleksy Kuziemski (23-5, 7 KOs) in May 2010. Mikhalkin’s unanimous-decision victory over previously unbeaten South African Thomas Oosthuizen (27-1-2, 16 KOs), which won him the IBO light heavyweight title May 19, is the most noteworthy win of his career.
Though Kovalev’s accomplishments dwarf what Mikhalkin has done as a professional, Mikhalkin is certain his powerful opponent hasn’t taken him lightly.
“I’ve got great respect for Sergey,” Mikhalkin said. “I know that Sergey’s a professional. Even though I’m not well-known, as a professional he’s preparing the right way, make sure he’s studying tapes, making sure he’s studying his opponent. I don’t think because I’m not well-known that Sergey’s gonna take this as an easy fight and not prepare for me the way that he has prepared in the past.
“I don’t think that he’s underestimating me because my name is not as known as Sergey’s. I think he’s very professional and very respectful to his training and his conditioning.”
Mikhalkin, meanwhile, has finished training camp in Hamburg, Germany. He is scheduled to arrive in New York on Saturday.
A week later, he intends to pull off what would be a stunning upset against a fighter who has lost only to retired former pound-for-pound king Andre Ward. Whatever happens against Kovalev, Mikhalkin appreciates how far he has come since the suspension that made him contemplate retirement.
“Let me be known as the first Russian boxer that failed a doping test,” Mikhalkin said. “Let me be known as the Russian boxer who stopped his career because of that and started it again. Look at me now. I’m boxing for the championship of the world at Madison Square Garden.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.