By Thomas Gerbasi
While the wider boxing world will be getting their first real dose of Vyacheslav Shabranskyy this Saturday when the Ukrainian faces Sergey Kovalev for the vacant WBO light heavyweight title at The Theater at Madison Square Garden, hardcore fight fans already celebrate the gritty style and intensity of “Lionheart,” and there’s little wonder why.
But to illustrate the true appeal of the 30-year-old, ask him about his attitude in the ring and the kind of mindset that says to beat him, an opponent will have to dig down and get into a fight.
“Right this second, my attitude is very hungry and I’m angry,” he said on Monday. Then he laughed, his wife Dina joining in as she said that everyone tries to avoid him when weigh-in time draws near. In that sequence, it was clear that fans follow Shabranskyy because he fights like he’s hungry and angry, but that when it’s not fight time, he’s quick with a smile and a laugh.
So while many fighters make the move to the United States to pursue their version of the American Dream in the United States, few are accepted in their new communities like Shabranskyy was. And that feeling is mutual and one that hit the future light heavyweight title challenger shortly after he permanently moved to the U.S. in 2012.
“From the second that I got here when I first met (coach) Manny (Robles), the first thing that happened to me was that Manny invited me to be with the family for Christmas because he knew I was here alone,” Shabranskyy recalled. “I felt right at home, and I feel at home in Mexican communities because there’s not that much difference from Ukrainians, from Russians. Everybody sticks together and it’s all about family. And the community of boxing here in LA is so diverse that I feel right at home here and I’m happy that I’ve been accepted.”
That means that should he upset Kovalev this weekend, there will likely be celebrations in the unlikeliest places for a native of Zhytomyr to be celebrated. At this moment, though, he refuses to entertain such talk, saying, “I don’t want to run ahead of myself. It’s boxing, but I feel very excited and I’ll tell you about everything else on Saturday.”
Saturday is only a few days away, and for those watching, it’s just another interesting fight on a Thanksgiving weekend. But out of a simple question comes the realization of what this means for Shabranskyy. Following the lone loss of his 20-fight career, a seventh round knockout at the hands of Sullivan Barrera in December 2016, I asked him if he would have believed he would be fighting for a world title now if someone told him that in January.
“No,” he said without hesitation. “At the beginning of this year, I probably wouldn’t believe that I would be given this opportunity. But this is something I have been working towards for the last 17 years that I’ve trained in boxing. I feel very blessed.”
Seventeen years. That’s a long time to do anything, let alone compete in a sport as punishing as this one. So to weather the ups and downs of the fight game, remain standing, and now be on the verge of the culmination of a dream, that’s more than just a payday. In fact, it may even be destiny for Shabranskyy, who had his eye on Kovalev for a while.
“When I was in Bernard Hopkins’ camp a couple years ago, I watched Kovalev box with Bernard from the audience and I could tell that I’d be very happy if one day I would be at the same stage as Kovalev was at that moment and possibly fight him or a fighter of his caliber for a world title.”
Now he’s here, 12 rounds or less away from leaving New York City as a world champion.
“I feel very motivated and I’m going to do everything in my power and with my experience to take the belt home,” he said. That’s what you expect him to say. What you don’t expect is when he laughs about his long, strange trip to the Big Apple and says how it didn’t go the way you would assume it did.
“Time flies so fast.”