By Thomas Gerbasi
In the world of boxing, there will always be a good case for the 1976 or 1984 United States Olympic teams as the greatest ever, but who’s to say if that remains the case in twenty years.
Then, when the dust will likely settle on another stellar squad, this one the 2012 Ukrainian Olympic team that produced two gold, a silver and two bronze medals in London, we may have a new, pardon the pun, gold standard.
That super seven is already off to a great start as professionals. Two-time gold medalist Vasyl Lomachenko has won featherweight and junior lightweight world titles in just seven fights. The other gold winner from 2012, Oleksandr Usyk, won a cruiserweight world championship in his 10th pro fight in September. Ievgen Khytrov and Pavlo Ishchenko didn’t medal in London, but they’re already 14-0 (12 KOs) and 3-0 (2 KOs), respectively, in the pro ranks. Silver medalist Denys Berinchyk is 4-0 (3 KOs) thus far, and when it comes to the Bronze medalists, Oleksandr Hvozdyk is unbeaten as well at 11-0, and the seventh member of this Ukrainian contingent, Taras Shelestyuk, is 14-0 and ready for his ShoBox close-up against Jaime Herrera on November 4.
“I feel like all of this is coming at the right time,” Shelestyuk said. “I’m doing my job, I’m doing what I love in boxing, and I’m enjoying it. Sometimes it’s hard, but this is a big fight, I’m ready for it now, and I will do my best.”
Shelestyuk is a long way from Makeyevka as he approaches the biggest fight of his pro career, with his days and nights being spent in southern California, where he works with trainer Eric Brown at the Wild Card Gym. But the way he sees it, there was no other place for him if he wanted to match his amateur success, which also included a 2011 world championship, in the pros.
“I like the weather in Los Angeles and I chose this place because I can train all year in the street and in the boxing gym and here there are a lot of sparring partners and a lot of good trainers,” he said. “I made this choice and I still enjoy it every day.”
In the States for the last three and a half years, Shelestyuk’s transition is made easier by the presence of his wife, Alina, even though it is tough at times being away from home.
“It’s hard, but I’m going for my dream and my family understands it and they support me a lot,” he said. “Once a year, I go to Ukraine to see my family and I really appreciate them for understanding me and my situation and knowing that I need to live in the U.S. to follow my dream.”
Two of his Olympic teammates, Lomachenko and Usyk, have already achieved that dream. You might think that Shelestyuk, who is already ranked ninth in the world at 147 pounds, would be getting impatient, but that’s not his style.
“In the amateurs, I waited for 12 years for an Olympic medal,” he said. “I have a passion for this sport, I love what I do, and I enjoy my professional career because it (winning a world title) has been my dream since the first time I went to the boxing gym when I was younger.”
Yet while the 30-year-old had championship aspirations as a youngster, he probably never expected he would be part of the greatest collection of boxing talent his nation had ever seen.
“This team was really tough and really powerful and the best team of all-time in Ukraine,” Shelestyuk said. “A lot of guys won the world championship in the amateurs, then we took five medals in the Olympic Games, and now the guys have turned pro and we’re doing very well. We have two champions and some contenders, and maybe I’ll be fighting for a championship after one more fight. A lot of champions come from Ukraine and I hope I will be one of them.”
He’s on the right track, and it’s very possible that in a few years, each member of that 2012 team could have a world title belt. That would be something special for the sport, not just in Ukraine, but around the world. Shelestyuk, who remains in contact with his teammates, knows how good they were, how good they are, and how good they can be.
“Every guy that won, we celebrated because it was big for the sport and for our country,” he said. “Before we only had one world amateur championship and all of a sudden (in 2011) we had four world champions. It was incredible, and after that we went to the Olympic Games in London and we worked hard, we fought hard and we could have taken more Gold medals, but we have what we have, and we enjoyed it. Now we’re all pro and we keep in touch. I speak a lot with the guys in New York like Khytrov and the guys in Ukraine like Usyk. It’s a very big team and when we took these medals we were all very happy.”
Now it’s time for more gold, this time the professional kind.
“I’m still hungry, and every time it’s a big challenge for me to prepare for the fights,” Shelestyuk said. “Training camp is a challenge too because I want to be better than before, and every day I work hard and every fight I want to do my best to show how I can box and how much I love this sport for me, my fans and my family.”