These guys from Russia and the former Soviet Union are ruthless, vicious fighters. And you know what? They’re some of the best boxers in the world right now. We have a preconceived notion of people from that region being like Kublai Khan: They’re bloodthirsty, they’re cruel, they’re mean, they’re savages. They’re descendants of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. And in truth, they really do have that fighting spirit. It comes from being born into rough circumstances and seeing no other way to improve your situation than punching your way out. It’s something I can definitely relate to. I’ve spent the past two and a half years producing a documentary, Champs, directed by my friend Bert Marcus, that goes deep into this idea. It looks at me and Evander Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins—two of the greatest fighters of my era—and what it takes to be a champion. The film shows that the fight outside the ring, both in a boxer’s early life and after his career ends, can be even more harrowing than inside the ring. It’s about coming from nothing and becoming something great. I see that same ferocity in these Eastern fighters who are winning world championships today.
Sometimes you don’t choose boxing, it chooses you. It’s the only sport that lets you escape violence and poverty through the act of violence itself. These Eastern boxers are fighting to survive, and they just hate to lose. They’d rather die than be vanquished in the ring. In my prime, I believe I could have handled any man on the planet. Because just like these guys, I wanted to win. I needed to win. I wanted it more than anything else in my life. And more than that, I had to look spectacular doing it. Boxing is about hurting your opponent and emerging victorious. It’s that simple. That pure. It’s been that way since the beginning of time.
Look at Sergey Kovalev, the Russian light heavyweight champion. He really is ferocious. When you throw a punch at him, he’s coming back with two punches. That’s what made it hard for Bernard Hopkins when they fought last year. Kovalev throws all his punches with murderous intentions, and that’s intimidating in itself. Bernard didn’t get knocked out, but he hesitated to throw punches because he knew something bad was coming back. Something real bad. Kovalev doesn’t really get as much credit as he deserves for beating Bernard, because Bernard was almost 50. But Bernard would have beaten any other light heavyweight in the world that night except for Kovalev.
Or take Gennady Golovkin, the middleweight champion from Kazakhstan. What he has is the terror of the unknown: that psychological intimidation factor, that mystique. We really don’t know enough about him yet. But even though he is kind of untested, he has already become an almost legendary figure. I think Kovalev and Golovkin will both be stars once they start fighting more top-notch guys.
My favorite of these fighters is the Ukrainian featherweight champion, Vasyl Lomachenko. He has the best amateur record in history. He is so splendid. He can fight, goddamn! My mentor and trainer, Cus D’Amato, would have loved this guy. Lomachenko’s defense is impeccable. And defense is the number one thing you need in order to be successful in boxing. But he’s also a very intelligent puncher. Possessing great defense and superb aggression is what makes him a star to me. When you think about Golovkin, when you think about Kovalev, these guys are savages. They’re brutal. But they don’t have the defense. Lomachenko does.
Ruslan Provodnikovand Evgeny Gradovich are both from Siberia. That’s a hard place to come up. It’s the tundra. The only thing good that comes from a place like that is great discipline. I’ve spent time in that part of the world. The people are absolutely lovely. It’s very rare that you’re going to run into a malevolent type of person, but don’t try to take advantage of them. You’re not going to have the chance to redeem yourself, because they don’t fuck around in Siberia. It’s no wonder these guys are so tough. This sport raises you to the highest of levels. But the beginning stage, when you’re starting out as a fighter, is the lowest of the low. That’s just what it is. You will never see a Harvard Law School guy fighting as savagely as these guys. We’re born in hell. Every fight we win is one step out of hell. We accumulate a lot of steps, and in our minds we become free. But it never happens that way. Hell follows you as long as you’re involved in the sport. It’s gonna follow you always. Most fighters believe they’re fighting for glory and honor. In all actuality, we’re born with honor. We can’t win honor; we can only lose honor. We’re fighting for something that already exists, that we already possess.
—As told to Chris Wilson
Champs, produced by Bert Marcus, debuts on March 13.