By Alexey Sukachev
Six men are sitting around a long, gray table with a handful of microphones, dictaphones and notepads in the midst of cameramen, reporters and entrepreneurs. Four of them are wearing tracksuits, and only two are robed in high-priced classic jackets. The presser to announce an upcoming boxing show in Izhevsk, Russia, is right under way, and one can hardly believe that a shy, soft-spoken, tiny man sporting such a jacket is a boxer. Indeed, he is. Maybe one of the best this country has to offer. Highly regarded bantamweight contender Alexander Bakhtin (24-0, 11 KOs) chose an unusual path for a young Russian fighter to follow.
At the tender age of 19, the Chita native signed a contract with the well-known Japanese promoter and boxing personality Keiichiro Kanehira of Kyoei Boxing Gym and debuted as a pro under the guidance of legendary coach Alexander Zimin. Bakhtin has been competing across the “Land of the Rising Sun” ever since but has struggled to reach for a title opportunity. Despite some record-breaking performances, an unbeaten ledger and a number of wins over quality opposition.
It was in the midst of 2009 when he finally decided to get back to his Motherland. The comeback was, however, marred with a horrible accident, when Bakhtin’s opponent Nosirjon Ruzimatov lapsed into coma and was a subject of cranial trepanation following his collapse between the ninth and the tenth rounds of the fight, which clearly was Bakhtin-dominated. Luckily, Ruzimatov survived and on his way of recovery right now.
Meanwhile, the top ranked trickster (WBC #3, WBA/IBF #6 and WBO #14) isn’t the only pupil of Zimin. In fact he is not even the best one, and by far so. This week Russian professional boxing celebrates the 20th anniversary of a magic Japanese debut of Russian fighters; the squad, which was trained by no other than Zimin, consisted of Yuri Arbachakov, Orzubek Nazarov, Vyacheslav Yakovlev, Ramzan Sebiev, Vyacheslav Yanovsky and Ruslan Taramov. The former two became world champions (WBC flyweight and WBA lightweight), and Arbachakov (the first Russian to become a world champion in pro boxing) is still regarded as one of the greatest flyweights of all time.
On Feb. 22, Bakhtin, 28, will try to move closer to his dream of becoming the world champion and following in the footsteps of both Arbachakov and Nazarov. The Balashikha dweller collides with hard-nosed Kenyan Nick Otieno (20-4, 9 KOs) in the 118lb WBC semi-eliminator. The victory in this one is extremely important for Sasha Bakhtin but it’ll also be a nice present for Russian boxing community regarding the aforementioned anniversary. Before the Otieno fight both Bakhtin and Zimin shared some thoughts and memories with yours truly.
- You have been competing in Japan for almost ten years. How were you able to get there?
- I earned some honors during 2000 junior world championship in Argentina, while competing in one of the lightest weight classes, and Japanese promoter Keiichiro Kanehira asked me if I wanted to start my pro career abroad. The first time I flew over to Japan to know more about local boxing and to get acquainted with Alexander (Vasilyevich) Zimin. Then I took another plane to Japan with my entire luggage and at 19 began to compete there as a pro.
- Were there any other offers from either Russian or foreign promoters?
- Yeah, there was a couple during my stay in Japan. For example, I had been presented with an interesting offer from American promoters to compete in Hawaii but after discussing all the aspects with Zimin I chose to continue my boxing career in Japan.
“Two Russian youngsters came along my way in the fall of 2000,” recalls Zimin. “They both possessed a considerable talent and I decided to guide their professional careers under the promotion of influential Japanese promoter Mr. Kanehira. Matvey Tsyndyzhapov (whose days were tragically shortened by a horrible auto accident in 2007), was very skillful but his determination just wasn’t there. After a few fights he preferred to hang the gloves up for good and to come back to his native Buryatia (Tsyndyzhapov’s final record is 6-0 with 4 KOs). Alexander was very raw at the get-go but he concentrated on becoming a real pro and dedicated himself to this goal. He paid a considerable price by giving up a number of temptations but he overcame himself to become a versatile, endurable and really strong prizefighter.”
- Have you beaten any notables in your amateur days?
- I don’t remember all the names but I have got the better of ex-WBA world champion Bernard Dunne. I remember beating him to the punch.
- It’s a bit unusual for European fighter to compete in Japan. Were you able to build up a following there among Japanese boxing fans?
- Yes, I was. When I just started, local fans ignored me but then, after I scored some success, I felt their support. I usually fought local guys, so starting rounds were pretty hard for me as the fans kept rooting for their compatriot. It all changed down the stretch of a fight when I took over and started to deliver my best. Then fans usually made a turn and began to support the better fighter in the ring.
- You have been fighting mostly Asian pugilists during your pro career, namely Japanese. What are the main features of their boxing style?
- They are very hard-nosed willing professionals. They are throwing tons of punches and always keep coming at you. However, they aren’t too sound technicians. They are rugged and patient but they can usually be out-boxed. As for Koreans, they are similar to Japanese boxers in terms of their style. They are very sturdy. Thais are better technicians with a variety of tricks and a good footwork in a backup.
- You acquired Japanese national belt in 2003 at 118 lb and defended it record-breaking nine times over the course of your three-year long title reign before suffering a horrible setback due to some boxing non-related reasons. Why haven’t you landed a world championship during your rule as the Japanese bantamweight titleholder?
- This is definitely a promoter’s fault. I was ready and willing to fight for the world title but Mr. Kanehira kept ignoring me in favor of local fighters. He usually said, “Sasha is a great technician. His time will surely come but it’s my due to get us a Japanese champion now. Sasha’s chance will surely be in future”. He kept talking and giving shots to his Japanese protégés, who blew them off one after another, and I was omitted and forgotten.
- Tell us more about that strange accident in Japanese restaurant, which delayed your boxing career for almost a year and a half.
- I guess it was a provocation. Japanese fighters were unable to overcome my resistance inside the ring, so their supporters chose another way to dispose me. I was pulled into a brawl in Japanese restaurant. I was forced to fight though I didn’t want to do so. A long disqualification followed and, frankly speaking, I thought I wouldn’t continue to fight under Kyoei aegis. Only after a lengthy conversation with Alexander (Zimin) I chose not to break ties with Mr. Kanehira though our relationship wasn’t as warm after that accident as before it.
“Alexander was possibly the best little fighter all over Japan in the midst of 00’s. He has beaten a number of solid local pugs including former world title challengers. He was definitely ready for a title shot,” continues Zimin. “We were scheduled to fight one of the world champions in September 2006 and the agreement was just a single stroke of pen from being signed when that shameful accident occurred. Bakhtin suddenly became persona non grata of the Japanese boxing and it was a hard time for him. I’m very glad that my proud pupil put all the bad feelings behind his back.”
- As an amateur, you were known as a terrific puncher (124-4, 80 KOs). However, up until recent times you weren’t so profound in scoring stoppage wins as a pro. What was the reason?
- There were different reasons. For example, when first defending the Japanese national belt I had broken my hand. I was forced to fight the next four fights with only left hand working and it was really difficult to score stoppages, even less knockouts, with a single hand on.
- Who was your toughest opponent?
- I have scored several notable victories but one that had me digging really deep was a bout versus Mexican Gerson Guerrero. He was definitely my toughest opponent, and scores (100-90, 100-91, and 99-91) don’t really reflect how difficult that fight was for me.
- Why have finally decided to get back home, in Russia?
- There were two main reasons. I wasn’t promoted really well in Japan. I’m already 28 years of age and I need my title shot here and now. Secondly, I was in need of my Motherland. East or West but home is best. Moreover, my child was growing up, and I want him to study in Russia, not in Japan. All in all, it was too much Japan for me even though I thank this country and its people for their hospitality and help. Vladimir Hryunov, who is working as my manager (and even functioning as a promoter sometimes), was here to help me and he aided much to my relocation to Balashikha. His support simply cannot be overestimated.
- What is your best weapon?
- I guess my left cross and my right uppercut are my best weapons. I’m sure about it.
- However, your best weapons betrayed you to a degree in your latest fight against Nosirjon Ruzimatov. Have you expected such a dramatic end to that fight?
- No, not at all. Ruzimatov was in survival mode from the starters but he was responding well though scarcely to my pressing. He just didn’t want to engage into the fight, so the final outcome was really shocking for me. I wish him all the best. I really prey for his health and I wish hime the fullest recovery.
- Is it hard for you to make bantamweight limit?
- No, not at all. Intense training helps me much and I’m just a pound over the limit after my usual training session, so that it’s not a problem for me to make the weight limit.
- You are fighting Kenyan Nick Otieno next. Have you seen his tapes?
- I have seen him against Z Gorres.
- What do you think of him?
- His is a typical African fighter. He is very patient, very sturdy and fights in extremely unorthodox way. He is pretty dangerous so I don’t expect a walk in the park indeed.
“Otieno isn’t your usual punching bag by any means,” comments Zimin. “He is a capable guy with pretty unusual approach and some unorthodox tricks. He is rugged and he knows how to deliver punches with bad intentions. His fight versus Filipino contender was pretty close and much more difficult for the local hero unlike scoring cards may tell you (100-90 thrice). We are preparing for a hard battle but I’m sure Alexander will dispose this guy.”
- Rumors are widespread that, if successful on Feb. 22, you’ll fight for the world title in your native Balashikha in May or in June. Are you really ready for such a clash at this stage of your career?
- I don’t want to wait longer. I’m ready to deliver my best game even though I looked a bit rusty in my last fight. It’s time for me to shine and I’ll do everything to realize my lifetime dream.
“At this stage of his career Bakhtin is in need of a world championship,” says Zimin. “You can make a point about his readiness. There’s a problem indeed because my inner belief that he was at the peak of his abilities several years ago. Then there was a considerable lay-off and only now he is finally starting to approach his past conditions. But I can tell you that he is one of those guys who can control his preparation mostly himself. I’m one hundred percents sure that he will come to his world title opportunity (if successful against Otieno) at the very best.”
- Do you observe the current state of the game in your own weight class? What can you tell me about it?
- I’m sure Hozumi Hasegawa is a man to beat in this weight class. He is a solid, strong champion with impressive credentials. He is really good though I’m sure I can give him fits inside the squared circle.
“I don’t want to make any sound statements but I’m sure that Hasegawa was unwilling to face a real danger in Alexander Bakhtin, when my pupil was reigning as the Japanese national champion. We were ready to fight him anywhere and anytime in 2003-2004 but his promoter chose a wiser and much easier track to the world title fight by fighting virtual no ones. However, I cannot help myself but wonder how much Hozumi has improved in terms of skills and punching power since then. I simply cannot depreciate his achievements during the WBC title reign. He has developed in truly dangerous and capable fighter.”
- Japan has a supreme power in lower weight classes. Hasegawa, Nishioka, Nashiro are all world champions. However, it looks like Kameda brothers dominate the local scene, don’t they?
- You are absolutely right. There’s a number of terrific world champions in Japan but this trio is really dominating. Not in terms of mastership or boxing itself but more in terms of advertisement and popularity. Half of Japanese TV audience sits down to watch their fights, so that they can really be called stars. They have been heavily promoted since their adolescence (with a considerable help of their father Shiro) and now that shows!
- Any closing thoughts?
- I want to thank both my team and my fans for their continuous support. I invite everybody to visit my next fight against Nick Otieno in Izhevsk and I want to ensure everybody that I’ll deliver my best.
“I’m very glad that Fightnews has paid its attention to this memorable moment in formation of the modern Russian professional boxing. Twenty years ago our team (or it’s better to say the first half of our team) of pioneers entered the uncharted land of prizefighting and a long time since then I still cannot imagine a bigger and a sounder entrance than that of Soviet amateur stars in 1990. It can only be compared with a recent wave of runaway Cubans (such as Rigondeaux, Gamboa, Solis, Lara, Acosta and more) but these fighters have been debuting in a span of two years, six stellar Soviet amateurs had a simultaneous debut at the same date during the same show. Mr. Kanehira wanted our bigger guys Ruslan Taramov, Ramzan Sebiyev and Vyacheslav Yakovlev to become a real force in heavyweight division. He wanted to breed a Russian Tyson. But he soon became short on money and he wasn’t able to cover losses just because Japanese public weren’t interested in big guys. However, lighter fighters have proven their ultimate talent. Both Orzubek Nazarov (26-1 as a pro, WBA lightweight titleholder in 1993-1998) and Yuri Arbachakov (23-1, 16 KOs, WBC flyweight boss in 1992-1997) became world champions. They were extremely popular in Japan, partly because of their specific looks but mostly die to their great talent. They have even been nicknamed by the legends of Japanese boxing (“Gussie” for Yoko Gusiken and “Ebihara” for Hiroyuki Ebihara respectively). I hope Alexander will follow them in his footsteps.”