By Alexey Sukachev
Starting from this article, Fightnews opens new regular series devoted to the full-scale review of Russian pro boxing and its most interesting representatives, both celebrities and lesser-known talent. The opening episode features up-and-coming Top Rank middleweight prospect and former amateur star Matvey Korobov (4-0, 4 KOs), clearly one the brightest products of the Russian amateur boxing system in recent years.
Watching numerous TV broadcasts and reading regular columns of the world-known boxing authorities, one can easily spot a common phrase, describing the best amateurs-turned-pros as “amateur standouts” or “former amateur stars”. This reporter is no stranger to the aforementioned camp and uses an old cliché pretty often. But who is an “amateur standout”? We assign this word combination to define a fighter, who has gained the recognition by achieving some reasonable success at unpaid ranks. The only problem is the scale of this success. And with the day-to-day lowering of the standard one cannot wonder that the rookie will be labeled with the honorable title right after one hundred victories or by capturing a medal (bronze and silver regalia also hit the mark smoothly) at regional competitions.
Matvey Korobov clearly is of the different sort.
The newer addition to the “Top Rank” stellar team wasn’t your usual “amateur star”; that’s the underestimation. Such terms as “unique”, “one of a kind” or trite “superstar” are more appropriate when comparing now 4-0, 4 KOs, pro fighter with the fellow amateur imports. After capturing two consecutive world titles (Mianyang 2005 and Chicago 2007) in addition to four national (2003, 2004, 2006 and 2007) and one European (Plovdiv 2006) gold medals, Korobov was considered the best middleweight in the world and possibly the pound-per-pound #1 amateur pugilist on the planet. And it wasn’t his regalia but rather his crowd-pleasing high-tech style of fighting that brought Matvey into the spotlight.
The ending point of the outstanding career was, however, sad, when Korobov, an overwhelming favorite at 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, was defeated in the second round (7-10 on points) by the 2004 Athens welterweight master and Val Barker trophy owner Bakhtiyar Artayev of Kazakhstan. In just two months, Matvey has ended the amateur period of his life and has suddenly signed the management contract with the award-winning manager Cameron Dunkin and the promotional agreement with “Top Rank”, one of the most powerful promotional companies around.
This reporter contacted Korobov in Las Vegas where the newcomer was preparing for the future challenges alongside Winky Wright before his unsuccessful bid against Paul Williams.
– Matvey, foreign fans aren’t aware about the starting points of your career. Where have you been learning the ABC of boxing?
– I’m from Orotukan, a small town in Magadan oblast (region), one of the easternmost parts of Russia. I was an active kid doing lots of sports: soccer, basketball, ice hockey and some other. However, it was boxing which became my true passion. Truth be told, my father was ok with this choice as he was a former boxer and not the worst one. He laced up my gloves, took his mitts and gave me some truly helpful lessons in the very beginning. I was ten years old when I started the regular workouts in the neighboring gym. My first real coaches were Victor Govorov and Victor Shikanov. They have revealed my true talent and started my development as a fighter.
– At 14 years of age you had made a sudden change in your life by moving across the whole continent to Moscow (Orotukan is 8100 miles and eight hours to the East from the Russian capital). What was the reason?
– The time had come for me to make a decision. When I was in Moscow preparing for one of the junior national championships I received an offer from the CSKA (Central Sport Club of the Army) to continue my development in the very heart of Russia in one of the most successful boxing (and, moreover, sportive) communities in the country. It wasn’t an easy decision. I had to relocate myself far away from my home and to live alone in the school boarding house. More to this, 1998 was a year of Russian economical meltdown and led to the memorable technical default in payments. In order to support my activities and to find a better life abroad my parents migrated to Florida in the States. They tried hard to support my starting career from the far outside.
– Orotukan is a small city with about 2000 inhabitants. Moscow, on the other hand, is the second-to-Istanbul most populated city in Europe with approximate size of 10.5 millions of people. Was it hard to adjust your rhythm of life to such fast-moving and ever-busy city as Moscow?
– That indeed was a hard task to complete. I missed my family very much and it was difficult to live with the pace of the capital. But I have also found new friends both in the boarding house and outside of it. I got acquainted with my fiancée Anna in Moscow as well. And it was a wonderful time in terms of boxing too. Under the guidance of Nagim Khusnutdinov I became a versatile fighter and gained a considerable success at amateurs. And there was no time for any jokes as my road was as straight as they are: gym – school – gym.
– Do you have a higher education?
– I do have it. I graduated from the Moscow University of Physical Education and I have the coach certificate. But I also want to obtain a secondary higher education somewhere in the future. I just have no time now to pursue an academic career. However, during my school years I was very good at liberal arts, especially in Russian, Russian literature and world history.
– Your amateur career was truly exceptional: two world titles, four national belts and an overall record of 300 wins against just 12 losses. Which victory was the most important?
– Two wins in world championship finals against Ukrainian Ismayl Sillakh (who is now 7-0, 6 KOs as a pro) and Venezuelan Alfonso Blanco were really impressive. But the most memorable victory was versus Cuban Yordanis Despaigne Herrera during the 2005 World Cup in Moscow. I went right into the hell and back to the top in four rounds. That fight was the most grueling in the whole career, both pro and amateur. It was also a moment when I finally realized I was a solid part of our national team and had a secured place as its frontrunner. This victory was an equalizer and Russia defeated Cuba 6-5 at the end. That was awesome!
– You were Russian national champion in 2003 and in 2004. But it was Gaydarbek Gaydarbekov who competed in your weight class at 2004 Athens Olympics and captured the highest honor at the end. Was it a slighting experience for you?
– Just a bit. I was young and hot and I thought it had been unfair. I was wrong and Gaydarbek proved it so by going all the way to the gold medal. I realized then that I was too inexperienced and too green to be in the national team for Athens Olympics. I tried to overcome it and to be more philosophic about that accident.
– Your amateur career was seemingly destined to be one of a kind. But it all broke loose in your second-round fight against Bakhtiyar Artayev at 2008 Beijing Olympics (7-10 – for the Kazakh star). What went wrong that night?
– I don’t know. I truly have nothing to say you about it. I was alone in the corner without my coach. I don’t think there was a single reason for that. And, frankly speaking, I don’t think I have lost that fight. But I got no excuses and I have to take my hat off to Artayev.
– Your decision to turn pro in America was met with the mixed feelings. It seems that national team’s head coach Alexander Lebzyak was extremely disappointed and even angered with your decision. Are you on good or on bad terms right now?
– We are ok with each other. We had a bit of misunderstanding in September when I have decided to turn pro. But I can’t criticize or blame for his words. That was just his point of view, his personal feelings. I’m on good terms with Russian leading coaches and guys from the amateur national team. I try to get fresh news from them and to support them the way I can.
– When did you decide to turn a pro?
– It was right after Olympics, when I was contacted by famous manager Cameron Dunkin and was given a detailed offer. I want to underline once again that it was AFTER the Games when I started all the negotiations with potential employers, not BEFORE the Games. As for Cameron, I guess he had spotted me during the 2007 Chicago world championship. At the same time I got another offer to sign a promotional deal with “Top Rank” so my father, who is my co-manager now, and Cameron helped me much to specify all the nuances in my future contract.
– You took a special path to your dream by going to fight overseas. It’s not a common move for Russian amateur expatriate. It’s a matter of fact that Russian fighters prefer leading German promoters such as the Sauerland Event or Universum Box-Promotions rather than American. Why have you chosen the States as your future base?
– I got some offers from Europe but I didn’t even hesitate not to study them. America was my main goal from the outset. First of all, my parents live here in their own house in Florida. And being with the family is something what is very important for me. Secondly, the USA is Mecca and Medina of modern boxing, its second homeland. Finally, I’m sure that my style is extremely suitable for the American boxing and for fans to watch me fighting.
– Your head coach is Dan Birmingham, who really needs no other introduction. Have you sparred with his most famous pupil Winky Wright?
– No, I haven’t. But I’m in Las Vegas now; preparing for my future outings and Winky is here as well getting ready for his fight against Paul Williams (this conversation took place a dozen days ago). I’m learning much even by just observing his preparations.
– Dan said once that in order to define a fighter’s real potential he forces him to undergo ‘Keith Thurman test’. Have you undergone this kind of test?
– Sure thing! I sparred with that guy Thurman and he’s got certain skills. He is a young welterweight (8-0, 8 KOs right now) with a good technique. He is just 19 but he had tons of talent. Anyway, I looked not so bad against him it seems, eh? (Smiles).
– With whom else do you usually work?
– I used to spar with Czech light heavyweight Adam Hubinger (13-0, 10 KOs) and one Nigerian guy, whose name I don’t remember.
– You were competing at 166 pounds in amateurs. Is it difficult for you to make the middleweight limit or not?
– Not at all. I used to be two-three pounds under the limit at unpaid competitions so there’s no problem for me to compete at middleweight.
– The overall record of your current opposition (9-9-2) is subpar. Don’t you think you have been fighting much tougher opponents at amateurs?
– Right on point. But I’m not in hurry. I need to accumulate enough of self-esteem, skills and experience to go for world titles. So, I’m just learning now and testing new tricks on my foes. I hope my team will move me rapidly but will not rush with the level of opposition.
– What are your nearest plans?
– I’ll face Rodrigo Agiuar (5-4, 3 KOs) in a huge Pacquiao-Hatton undercard. Then I’ll be back in June to fight twice in a row on the East Coast.
– When do you plan to fight world-class opposition?
– You better be asking Cameron Dunkin and Bob Arum about it. I fully trust with my career to them. But I hope to enter world ranks till the end of the year.
– You have stopped both Sillakh and Irish Darren Sutherland (2-0, 2 KOs) during the 2005 Mianyang world championship. Whom else do you remember defeating at unpaid ranks?
– I remember that American guy Daniel Jacobs (14-0, 13 KOs) whom I have outpointed during the 2005 Moscow World Cup. He is a good fighter.
– Do you watch after the best of the best in your weight class?
– Of course.
– On whom will you bet in a virtual Pavlik-Abraham showdown?
– Oh, that’s a tough fight to pick a winner from. I think Arthur is slightly better than Kelly but I guess it’s a toss-up battle and I can’t make a pick. Sorry.
– Do you meet any Russian boxers, fighting and training in America, on regular basis?
– No, I’m sad about it but I haven’t yet met nor, say, Roman Karmazin, neither any other Russian fighter around. I hope to visit Khabib Allakhverdiev and Magomed Abdusalamov, who are competing under the Seminole Warriors Boxing aegis in Florida. I remember them well since my amateur days.
– Final words for your fans, please.
– I wish to thank both Russian and American fight fans for their continuous support. I wish Russian fans to be a little bit more tolerant to their idols. Please, support both amateur and professional Russian pugs as much as you can.
– Thanks a lot!
– My pleasure.
Author’s note: Matvey is a Russian version of old Hebrew name Matitiahu, which is also the origin for its English version Matthew.