By Andrey Bazdrev, Ramin Hasanov and Alexey Sukachev
Bang-bang! – Two big men, both in sport jerseys with headgears protecting them from undesirable cuts and lacerations, are exchanging punches in the centre of the ring. Lights are on, but people in the gym are rare, a few being scarcely scattered around the squared circle. The TV men, however, are removing covers from their mobile workstation. It’s an unusual opportunity for them to see a future title challenger honing his skills against the former champion. Who knows, maybe in several months, both of them – WBO cruiserweight mandatory challenger Ali Ismailov and ex-WBA interim master Valery Brudov – will be on the top of the world together. Both are just a single fight removed from climbing the highest hills in their respective careers. Ismailov, the grizzled 35 year-old veteran, will get his chance first.
This Saturday night Ali will walk into the legendary Luna Park stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina, having the upset in his mind. The WBO #11 contender faces local hero and the WBO 200lb champion Victor Emilio Ramirez (14-1, 12 KOs) in the latter’s first title defense; the fight he can hardly be seen anything but an underdog coming in. The stakes are against him, and Ali knows it. But then there are those small details that will ensure the Argentinean fighter will have to overcome a hellish resistance just to retain his belt. And it’s not only his age that gives Ismailov the ‘here-and-now’ taste for the coming contest.
“It was scheduled earlier to take place in April, then on May 9. You know, the ninth of May is a special day for me, for you, for the whole former Soviet Union. It’s the Victory Day, the sacred date for our nation. And it would have been an honor to defeat Ramirez for the people who scored a much-much bigger and tougher victory years ago. Maybe Argentineans knew about it, and they decided to re-schedule this event. I don’t know. But I don’t care. I’ll be prepared for everything anyway”, explains Ismailov.
He better be. Ramirez, though only 14-1 with 12 KOs, is the reigning champion who delivered a major surprise in January but stopping ultra-talented Russian prospect Alexander Alekseev in nine bloody rounds. That was a road victory and now Victor Emilio will have the raving, partisan crowd behind his back.
“We were already negotiating with Sasha Alekseev and his handlers when this (Ramirez’ victory) happened”, says Ali shaking his head. “It was truly a huge upset”. Nevertheless, the Azerbaijani is sure that the key to success versus ‘El Tyson del Abasto’ does exist.
“Ramirez isn’t an untouchable wizard of defense like his compatriot (Nicolino) Locche. He can be hit and hurt. I know, at 25 he is ten years younger than me. He is a powerful, energetic young man with a solid power in his fists. That is his advantage. On the other hand, I possess a major advantage myself, and that is my superior experience. I’m going to use it to disturb and to finally upset this guy. I have spent hours with my head coach Etibar Salihov in front of TV set watching his fights. We know all the strengths and all the weaknesses the Argentinean has. Ramirez is an open book for us”.
Experience indeed could be the key. Though being a relative rookie at paid ranks, Ismailov has seen it all as an amateur.
“I was born in Donetsk, Ukraine (oppositely to the place listed in BoxRec, world’s biggest online source of supplemental information on pro boxers), but I started boxing in Baku (the capital of Azerbaijan) when I was eleven and a half”. His current opponent was just a year old at the time. Meanwhile, Ismailov’s successes at unpaid ranks weren’t exceptional but they were borderline solid. He is known as ‘The bronze Ali’ in his native country for capturing the third places in both world (1999) and European (2000) championships in the light heavyweight division. However, both Olympics (Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004) proved to be less successful for the captain of Azerbaijan national team who was twice eliminated in earlier rounds of the tournament. After the second failure Ismailov sensed it was time to hang’em up or to make a move towards professionals. He chose the latter way.
After demolishing two no-hopers Ismailov got a taste of toughness in his third fight against then 1-0 Russian cruiser Alexander Kotlobay. “It was a hard battle from the outset”, remembers Ali. “Kotlobay, the resident of Saint Petersburg, was no pushover by any means. That didn’t prevent me from taking the first four rounds whilst Alexander was fighting on even terms with me for the last two stanzas. I was very disgusted to hear the fight being scored as a draw. And I want to thank my promoter Alexander Yagupov for protesting the result, which brought me the ‘W’ in the record-book”. Surprisingly, the fight is still listed as a draw for officially 15-1-1 (11 KOs) Ismailov.
It was a year and just two fights after that when Ismailov got his first and only defeat, being stopped by then 20-0-1 Russian powerhouse and perennial contender Vadim Tokarev. Ismailov’s promoter Alexander Yagupov is often blamed for throwing his pupil in too deep waters but Ali vehemently denies such speculations. “It was my inner desire to face Vadim as soon as possible. He was a major name back in 2006 and I felt as there was no time for me to waste. At 31, the time ticked rapidly for me. I remember myself trying to convince Alexander (Yagupov) to arrange the fight at any costs to provide me with a sudden leap in ranks. I was wrong”.
“We were imposing our will on Tokarev for five rounds. We were beating him to the punch”, it seems Etibar Salihov is still feeling the pressure and the momentum of the fight. “But I had overestimated my ring knowledge”, says Ismailov. “I was too inexperienced to use my energy sparingly. I ran out of gas and was forced to retire after the eighth round. It was a bad but useful experience. That mistake won’t be repeated”. The Tokarev name has been brought here intentionally. With the constant aggression and raw physical power Vadim resembles Ramirez in good way.
It took Ismailov three years to finally get his title chance. He had to defeat a string of solid opponents, mostly from South America, including Argentineans Alejandro Agustin Alvarez and Rodolfo De Dominicis, to establish himself as a contender in talent-filled cruiserweight division.
The preparation for maybe the only chance to capture the major title was hard and lengthy. “I usually take two months for preparations but now this is the different case. I have been to the gym since the early February, so it’s about three months. At the first stage, I was shaping myself up in native Baku. Then I moved to my fight centre in Saint Petersburg to concentrate on specific boxing preparation”.
Choosing sparring partners was a difficult thing to do. “We can hardly find any fighters fully imitating Victor Ramirez. But I hope that rounds I have spent with both Tokarev and Brudov and other guys in the gym would give me the necessary feel of my future opponent”.
Fighting in your rival’s backyard is always twice as hard. Ismailov has a tiny secret to share with Fightnews correspondents. “I was all over the world, visiting more than forty countries, but I have never been to South America and, particularly, to Argentina. But when I arrived in St. Petersburg, my Azerbaijani countrymen told me they had phoned their numerous kinsfolk in Argentina so I will not be alone on May 16. I hope hundreds of my fans will fill in the arena helping me to sustain the pressure of the giant arena”.
“We have been developing our fighter step-by-step and one fight after another”, says Alexander Yagupov. “Nobody believed we would be able to get Ali this title shot. But they were wrong the same way they were wrong with Mger Mkrtchian who got his chance against Joe Calzaghe under our constant care and tutelage. We are confident in Ali. He should be victorious the coming night”.
… Reading the title of this story, one can ask what the deal is with the fighter’s nationality. Make no mistake – the 16th of May will be marked as a special day in Azerbaijan history; for the first time since the USSR downfall an Azerbaijani pugilist will have an opportunity to grab one of the major league titles. But Ali views it a bit more complex.
“We shall carry two flags into the ring: both Russian and Azerbaijani. I feel as I represent two countries and two peoples in boxing. I also hope for the huge support in Russia, in my native Azerbaijan and in Argentina as well. The fight will possibly be showcased by Russian TV, the REN-TV channel being the most probable solution. I just have no right to let people in both countries down. I will do everything for the victory, and even more…”