By Alexey Sukachev
On Saturday night heavyweight tower Nikolay Valuev will not be the only Russian who will climb through the ropes and meet his opponent inside the boxing ring at Hartwall Arena in Helsinki. Another fighter, virtually unknown to the whole pool of European boxing fans, will have a chance to introduce himself to the worldwide pugilistic community. It will not be the first time when junior welterweight Denis Shafikov (19-0, 10 KOs) is set to showcase his brilliant talent in front of the roaring crowd. Yet, he has never fought in such a venue with the comparable list of stars or notables, taking their respective parts in the undercard and in the main event of the evening.
The “Genghis Khan” faces durable Australian veteran John Cotterill Jr (23-7, 10 KOs) in his fourth bout in six months and the one, just 42 days removed from his last outing. That’s another step for one of the most underrated and still unranked fighters across Europe, who has solid wins over several well-known opponents, including former world champion Raul Horacio Balbi and Mexican tough guy Juan Carlos Rodriguez. Fightnews contacted maybe the best kept secret in European boxing during his training camp for the upcoming fight.
Denis, people know little about you though you turned pro more than five years ago. Tell us more about the starting steps of your boxing career.
I began boxing regularly at the age of 13 in my hometown of Miass, a small industrial city in Ural Mountains. To tell the truth, that wasn’t my first visit to the gym. In the first grade, when I was just six years old, I started boxing in the section but I didn’t like it much. Miass isn’t that big and I made the round of all the sportive sections in the city. Finally, one of my classmates began to persuade me to choose this sport and, finally, several years later I decided to come back at boxing.
Have you achieved any notable success as an amateur?
Nope, I can’t say I was that great at unpaid ranks. I took several trophies in junior competitions and I was the bronze medalist of the Russian junior national championship.
You turned pro at the young age of 18. Though we know that it’s not unusual for, say, Mexican or Filipino fighters to box professionally while still being teenagers, it’s a rare case for the Russian boxing. Why have you chosen this path so early in your career?
It was my lifetime dream to become a pro fighter. Frankly speaking, I wasn’t that excited about going all the way as an amateur. It was pretty hard to get to the top there plus my motivation wasn’t correct. I always dreamt about fighting as a real boxer, at unpaid ranks.
Who was your first promoter?
I worked with promoter Oleg Bogdanov since my first pro bout and Igor Shafer was our matchmaker. They are based in Saint Petersburg and there was an established link between the Northwestern region of our country and its Ural region. I followed my fellow-townsman Marat Khuzeev, who is also the Miass native, and well-known Russian welterweight Mikhail Krivolapov from Zlatoust. That is how I started to box professionally in Saint Petersburg while still living in Miass.
In 2007 you made a move to Finland and started performing under P3 Boxing promotional company. What was the reason?
That was a solid leap up in the level of competition. I also feel as they are really interested in me and I was suggested nice conditions abroad. It wasn’t the wholly my decision after all. Oleg [Bogdanov] has helped me much here.
Of all your fights, which one was the most memorable and/or the most difficult?
Shawn Gallegos and Juan Carlos Rodriguez were my most difficult opponents to date. Ironically, I fought them on the same date [the 18th of April] but Gallegos fight was in 2008 and I collided with the Mexican last month. They both are Latino fighters and they boxed in a very special way. Both were very awkward, physically strong and much taller than me [Shafikov is just 5’5’’]. Rodriguez was the toughest one, however.
Rodriguez was really big but pretty slow. It seems he is more of a slowly-walking plodder, while you are much faster but without such hitting power in your fists. Nevertheless, was he stylewise your cup of tea in the ring or do you prefer to fight the other types of opponents?
He isn’t the type of opponent I really prefer to deal with. But hey, I’m a professional fighter so I need to overcome every obstacle in my way. That’s what the professionalism is all about. Indeed, Rodriguez was very awkward. He is bigger than me but slower. However, he has longer arms and he tried to impose his will on me, to tag me with his wide and unusual punches. I was able to defeat him anyway.
Tell us more about this fight [Shafikov won on points: 78-75, 79-73 and 80-73].
First of all, I want to thank my Finnish promoters for this fight. They did a brilliant job this time by bringing here such an experienced fighter as Juan Carlos who had over eighty bouts before. It wasn’t my best fight. I had some problems on the distance and also I was the one to attack, not him. I prefer to counter my foes rather than to press the action myself. I tried to work on the middle range and then to come out rapidly not to be hit with a punch. I scored with the nice blow to the liver in the second but he somehow survived it and he was even able to adjust to the tempo when I increased it later in the fight. Great boxer! However, the amount of punches Rodriguez had been taking throughout the fight, took its toll later when I dominated the ending rounds.
Denis’ manager and co-promoter Oleg Bogdanov comments, “The fight was tougher than we expected. We somehow forgot that the date had been announced two months before so Team Rodriguez was ready for us too. His trainer, who led four of his pupils to the world titles, was sure Juan Carlos would be able to upset Denis. They were wrong.”
Was it the first time you met a Mexican fighter in the ring?
Surely not. I trained in Los Angeles several times and I know a bit about Mexican fighters. But it’s hard to beat them anyway.
Whom have you sparred with aside from Mexicans? Bring us more names, please.
I have also worked with Finnish middleweight contender Amin Asikainen and light welterweight prospect Juho Tolppola. Both are my teammates. “Idi” Amin is much larger than me and gave me valuable experience to rely on in future fights. When I was in LA, I was boxing with Vakhtang [Vic] Darchinyan.
What is your opinion about the champion?
He is a good fighter. He is small but he can hit with the same menace and power as real lightweights and welterweights do. Good luck to him against Joseph Agbeko!
I also heard you had sparred with the highly-hyped welterweight banger Selcuk Aydin and there had been some issues in the training camp. Give us your thoughts on that.
Firstly, I want to say that Aydin is a great fighter and surely has his chances in deeply talented welterweight division. But he is also arrogant and ignorant. He is very ill-mannered and he is such a swank that he doesn’t even look at his partners in the gym. Aydin is a dirty fighter and uses all these tricks including hitting at the back of the head and to the kidneys. He looks really well but his opponents are way sub-par. Team Arena brings him small fighters, old punch-drunk bums and guys with blown-up records. So it comes as no surprise when he finishes them in two-three rounds, more in spars but also in official fights. The truth is that he can box for just four or five rounds and then his energy pool vanishes. As for the sparring session, he tried to intimidate me in the ring but I definitely held my own and I was even able to break his ribs in the final session which led to the postponement of his clash against Ouali. It wasn’t an intentional move but it was just the way we were fighting in the gym.
You say he has been feeding on bums but I know Marat Khuzeev as a durable and dangerous opponent. Yet Aydin destroyed him in two rounds as well. What was the reason?
I don’t know. That’s boxing and sometimes such things happen. As I’ve already said, with all his problems the Turk is a good fighter with considerable skills.
The last year you fought your first former world champion in Argentinean Raul Horacio Balbi. Yet, you haven’t listed him as a memorable opponent. Why so?
Well, I can’t say he impressed me much [Shafikov won by technical decision with 60-54 on all the judges’ scorecards after the fight was stopped before the seventh round due to a severe cut over Balbi’s eye]. I boxed rationally and technically and easily dominated him. Both Gallegos and Rodriguez fights were much tougher.
Your next fight will be against Australian John Cotterill Jr. Do you know anything about him?
Not so much. But I have watched his tapes and I hope I’m ready to deal with him inside the squared circle. However, only the fight will show who is a better man of the two. My training camp was wonderful. As always, I started to work in native Miass and then moved to the suburbs of Helsinki. It’s so good to train here. Forests, fresh air, no disturbing factors which can force you to lose determination.
Is it hard to fight just a month after your last outing?
Nope, I think it’s just fine. I like to box often so there’s no problem for me here. I have also been told it wouldn’t be a title fight but rather a tune-up six-rounder [in fact, the bout is scheduled for eight rounds]. But I’ll not look over my opponent. I need to get my job done and I’ll take care of this guy.
Your nickname is “Genghis Khan”, a pretty ambitious one. And you definitely had a look of Asian nomad while entering the ring. Was it your idea to adopt such a style for your ring walk and introduction?
[Laughs]. Nah… It’s funny. But actually I’m of Bashkir origin and I’m not a Mongol. The dress and the fur-cap I use are our ethnic species but Finnish fans and TV like them so much. So I use them whenever I enter the ring.
Tell us more about your team.
My head coach is Sergey Sobinov and my manager is Oleg Bogdanov but he also co-promotes me. My team works congruently and does everything to let me just train and fight. That’s perfect. I also want to thank our Finnish partners at P3 Boxing for everything they have done to me. Their support can’t be overestimated.
I know fighters don’t like to speak about their future before the next scheduled fight is over but I’ll ask you anyway. When can we see you in meaningful or title fights?
I don’t know. I hope to get a big fight this year but you better be talking with Oleg about it. I do want to fight for the European or for the world title and I feel that I’m up for the challenge. It seems, however, that P3 Boxing doesn’t want to rush me into stronger opponents and that really disappoints me. We have already talked about giving me a title opportunity but still there’s no response from our Finnish partners.
Finland is a great country but don’t you feel it’s time to move on towards the bigger cites and more established [in terms of boxing] countries than Finland?
I’m all right living and competing in Finland. And I really want to continue fighting here. However, I don’t want to fight bums and journeymen all the time. If I have a good offer from the leading boxing powers or, say, from American TV, I’ll sit down with Oleg and Pekka [Maki] to discuss my future plans.
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“Our relationship with the P3 Boxing is a difficult question to discuss”, adds Oleg Bogdanov. “We are fully content with the financial conditions and terms of our contract. P3 Boxing does a great job supporting Denis and giving him every help he needs to compete on this level. Fans support is great too. However, we aren’t that glad with the present level of competition. We haven’t been offered a meaningful fight yet and it’s really a problem. We tried to sign with Gianluca Branco [former EBU 140lbs champion] but he preferred to fight Denis’ teammate [Juho] Tolppola for the title instead. We haven’t fought any minor titles as well. Right now Denis has some really sound offers from the top boxing promoters. Some of them have a steady connection with American broadcasting giants and can bring Denis to American TV. If P3 can’t move Denis towards the higher hills, we shall consider our future moves carefully”.
If Denis is successful against Cotterill Jr, what is next for him?
“I can’t see him losing to the Australian journeyman but he must be hundred percent ready and he surely mustn’t overlook his opponent which I hope he doesn’t. Anyway, his next fight can be on August 15 and it’ll be really huge I hope. Since the European road is closed right now [Souleyman M’Beye is scheduled to fight Paul McCloskey for the vacant belt in July] we are looking for other titles such as, say, WBC International or IBF Intercontinental and so on. We are close to sign a deal with a very sound name but I don’t want to disclose it right now. Let’s just hope Denis will get his big chance. He is worth of it”.