By Alexey Sukachev and Andrey Bazdrev
Photos: Andrey Bazdrev
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This Thursday, July 2, once-beaten cruiserweight Grigory Drozd (31-1, 23 KOs) will face his toughest test since the only loss to ex-world champion Firat Arslan in October 2006. At “Dynamo” Sports Arena (the part of Krylatskoye Sports Complex), Drozd, who is one step from challenging one of five world champions in his weight class, collides with the dangerous American brawler Darnell “Ding-a-Ling Man” Wilson (23-8-3, 20 KOs) in the risky defense of his PABA and WBO Asia Pacific 200lb titles. Not only will minor belts be at stake but also Drozd’s WBO #1, WBA #2 and WBC/IBF #5 world rankings are on the line against the currently unrated Wilson…but Drozd just doesn’t feel the pressure, it seems.
It’s a cool Friday noon here in Moscow. The temperature is barely above 13 degrees Celsius, which is a rare occurrence in Russian capital during this hot and humid June, air is visibly dense and wet, sky is foggy and one cannot see the naked sun as it is surrounded by a grayish shroud of clouds; the weather seems to be an evil stepmother for busy Muscovites. Grigory Drozd (Drozd means ‘thrush’ in Russian) is staying near his car, preparing to depart from “Krylya Sovetov” sports gym following his recently finished open workout.
The Top Russian cruiserweight contender is as calm as one can ever imagine, and he just doesn’t feel the nasty environment, while wearing a light T-shirt. Drozd is focused and accurate but stoical as well. He speaks very calm and positive in friendly manner, smiling and joking quietly with his friends and reporters around him. His nickname is “Pretty Boy,” just like the Money Mayweather’s penultimate moniker had been. It certainly hits the bull’s-eye.
Drozd is a different person inside the squared circle: aggressive, furious, brutal and even cruel at some moments. The epitome of his best features was showcased during the last fight, when Drozd floored well-known “All-American Prizefighter” Rob Calloway eight times en route to a huge seventh-round TKO. Calloway was successively decked in each fought round (twice in the third), took a major punishment and had a bloody mask instead of his face after the stoppage.
Calloway was in the twilight of his sixteen-year long pro career last December, when he was battered by Drozd in Nizhny Novgorod, but, if it’s not enough, one can watch some other examples of Grigory’s immense power. Saul Montana, Yan Koulkov, Pavel Melkomian and Laudelino Jose Barros were either undefeated prospects or highly touted contenders at the peak of their abilities, when they – each of them – were dismantled by the charging Russian cruiser.
In the gym he is shadowboxing one round, hitting the punching bag for another three minutes, working mitts with his trainer Sergey Vasilyev and, finally, skipping rope for another round. The last exercise is a major element of his usual training. The truth is that Drozd isn’t a boxer originally, but a Muay Thai specialist.
“It was a hard task to accomplish”, recalls 29-year old Grigory his transition between the low-kick, knee-and-ankles master and conventional boxer. “The biggest problem was my footwork. It’s quite different in boxing and in Muay Thai, so it took me much time and hard work in gym to adjust my style to the fistic game. I’m still accomplishing all these exercises prior the bouts and during every training as well. The punching technique differs too, not in the power department but in the speed and frequency of blows”.
Drozd indeed was a decorated Muay Thai practitioner in his amateur days. But, what seems to be even more curious, he started his career as a karate kid.
“I was born in a small mining town of Prokopyevsk in Siberia. My grandmother has been working in a mine the whole life, and my mother still works as a miner. As for me, I started my sports career at 12, when I fell in love with karate. Three years later I began working with Vitaly Ilyin, who brought me to the world stardom. We decided to combine karate with kickboxing and it had proven later to be a smart move. At 15 I had already become Russian junior champion in light-contact and later took the third place at Asian championship”, describes Drozd. “In 1995 I got acquainted with Sergey Zayashnikov and under his management I turned to the Muay Thai. It was another great turnaround in my life. Debuting in a new sport, I immediately won the CIS amateur championship. I have also won 2001 Bangkok world championship and twice took the first places at European amateur competitions; this resulting in me being awarded with the “World-class Master of Sports” honorary title”.
It wasn’t until 2001, when Grigory Drozd turned a pro boxer under the guidance of his current trainer Sergey Vasilyev. Though the transition wasn’t that smooth, Drozd says that at the end of the day Muay Thai experience played a vital role in improving him as a pugilist. “After 200-250 bouts at unpaid ranks, former amateurs have usually little left in them and their boxing age is considerably shortened. Though the Muay Thai is even more physically imposing, I can’t say its representatives are too shop-worn prior the move towards conventional boxing. On the other hand, the Muay Thai is a much rougher kind of sport. So that it’s easier to sustain physical pain in boxing than in kickboxing or Muay Thai”, confirms Drozd.
“The Pretty Boy” started his pro career with eighteen wins in a row over low-caliber opposition (except for the dangerous puncher Yan Koulkov and former world title challenger Muslim Biarslanov), before making a splash overseas with a bloody ninth-round TKO over Mexican veteran Saul Montana in March 2004. “That was the toughest fight of the whole career. Even my clash against Firat Arslan wasn’t that hard though the opposite can be said based on the final outcome of that fight. Montana looked chubby but he was a true fighter, who gave me all I could handle. That was a great victory, when I had finally stopped him in the ninth!”
Drozd caught the momentum well, promptly scoring six more wins, including stoppages of then unbeaten prospect Pavel Melkomian and American fringe contender Shane Swartz. The title was just at hand for Drozd, who had relocated himself from Prokopyevsk to Moscow at this stage of his career. Unfortunately for him, the WBA eliminator against German Firat Arslan ended in five rounds… Not in Drozd’s favor (Arslan later went forward to become the WBA regular champion before losing the belt to Panamanian Guillermo Jones).
“That was a painful loss for me”, Drozd doesn’t lose his focus for a second and speaks in solid manner without any excitation. “It was cause by various psychological problems. I can’t say I had lost my determination then, but maybe, just maybe I either underestimate or overestimate my opponent. I wasn’t ready for that fight and there was nobody to alert me about the toughness of the upcoming challenge. I have changed much since then. I’m an entirely different man right now. The old axiom proves to be right again: the undefeated and the defeated fighters are two essentially different persons, and that’s true. Or like an old Russian proverb says, ‘Give me one beaten man for the price of two unbeatens'”. The rematch is in his head but first things first, “Definitely, I want to erase that loss from my memories and the only way to do that is to avenge that horrible red spot in my record. But now I’m focused on becoming a world champion. I need the title badly and I hope my promoter German Titov will arrange me a title opportunity till the end of this year. And then I shall think about Arslan again”.
But currently Darnell Wilson is on Grigory’s mind, “I have an utmost respect for my future opponent. No, no, I don’t know him personally but I’ve watched his tapes and they revealed me what a dangerous fighter will be fighting me on July 2. He is physically strong, possesses a thunderous left hook and he will try to involve me in a street brawl in early rounds to hurt me and to end the fight prematurely. Allowing him to realize his plan is not an option”. Drozd accomplished the majority of punching exercises during the open workout in a southpaw stance. What’s the catch? “We are preparing some thrilling surprises for Darnell. Come July 2 and you will see everything yourself”.
… Ironically, Drozd had a major chance to get acquainted with Darnell Wilson personally the same day. However, the “Ding-a-Ling Man” entered the dressing room seconds before Drozd came out of shower and towards his car. Oppositely to the Russian fighter, Wilson was in skittish mood, joking, mimicking and bringing noise and joyful chaos all around him. One of us paid little attention to Darnell’s playfulness and unleash fast series of questions to the fighter.
- Darnell, we welcome you in Moscow. Is it the first time you are visiting our city?
- Nope, man! I’ve already been here before. What a great city Moscow is! I love it, man! Buildings here are nice, their architecture is just beautiful. I see so many interesting people on the streets of the city. They are friendly, open-minded, nice people.
- One of them is Grigory Drozd, who resides in Moscow now. What is your opinion of him?
- He is number one! I mean he is the best Russian cruiserweight and the world ranks just prove it smoothly. He is a dangerous man and I expect him to be hundred percent ready the coming night and to deliver his A-game. No doubt about that. He will be ready and so shall I.
- Have you ever seen him fighting?
- Definitely, I have seen him. I watched his tapes (including his last four fights) so I’m ready for his tricks.
- Was it hard for you to get those tapes? I remember a user, named “Ding”, at one of the boxing forums around the Web, asking other users…
- Oh, are you kidding?! That was me!
- Yep, exactly! You are a dangerous person, and you know much about me. I’m even afraid of answering your questions (laughing).
- Well, at least you know that I know who you are. But let us be back to our talk. What is your take on Drozd’s strengths?
- He is a well-rounded fighter and he does a lot of things well. He can box you inside but he is also good outside. And, believe me, Drozd is very tough. He can take punch and, when he takes it, he wants to pay you back, which is ideal for fans because he is made for fun fights. He is fast, he punches well. He is a complete pug, you know. I like him.
- Drozd is much higher than you are (6’1” against 5’10”). Will it be the factor on July 2?
- You know what? I fought a much higher competition during my career. So I shan’t be intimidated by his size and physical abilities. I fought real heavyweights, guys much stronger than him, and I know what this is all about. I’ll use my height to my advantage, boxing underneath.
- He is also a former Muay Thai standout, don’t you know?
- Yes, I know about that.
- Will this knowledge help you during the upcoming fight?
- Maybe, but I think he has adapted to boxing just fine. His balance is great, and it doesn’t resemble that of the former kickboxers. He possesses a natural talent and lightness in his steps, his lateral movement is great too. So I know it’ll be hard to tag him. But I’ll try anyway.
- Who was the most dangerous opponent of your entire career?
- Emmanuel Nwodo. He punches harder than anyone I’ve ever faced throughout my life. I don’t think Drozd can punch as hard as him, though he is a heavy hitter too.
- In that fight, you were trailing on points but caught the Nigerian with that horrific left hook that made that kayo a frontrunner for the best knockout of 2007. This trick hasn’t been repeated in your last fight against Hino Ehikhomenor. What was the reason?
- I wasn’t prepared for that fight. I took it on short notice. I was just sitting, eating. I wasn’t ready to fight Hino.
- That fight was a part of Contender IV series. That was a good chance to showcase your natural abilities in from of a big crowd of casuals. But you have lost that chance. Why?
- Lots of reasons for that. First of all, I haven’t even known for sure that I would take my part in the show. The fact is that I’m a professional fighter and I should be in shape, and I wasn’t in shape for the Hino fight. I’m as quick as mercury and I wasn’t quick that night. I was way overweight; I was fa-a-at and slo-o-ow!
- And what can you tell us about your present conditions?
- Not much to tell. Just that I have been preparing for this fight for six weeks.
Wilson takes off his turtleneck sweater to reveal the muscular body. “Oh, my God! Posh!” The girl reporter near me is undoubtedly excited with Darnell’s brutal look.
- So, you are hundred percent ready, right? But conditioning isn’t the only key to take the nod. What’s about your tactics? Lots of experts think you are a one-way brawler, whose only chance is to engage the opponent into a slugfest.
- That’s about right. I’m a knockout artist. I’ll go right after him and I shall do whatever it takes to put Grigory to sleep. I know he has never been knocked out before, even in Arslan fight, but I want to be the first one to accomplish this hard task.
- You are known for you immense power. What if Grigory will adopt the same tactics that was used by BJ Flores a year and a half ago?
- Oh, no-o. He won’t do that, believe me. He is fighting in front of his countrymen. He gets hit, he fights you back. You know what? His nickname is “Pretty Boy”. When the pretty boy is getting beat up, he is trying to avenge it and to fight you back. I’m sure it’ll be helluva fight!
- What is your final prediction?
- I don’t do predictions. But if we are to fight at a peak pace, the fight will be over till the third round!
* * *
34-year old Wilson is quickly jumping through the ropes to start his fast but intense training. He works mitts with his coach Carlos Diaz. The leather is flying at ultimate speed and one cannot see a single punch thrown. The American fighter seems to be in great shape and his speed is simply awesome. Everybody, impressed with the performance, is slowly leaving the gym, shaking their heads and preparing for a heated Thursday night…
Grigory Drozd – Darnell Wilson showdown will headline a huge Moscow card, promoted by the leading Russian promoter German Titov and arranged at “Dynamo” sports arena. As the fight day approaches, the card is slowly shaping up to be the biggest capital boxing tournament since October 2007 Moscow doubleheader, including Sultan Ibragimov – Evander Holyfield and Dmitry Kirillov – Jose Navarro.
In the second title bout of the night, WBO #6 featherweight Andrey Isaev (20-1, 7 KOs) of Belarus will put his WBO Asia Pacific title at stake against Thai import Chaiyong Sithsaithong (17-4-3, 14 KOs). Isaev acquired his belt in November 2007, stopping much more decorated Chaiyoung’s compatriot Saohin Srithai Condo is nine rounds of action. His only loss came by a technical knockout to a highly regarded British super featherweight contender Kevin Mitchell in 2006. The Belarussian fighter was never hurt in action but lost that battle on cuts in the eleventh round. Sithsaithong, on the other hand, has never been stopped in his pro career. His most known opponents were Z Gorres and Vyacheslav Gusev, and he dropped lopsided decisions to both of them.
Another Thai to enter the arena on Thursday night will be lightweight Sapapetch Sor Sakaorat (14-5, 9 KOs), who will do his limited best to stop light-hitting but extremely skillful Russian Dmitry Ganiev (9-0-1, 3 KOs) in the initial defense of Ganiev’s PABA title. This fight will also be billed for an interim version of the WBO Asia Pacific belt at 135 lbs; the full title belonging to Australian star Michael Katsidis. This clash is scheduled for eleven rounds.
The fourth title bout of the evening will see Russian light heavyweight champion Vasily “Professor” Lepikhin (6-0, 4 KOs) going after the first international title in his young pro career against teammate Roman Simakov (6-0-1, 4 KOs). The vacant Baltic Boxing Union 175lb belt will be up for grabs in an eight-rounder.
Four non-title bouts will round up the card. In a collision of two undefeated featherweights, Russian-based Georgian Georgi Kevlishvili (10-0, 3 KOs) takes on the third Thai of the evening in Saichon Satornpitak (10-0, 5 KOs). The fight is scheduled for eight rounds. Much-talked Russian hard-hitting heavyweight prospect Magomed Abdusalamov (4-0, 4 KOs), supported by Yuri Fedorov and Seminole Warriors Boxing, will try to extend his streak of first-round kayos versus unheralded Uzbek Sherzod Mamajanov (6-8, 2 KOs). Talented Russian-based Tajik bantamweight Sahib Usarov (11-0, 6 KOs) will see action in a non-title six-rounder against an opponent to be defined later.
Finally, the card will be decorated with the pro debut of Ukrainian Vyacheslav Glazkov, 2007 Chicago silver medalist and 2008 Beijing bronze medalist in super heavyweight division. Glazkov is facing no pushover in German-based Turk Ozcan Cetinkaya (15-5-1, 9 KOs).
The weigh-in and the final presser to announce the event will start at 11 AM LT this Wednesday at “Design” hotel near the VDNKH metro station. Doors for spectators will open at 6 PM on Thursday and the first bout is preliminary set at 7 PM. The tickets for the event are priced at 350, 500, 700, 2000, 2500, 6000, 10000 and 15000 rubles and are still available for sale. They can be booked via http://kassir.ru and the phone number is +7-495-730-730-0.