By Alexey Sukachev
Being inactive for a long period of time, maybe be for a year or even longer, is always a problem for a professional pugilist. Despite skills, past honors and experience, overcoming ring rust is always an issue. Expatriate Soviet fighters have mastered this hard science well. Last year, coming back after four years of injuries and inactivity, Vitaly Klitschko schooled the robust WBC heavyweight champion Samuel Peter and gave him a boxing lesson, long to be remembered. Dmitry Kirillov captured the IBF super flyweight belt a year and a half after his previous fight. Less than a week ago Russian welterweight Ivan Kirpa, who has fought just twice in five years and was pretty much forgotten even in his homeland, got back with a bang, scoring a virtual shutout over much more active Mexican Miguel Rodriguez in the WBC semifinal welterweight eliminator. This Saturday another Russian fighter will attempt to continue this trend in the most important fight of his career, when WBO #7 cruiserweight Denis Lebedev (17-0, 12 KOs) collides with the former champion and currently IBF #9 Enzo Maccarinelli (29-3, 22 KOs) for the vacant WBO intercontinental 200lb title.
“Who is this guy near Alexander?”
“Don’t know him; it can be one of his friends or maybe his sparring partner.” The fragment of a conversation between two men at the back stage of the scene during Povetkin-Sykes presser last July was a revealing one. Those two knew completely nothing about a stocky, yet strong man, who was sitting near one of the best Russian heavyweights. Those, who knew him better, were short in comments, “Denis is back?! That becomes interesting from now on.” Denis Lebedev was a main subject of both dialogues.
In 2001, the young light heavyweight from an old Russian city of Stary Oskol quickly became a local sensation, defeating veteran tough guy Teymuraz Kekelidze in his debut, capturing the national title in the third fight as a pro and defending it once during the opening year at paid ranks. In the next two years, Lebedev rolled over a number of opponents, including several well-known journeymen. Then, all of a sudden, it was a year off; then two more fights were conducted in 2004 and, finally, Denis mysteriously disappeared from the Russian boxing map.
“I was living in real poverty. There were peanuts for the hard work I was accomplishing inside the squared circle. Competing in minor title ten rounders I was paid $50 for the round at the very best, you know? And such bouts weren’t arranged each month. I was living virtually for nothing, being forced to take underpaid jobs only to provide for my wife and my little child”, recalls Lebedev. “But I’m a man, and my duty is to maintain my family. It was a hard bet but I decided to give up boxing and to try myself in something different.”
It hadn’t been any easier. Denis tried various jobs and sorts of activity but was unable to find a stable source of funds for his needs. Nothing had been earned; hopes had been crushed and dusted off far away. All, that has remained, were friends, and Denis used this last refuge of hope.
“Last spring I visited Chekhov to resolve some non-boxing issues. But to be in Chekhov and not to visit the local boxing centre, maybe the best of its kind in Russia, was simply impossible. Moreover, Alexander Povetkin and his brother Vladimir – who are my long-time personal friends, by the way – were training there. It’s to be said, that I know Sasha very well. We often competed together in amateurs and sometimes it was Povetkin’s coach, who guided me through the tournaments abroad, when my own trainer failed to appear for a bunch of reasons,” continues Lebedev. “I asked Alexander if he could help me with anything. He had just said to take this phone number and to call the man whose name was imprinted on a small sheet of paper. It was Vladimir Hrunov’s cell phone number. Sasha said he could do nothing more for me. It was more than enough I replied.”
“I was skeptical at the very beginning of a specifically arranged workout,” Vladimir Hrunov is speaking calmly in his usual soft, but prudent manner. “It’s hard not to be. The guy was out of the ring for almost four years, a huge period even for the greatest champions. Ali, Robinson and Tyson – all of them took long lay-offs once in their magical careers. They returned and fought back at the peak of their abilities but their best shape had never been in the vicinity of a touch after their comeback; even though they – each of them – showed some tremendous skills after hiatus. Lebedev looked rusty; not that it surprised me much though. But I felt, I saw something in him, something really inspiring. He has an enormous potential. He should have been sent in right direction, and I decided to find the one.”
Lebedev’s comeback lasted less than 100 seconds, when he brutally crushed Georgian Archil Mezvrishvili during the Povetkin-Sykes undercard. Competing now at 200lb, Lebedev surely felt the massive advantage in his newly-gained muscular mass. Two more wins followed till the end of 2008, one of them being a second-round demolition of Nick Okoth at M.E.N. Arena during the undercard of the sensational first-minute destruction of the locally beloved British icon Amir Khan at the hands of Breidis Prescott.
It was when Frank Warren got a notice. Now Denis Lebedev is competing under his promotion. The time for a major step-up in class was nearing, and former heavyweight fringe contender Eliseo Castillo was selected as the litmus paper for Denis’ real skills. The test has been passed with a tremendous ease this April at the small gym in Balashikha. Castillo, who had a win over famed ex-champion Michael Moorer, was taking an increasing punishment at the hands of cautious, yet precise and powerful Lebedev throughout five rounds. Finally, he went down after a classic “right-left” combination in round five, got up and immediately went down after a counter left hand of the hard-hitting southpaw that put him back on canvas for the second time. After another barrage of blows the game was over for the Cuban fighter.
“Castillo was a major threat and I had been preparing for that fight correspondingly,” says the modest and diligent fighter. “There was no bad blood between us despite all of the things he had said prior the match-up,” speaks Denis in a soft and a bit slurred manner; not the result of the punishment he is taking in the ring but just his normal voice. “He was a tough opponent but there was nothing spectacular from him during the bout. I just waited for my chance and then tried to do my best to get the most of it.”
The Cuban cruiserweight was the toughest foe in the 29-year old Russian fighter’s pro career so far. A much bigger test awaits Lebedev just in a couple of days, when he collides with the former champion of the world Enzo Maccarinelli in what seems to be an intrinsic cross-roader for Team Warren. Enzo Mac is coming off a bitter loss to a huge underdog in Nigerian Ola Afolabi this March. The Welshman was thought to become a new champion with ease, crushing the cautiously-picked opponent. Yet it was Ofolabi, who came back as a winner after a devastative one-punch candidate for the knockout of the year in the ninth round. After two recent blowouts Maccarinelli, 28, won’t possibly have another chance if he is to be defeated by up-and-coming Lebedev. Denis is well-aware of his dangerous opponent and recognizes the fight won’t be a walk in the park.
“An old proverb says that the wounded tiger is twice more dangerous than the healthy one. The loss isn’t an option for Enzo, but it’s not an option for me either. I saw two of his fights, including his pitch battle versus Afolabi. I respect him as a world class fighter but I’m fully confident in myself. I mounted this comeback not to pad my record against no-hopers and trialhorses but to become a champion of the world. ‘The thicker the grass is, the easier is the way to mow it’, said Attila once. I hope to deliver my A-game and to stop Enzo on Saturday night.”
Lebedev has been preparing for the upcoming clash in his native Stary Oskol. The Lebedev-Maccarinelli fight will be a part of the huge tournament, promoted by Frank Warren Sports Network this Saturday at M.E.N. Arena in Manchester, England, which will be headlined by the WBA light welterweight clash between the champion Andrey Kotelnik and British superstar Amir Khan.