I’ve been boxing for God-knows-how-many years in God-knows-how-many-gyms, and these days I trade leather with Georgians for fun, and more seriously work in a coaching role with top amateur and professional boxers here in Tbilisi. (To those of you who hate, or aren’t interested, in boxing then I suggest you leave now. Unless you love Georgia. Then stay. Or don’t. I don’t mind).
So, firstly there’s a few things I have to explain before we get into the nitty gritty for the benefit of my non-boxing fan readers. There is no single major championship for boxing worldwide. There was once, years ago, only one world championship body, the World Boxing Association (WBA), but in the ’60s a faction of employees splintered from the mothership and formed the World Boxing Council (WBC). Then in the ’80s came the International Boxing Federation (IBF) and in the ’90s the World Boxing Organisation (WBO). Hence there are four major championships. Now, if you hear on the radio or TV that someone is a ‘world champion’, it might be that they’re not the only one. Like when David Haye won the WBA title in 2009, the British public were all over it, crying ‘We’ve done it! We’ve got a heavyweight champion of the whole world!’, the majority of the non-boxing fans unaware that the other major titles were all held by the double-headed powerhouse that is the Klitschko brothers. Anyway, pay attention now, this is where it gets tricky.
Because more organisations means more money for sanctioning fees, it didn’t stop with these four. Tens of insignificant governing bodies sprung up across the globe, such as the WBU, IBC, IBU, WBF and UBO, each having its own ‘world champion’, who nobody had never heard of and whose fights were attended by literally tens of people.
Regional sanctioning bodies in the West, such as the British Boxing Board of Control, Nevada State Athletic Commission etc., stamped out the possibility that these governing bodies could become universally recognised by refusing to sanction their title fights within their areas of jurisdiction (with the exception of a brief period of credibility for the WBU in the late ’90s and early 2000s). How, you ask, does this relate to Georgia? Well, we’re coming to that. Be patient.
Georgi Kandelaki is arguably Georgia’s most famous boxer; he won the gold medal at the 1996 Amateur Boxing World Championships and then turned professional in the United Kingdom. Not bad, you say, and quite right; it’s quite a thing to win gold in the world championships, especially in the heaviest weight class. But Kandelaki’s success was marred for several reasons.
As a foreign national, he wasn’t eligible to compete for the prestigious British and Commonwealth titles, two championships that are even more recognised worldwide than their American counterparts (due to their age; it’s not a matter of prejudice against American titles). That throws something of a spanner in the works; the normal career path for a prizefighter is something like this (in Britain): English title, British, Commonwealth, European, Intercontinental (WBA/WBC/IBF/WBO) and then world championship. It’s not always the case, but unless you won Olympic gold once and the world/national/regional amateur championships multiple times you’re unlikely to have a crack at the world title until you’ve won of these straps.
You’ve all heard about boxing promoters and their shadiness. During his twenty-four fight career, Kandelaki was in the stable of Frank Maloney, one of our top promoters. But I don’t think he helped his career at all. You see, at the time Kandelaki was fighting, Maloney was rather invested in looking after his main man, the great Lennox Lewis, the most successful British heavyweight of all time. Promoters are ever ‘looking after’ their fighters, guarding undefeated records closely and making sure that their own boxers are never matched together, instead preferring to put their men in with opponents from rival promotional firms.
Now, since Lennox Lewis held the WBC championship for most of Kandelaki’s career (and more portions of the title towards the end), you can perhaps understand how that made a Kandelaki tilt at the WBC belt more or less impossible. The other titles at the time were changing hands between Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones Jr., Herbie Hide and Mike Tyson, all household names who the paying public would prefer to see in the ring with each other rather than a little-known Georgian. Sadly, Kandelaki just came into boxing at the wrong time, or perhaps into the wrong division. Maybe he would have dominated the cruiserweights or light-heavies of his day? Who can say.
In that last paragraph, I used the phrase ‘looking-after’ in the way promoters deal with boxers. Well, they do. I was wondering a few years ago why Kandelaki never even got a shot at the Inter-Continental titles of the four major bodies. I investigated whom the titles were being held by at the time, and believe I now know why. Kandelaki’s prominence as an amateur, winning the gold at the world championships, was rather dwarfed the previous year by the Olympic Gold medal won by Wladimir Klitschko, and the professional debut of both Wladimir and his brother Vitali. Based in Germany, a nation where boxing is a more prominent sport than in Britain, they quickly rose to fame, snatched the Inter-Continental and European titles, and moved to world honours at the turn of century, Vitali first, and little brother soon after. Now, if I was Frank Maloney, I wouldn’t want my fighter anywhere near those two. Dangerous punchers, technically excellent and both standing over six and-a-half feet tall, an unofficial (later made official) agreement was put in place that dictated that defeating one brother meant you had to face the other, and since both brothers possess very different styles and qualities, they were certainly not the targets for a fledging heavyweight.
Instead, Kandelaki challenged for the WBU title and won it towards the end of his career, fighting only once more before retiring from eye problems. The WBU belt isn’t a complete disaster, especially for boxers who were not Olympic medallists or long-reigning amateur standouts. Ricky Hatton, Johnny Nelson and Enzo Maccarinelli (to use British examples) all held the WBU strap before moving on to bigger and better things. But Kandelaki never did. He had not lost in twenty-four fights, which in itself is impressive I suppose, but considering most world-class boxers remain undefeated until they meet opponents of their own abilities for one, or more, genuine world titles it seems Kandelaki retired when he was just getting going. Hearing him described as an ‘undefeated world champion’ is just laughable.
What I find really amazing is the way he is revered by Georgian people, who refer to him as being the ‘undefeated heavyweight champion of the world’. That seems a bit of a stretch, having only held a very minor title, not defending it at all and never even holding a recognised regional championship. But it’s simply because Georgian boxers don’t have the style to win on the world stage.
Now before you tear me up and tell me I’m wrong, listen and learn. Georgian boxers love to hit things hard, and they do it damned well. They also take punchers well; they’re tough, and very hard to knock down, let alone knock out. Their favourite boxers are the real come-forward-knockout-artists, like Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Manny Pacqiauo, Ricky Hatton and Carl Froch. They have absolutely no time for the defensive masters, or people who dance away and fight from range, like Floyd Mayweather, Sugar Ray Leonard, Andre Ward, Muhammad Ali etc.
But the fact of the matter is, knockout punchers are beaten by stylists almost every time; Hatton lost to Mayweather, Carl Froch was schooled by Andre Ward, and Sugar Ray Leonard tamed the best that was Marvin Hagler. Their love is for fighters, not boxers. Recently, rising British talent has faced Georgian opposition; Martin Murray, Matthew Macklin, James DeGale and Dereck Chisora have a combined record of six wins and no losses against Kartvelian pugs, all perfect examples of boxers meeting fighters.
To Georgians, dancing away and throwing the jab is cowardly. But the judges see it differently; 10 or 12 rounds of a Westerner dancing around the ring hitting a Georgian in the face with light jabs might seem like a cad’s tactic to a Georgian, but it’s an impressive display of boxing to the trained eye. It all boils down to a very different mentality. To Georgian boxers, there is no shame in defeat, providing you haven’t been too banged about and managed to land a few good shots of your own. But to Western promoters, if you’re aiming for the big time and have a single loss on your record, you’re not worth their time.
There are two Georgian boxers who hold better titles than Kandelaki ever did right now, Iago Kiladze and Avantdil Khurtsidze. Kiladze is undefeated with 19 wins (13) and holds the WBA Intercontinental title, which has got him a number 12 slot on the WBA’s cruiserweight ratings. Khurtsidze holds the WBC Silver (a second-rate, though legitimate title) belt, and has a respectable record of 27 wins (16), 2 losses (1) and 2 draws. Neither man is well-known in Georgia outside of boxing circles, but Kandelaki still has moderate celebrity.
The reason is this: Kiladze and Khurtsidze, though born and raised in Georgia (Tbilisi and Kutaisi respectively), both men chose to base their careers in the Ukraine. Georgians have told me it’s because they can make more money there and will be in line for titles faster; certainly they have more TV exposure in Eastern Europe and Germany thanks to the efforts of the Klitschko Management Group (KMG). However, boxing is not like football, you don’t need to be in the right place at the right time for success to come your way. Just don’t lose; all boxing results and ratings are filed through Boxrec, an international body that compiles statistics minutes after the end result of a bout. The fact is, I know plenty of Georgian boxers who have had chances at major titles and failed.
Though both Georgian, neither Kiladze nor Khurtsidze possess a Georgian style of boxing, and I think this, more than anything, is why they have chosen to base themselves out of the Ukraine. Ukrainian boxers have consistently found success on the world stage, with Vyacheslav Senchenko, Andriy Kotelnyk, Dmitry Salita and of course, the Klitschko brothers, all winning major (and sometimes multiple) world titles.
I suppose the worst thing about all this is the frustration. When I train with my boxers, getting them to dance away and pop the jab is a nightmare, but the only way to become a complete fighter is to learn every different style; sure, you find your own personal preference, but appreciating someone else’s method enables you to realise their own vulnerabilities. Georgians are naturally good fighters, born with a toughness Europeans and Americans don’t have. But being a good fighter is not the same as being a good boxer.
So there you have it. My take on boxing in Georgia. Maybe you learned something. Or maybe you didn’t. Who knows? Next time we’ll talk about something else. Aliens maybe? Or Megan Fox. Yeah. Megan Fox. Let’s do that.