You enter the arena, the favourite. Dubbed the ‘hardest hitting man, pound-for-pound’ by hundreds of online media outlets, you ooze confidence. An icy expression, a wirey beard and eyes that could scratch diamonds. It’s your biggest platform and your toughest fight, time to establish yourself. Another night at the office, right?
Less than six minutes after the opening bell, Dmitry Kudryashov was testing the canvas. With his back. I’d say he was ‘looking’ upward, but those same piercing eyes had been robbed of their focus. Standing over his stiff body was Yunier Dorticos (22-0, 21KOs).
I spoke to the Cuban powerhouse as he touched down in Sochi, ahead of his World Boxing Super Series semi-final. Sandwiched between Russian opposition, he told me about the elder statesman he had left in his wake.
“I was very happy to KO Kudryashov since he was already known in Russia and in Europe. I wanted to fight Kudryashov from before, since I heard there was a ‘Russian Hammer’. After my KO, all the fans were able to see my victory. I was ready for Kudryashov and I wasn’t surprised at all.”
The WBA regular champion, it was recognition long overdue for Dorticos. A name that has slipped under the radar for European boxing fans, he cemented his position in the cruiserweight division’s elite whilst crushing Kudryashov, but was now ready to put his dominance beyond doubt. He faces Murat Gassiev in a number of days (February 3rd), with the winner due to lock horns with Oleksandr Usyk in Jeddah.
Gassiev, also unbeaten, has home advantage. An equally successful, unbeaten professional and the holder of the IBF cruiserweight World title, the Abel Sanchez-trained fighter has plans of his own. Dorticos told me though, he is supremely confident wherever the fight ends up.
“I have been preparing and my training camp has been amazing and we are already in Sochi. We have been training and preparing for a knockout or twelve rounds if we have to. I’m in the best physical shape and the whole World will see come Saturday, February 3rd in Sochi.”
He’s had to do it the hard way, as most Cuban professionals do. Shunned by their famed amateur scene, I was keen to understand Yunier’s reasons for defection from his native Island.
After speaking to Guillermo Rigondeaux and the Barthelemy brothers, it had become evident to me that the sacrifices made are far greater than any British fighter could understand. The Cubans may have moved for different reasons, but one thing they all mentioned was severing ties with their loved ones – unthinkable.
“Leaving Cuba was very hard and a sacrifice because I had to leave my family behind. I was disappointed because I was not selected by the Cuban boxing Olympic team to be part of the Olympic Games in Beijing 2008. I decided to leave Cuba to (move) anywhere in the World to pursue my career as a professional boxer.”
He continued, discussing his introduction to boxing in a country that includes the sport in its very foundations.
“When I was a kid I was an athlete and played many sports and ended up boxing. I grew up in Cuba’s countryside with my family and boxing was my destiny. Cuba has always been known to be a power-house (of boxing) and I was blessed to be part of that.”
If only the young Yunier could see himself now… A far cry from the open water and virtual barricade that surrounds Cuba, he has wound up in Sochi. Cold, unforgiving and yet potentially the scene of his greatest triumph. The World Boxing Super Series has provided him the opportunity often missed by Havana’s finest.
Before the tournament kicked off, even some of boxing’s most ardent fans would have struggled to rhyme off his biggest win. They’d have struggled to list his strongest attributes. Ask them now however, there’s a chance they’d attempt to recreate Kudryashov’s manic, lost pupils. Dorticos’ threat is very real.
With the omission of Denis Lebedev and Tony Bellew, I asked him whether he had ever considered his position on the roster?
“No (I never considered not taking part). I accepted because I wanted to fight against the best fighters in the World in my division. It’s not about me being impressed (with its success), this is what boxing needed to see who is the best in the World and the best fight the best.”
‘His division’, for now, is cruiserweight. A limit of no more than two-hundred-pounds. Despite his 6ft’3in frame, he weighed in with a pound to spare before his last contest. The conversation surrounding one of his main rivals, Oleksandr Usyk, has been a potential move to heavyweight. I knew Yunier was focused on the task ahead, yet couldn’t help but wonder…
“I am a small cruiserweight but, if I have to go to heavyweight and make the division hot – absolutely I will!”
First thing’s first. Overcoming the odds in Russia, according to the bookmakers, will be tricky. Gassiev sits at 1/2 on with some betting companies, with Dorticos a clear outsider at 6/4.
The Cuban’s demeanour hasn’t changed. He looks calm in the face of pressure, almost too relaxed. He seems the kind of man to answer questions with a shrugging of his shoulders, as opposed to verbal communication. You could see him on a sun-lounger, sipping a cold drink before the most intense sporting event of his career. Ice cold. That’s just how they breed them in Havana.
He closed our chat with confidence, “My fight against Gassiev is another fight and come Saturday February 3rd the World will know who is the best and in this case it will be me!”
Why would we doubt him? Escaping countries, leaving family and punching his way into mega-fights – Yunier Dorticos hasn’t put a foot wrong. February 3rd is his chance to shine, in a dark and chilling Bolshoy Ice Dome. He’s been denied the chance of a regular success and denied a normal career, who dares to deny him in Russia?
Written by Craig Scott