From Russia with gloves
Could the next heavyweight champion of the world be a Muslim Russian immigrant living in Oxnard?
By Chris Jay 02/28/2013
THE MANY IMMIGRANTS who now call Ventura County their home probably all share the belief that a better life for themselves and their families can be found here. They also each have a story of how and why they’ve come here and what their version of the American dream is.
For one man who has come to Oxnard from Russia, his dream is as big, and nearly impossible, as anyone can imagine … to become the heavyweight champion of the world. It’s certainly not the average immigrant’s goal but if there’s one thing that’s certain about Magomed Abdusalamov, a Russian-born Muslim who has knocked out every opponent he’s faced in the ring, he is not your average man.
While most boxers come from less-than-desirable neighborhoods and environments, the conditions in the Russian republic that Mago grew up in are almost unfathomable to someone living in the United States.
Abdusalamov, who goes by the nickname Mago, comes from Dagestan, an ethnically diverse republic of Russia where more than 30 different languages are commonly spoken. It’s a predominantly Muslim region that, since the late 1990s, has been rife with political and religious conflict. The terrorism that has occurred there, mostly in the form of suicide bombings and assassinations, stands in juxtaposition to the region’s gorgeous mountain landscape that borders the Caspian Sea.
An all-smiles Abdusalamov shows off his softer side
while playing with his daughters, Saygibat and Shakhrizat,
in the living room of his home in Oxnard.
If the Western world knows Dagestan for all the wrong reasons, the people of Dagestan pride themselves more on their athletic programs and sports teams. Known throughout Europe for producing focused and fearsome competitors, Dagestan citizens hold successful athletes as national heroes and international representatives of their diverse and often overlooked region.
It was into this culture that Mago was born in Dagestan’s capital city of Makhachkala on March 25, 1981. He grew up in a strict Muslim household and was his parents’ first male child. Growing up in large family (he has five older sisters and a younger brother), from an early age his hard-disciplining father wisely pushed his son into sports as a way to shelter him from the growing violence and crime in the city.
As Mago laughingly recalls through an interpreter, “When I was young, my father said, ‘You can either be a sportsman or a bandit. It is your choice. But if you choose to become a bandit, I will kill you.’ That made it a very easy decision for me.”
As a boy, Mago exceled in martial arts like taekwondo and muay Thai. As he grew into his large frame during his teenage years, he became an amateur kickboxing champion. It wasn’t until a leg injury hampered his training that he decided to take up boxing in his early 20s, a relatively late age for a fighter to start. Though not the most graceful of pugilists, he managed to become the Russian super heavyweight amateur champion in 2005 and 2006, winning most of the tournament’s bouts by knockouts. Since boxers use protective headgear at the amateur level to reduce the impact of blows, it was a nearly unheard-of feat.
Clad in a protective body shield, assistant trainer,
Joseph “Hoss” Janik works the mitts with Abdusalamov
at a recent training session.
Mago’s punching power caused a stir in the Russian boxing world, and in the process he became a minor sensation back home in sports-crazed Dagestan. Unfortunately, Mago was overshadowed by another heavyweight who had more popularity in mainstream Russia, and he was not invited to compete in international competition.
To add to that disappointment, he lost an Olympic qualifying match in which he fought despite an injury he had received prior to the fight. Frustrated by the complicated politics and point scoring of the amateur level, Mago gave up boxing completely and began looking for work. He also married Bakanay, a young, local Dagestan girl. Local may be an understatement, though, as he grew up literally next door to her, and they had their first child, a daughter named Shakhrizat, shortly thereafter.
The quiet life quickly changed for Mago when Boris Grinberg came into his life. Grinberg, a longtime boxing manager originally from Russia, was on a quest to find a boxer with heavyweight championship potential. When he received a call from a friend in Dagestan who told Grinberg about the hard-hitting former amateur champion, he was intrigued. After watching one training session, Grinberg was convinced he had found the fighter he was looking for. He persuaded Mago to turn professional, where his hard-hitting style would be more appreciated; and in 2008 Mago did just that, fittingly knocking out his first opponent in the first round in Moscow.
It was quickly decided by Grinberg that if Mago was to get the opportunities a professional boxer with true potential deserves, be it in the form of training, exposure or money, America was the place he needed to be.
It was a difficult decision, especially with a wife and young child, neither of whom had ever been outside their native country, but Mago agreed to come to the United States.
Mago and his family first went to Florida in 2009 to train, and he had few fights there, all of which he won by knockout, but he ultimately returned home to Dagestan, feeling he didn’t have the right training conditions or living situation.
Team Abdusalamov, from left to right:
Manager Boris Grinberg, Head trainer Danny Garcia, Magomed Abduslamov,
Assistant trainer Danny Garcia Jr., and Assistant trainer Joseph “Hoss” Janik.
It was around that time that Mago’s manager, Grinberg, was told by Mago’s promoter, Sampson Lewkowicz, about a small boxing-crazed city in Southern California called Oxnard, where his most successful fighter, the middleweight champion of the world, Argentina’s Sergio Martinez, was living. The influential Lewkowicz suggested that it could be a good fit for Mago as well, and once again the pride of Dagestan, now with a second daughter, Saygibat, moved to a city where he knew no one.
Mago landed in Oxnard in late 2011 and began working with Pablo Sarmiento, the trainer of Sergio Martinez. With Sarmiento in the driver’s seat, he won multiple fights but Mago felt that he wasn’t getting the one-on-one attention necessary to improve his techniques. Although Mago respected Sarmiento as a trainer, and enjoyed working alongside a world-class fighter like Martinez, he felt lost in the mix and he began to grow disillusioned with his new training situation.
Meanwhile, the transplanted Russian was starting to gain attention from hard-core boxing followers and ranking organizations due to his growing knockout streak. With plans to dramatically increase the quality of Mago’s opponents, his manager and promoter knew it was imperative that they find the right team or they risked having Mago lose focus and possibly return home for good.
That’s when Danny Garcia of the famed Garcia family stepped into the picture. The Garcias put Oxnard on the boxing map when Danny’s father, Eduardo, trained his brother Robert to a world title in the late ’90s and, in the process, gave Oxnard its first ever champion.
These days, Robert is one of the most successful trainers in professional boxing, recently winning the trainer of the year award, and his gym in Oxnard is home to current champions and contenders like Oxnard’s hard-hitting Brandon Rios and Danny’s younger brother, Mikey, who earlier this year, won a featherweight title.
Danny, a former professional fighter himself, is best-known as the trainer who took Victor Ortiz to a welterweight title in 2011, giving Ventura its first world champion. He was also in the corner for Ortiz’s controversial fight with pound-for-pound boxing king Floyd Mayweather.
Garcia, who works mornings as a delivery driver for the Coca-Cola Bottling Company in Ventura, prefers to work with only one or two fighters at a time, which is an uncommonly small number for an established trainer. Along with his son, assistant trainer Danny Garcia Jr. and strength and conditioning coach Joseph “Hoss” Janik, he agreed to train Mago at Janik’s popular boxing and MMA gym, Knuckleheadz, which is located in Ventura.
The one-on-one attention that Garcia and company provided to Mago, and the family vibe at Knuckleheadz, a gym where beginners of all ages work side by side with supportive professionals, was the environment and situation that Mago had been searching for since he first came to America.
As Mago’s training camp has become more solidified, his personal life and the bigger question of where he will ultimately call home have become more complicated. Mago and Bakanay ushered in 2013 by welcoming a third daughter, Patimat, to their family on New Year’s Day. Having been born in America, she is now the only Abdusalamov who is an American citizen. Currently living in the country on a work visa and with a daughter born in the United States, Mago and his wife now have a much easier path to citizenship.
That, of course, is if Mago and his wife decide to stay in the United States permanently, a decision that’s weighed heavily on them in the past few months. Financially, Mago and his family live off a monthly stipend given to him by his manager, but he has yet to make a substantial payday in the ring, and raising a family in Southern California is not easy.
If his boxing career takes off, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars could be in his very near future. But if he loses before he reaches that point, or if he is injured, he could find himself in a difficult situation with little work to be found for a man who can barely speak English. In contrast, if they were to move back to Dagestan, with his popularity there and formal education, lucrative jobs are already waiting.
To top it off, the Russian population in Ventura County, let alone the Russian Muslim population, is small to say the least; and though he has friends he occasionally visits in Los Angeles, he mostly only leaves his home to train in Ventura and to attend a mosque in Oxnard on Fridays. Despite his violent profession, Mago remains a devout Muslim who prays five times a day and has never drunk alcohol or smoked. It’s a somewhat lonely and foreign existence for a man who can’t walk down the street in his native land without being recognized.
“I am bored sometimes. Lonely sometimes. I am social guy. I miss being with my friends. I miss my parents and brother and sisters but…”
Mago pauses and seems to reflect on his predicament.
“I like this area for my children. It’s a family city. Very clean. I do not have to worry about my children and wife living here. They are safe. There are good schools. If I can one day bring my parents and friends here, I would spend my whole life here.”
Staying, however, seems to become more of an option on a daily basis. Mago has recently started taking English lessons and has been venturing out more and more. He’s gotten a membership at the Ventura YMCA, where he enjoys swimming and lifting weights in a family environment where “people (are) friendly, make me (feel) welcome”.
He’s also discovered the downfall of many a heavyweight fighter, food, Mexican food to be exact. Mago is quickly turning into a Mexican food connoisseur, devouring burritos like opponents. Luckily, with his extreme training regime and no weight limit in the heavyweight division, it shouldn’t be a problem but it is definitely something his strength and conditioning coach, Janik, is keeping a mindful eye on, especially as Mago will soon return to the ring for the first time since September.
It’s with his upcoming fight on March 8 in Atlantic City against Victor Bisbal, a former Olympian from Puerto Rico who boasts an impressive 21-1 record, which will be broadcast live on ESPN, that Mago could gain some well-deserved national and local exposure.
If Mago wins in convincing fashion and continues his undefeated knockout streak, which currently stands at 16 fights, it could very well propel him to larger paydays against fellow contenders. Currently ranked the No. 10 heavyweight in the world by two of the sport’s major sanctioning bodies and holder of a small title, he’s at a pivotal point in his career. Mago could be only a few wins removed from a shot at the heavyweight championship and the financial rewards and stability that come with it. Mago himself is very much aware of this and realizes that 2013 could be his breakout year or the year that breaks him.
“I can feel how close I am. I must keep improving. I want to fight three or four times this year. If I do that and win, I will go up in the rankings and I could have a shot at the world title in 2014.”
The usually friendly demeanor of Mago suddenly goes chilly and one is reminded of Ivan Drago, the Russian baddie from the Rocky movies, when he adds, “I will not let myself, my family, my friends, my team, my new home or my country down.”
It makes one wonder if there’s not more pressure on Mago than he admits, too. Where most fighters have one specific thing they fight for, Mago has an actual list. From normal worries that every young father has about being able to provide for his family to letting down his native Dagestan, a place that has seemed to put all their collective hope into his career, it’s a lot for any one man to handle.
After an early-evening training session winds down at Knuckleheadz, which includes the repeated beating of a massive tire with a sledgehammer, Mago, with his white undershirt drenched in sweat and another man’s blood from a sparring session, politely goes around the gym shaking everyone’s hand. He then squeezes into his car, which seems entirely too small for the big man; and with a huge grin, he says with a thick Russian accent to no one in particular, “I go home to be (with) my family. Family and home (are) happiness.”
For now, the home that Mago speaks of is here in Ventura County. And if, one day soon, we get to hear a ring announcer on TV proclaim, “The winner … and new heavyweight champion of the world from Dagestan, Russia, fighting out of Ventura County, California, Magomed ‘Mago’ Abdusalamov,” we will share something with a country and a people halfway around the world, the pride in seeing one of our very own achieve an impossible dream.
Magomed Abdusalamov fights Victor Bisbal on Friday, March 8, on ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights. He also requests that we inform readers who see him in public to please say hi. He would like to get to know his new neighbors and is eager to try out his favorite new American greeting, the high five.