In Teddy Atlas’ world, Oleksandr “The Nail” Gvozdyk has the talent to be a shark, but if the budding Ukrainian star wanted to fulfill his vast potential as a boxer, Atlas felt he needed at times to instead be content as a piranha.
And since Atlas, the Hall of Fame trainer who is extremely particular about who he’ll work with, began to train Gvozdyk, well, it’s a lot harder to hit “The Nail” on the head.
Gvozdyk, the unbeaten WBC light heavyweight champion, has what in most cases would be regarded as a super fight on Friday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Philadelphia, when he takes on knockout artist Artur Beterbiev, the unbeaten IBF champion, in a unification bout.
The bout isn’t getting a lot of hype because despite their immense talents — Gvozdyk is 17-0 with 14 KOs and Beterbiev is 14-0 with 14 KOs — because fighters from Ukraine and Russia generally don’t become massive stars in the U.S.
But promoter Bob Arum isn’t wrong when he says, “On paper, this is without question one of the best fights of the year.”
Gvozdyk won a bronze medal in the 2012 London Olympics, but needed Atlas’ assistance to really live up to his billing as a pro. Gvozdyk reached out to Atlas before he was to challenge Adonis Stevenson for the belt on Dec. 1 in Quebec City.
Atlas knew Gvozdyk’s talent was first-rate, but he needed to be comfortable both with the type of person Gvozdyk is and with his coachability before beginning to train him. Stevenson, Atlas knew, would be a massive challenge.
“There was no room in that particular fight for mistakes, because Adonis is one of the best punchers I’ve ever seen in this sport with one punch, that left hand,” Atlas said. “He’s that good.”
After spending a few days together and going through a workout, Atlas agreed to take on Gvozdyk. Gvozdyk is an exceptionally intelligent man who speaks three languages, including English, fluently. He speaks English so well that if you didn’t know he was from Ukraine and grew up speaking Russian you’d assume he was a native English speaker.
He knew of Atlas’ reputation and felt he could use the finishing touches that a master craftsman like Atlas could provide.
“Teddy is a great teacher, a great trainer and a great man,” Gvozdyk said. “It’s been a blessing to work with him. He’s one of the best, if not the best, and he is very aware of everything, from the big-picture things to the smallest details.
“Sometimes in boxing, and I was doing it for 20 years, you maybe reach a dead end. I had a good team, but I needed something else, something different. And just listening to Teddy commentate on fights, I knew he saw it differently than a lot of trainers.”
The thing that Atlas preached with Gvozdyk was timing; specifically, the timing of when to throw specific punches. It’s one thing for a boxer to be aggressive and let his hands go, but if he throws the punches at the wrong time, he opens himself up and could be in trouble.
Given Atlas’ respect for Stevenson’s punching power, that was a focus in that camp as they prepared to fight for the title.
Gvozdyk fully bought into Atlas’ lessons. He made one mistake, firing a jab when he shouldn’t have, and Stevenson hit him and hurt him.
But otherwise, Atlas felt Gvozdyk was flawless, and he was able to content himself with being a piranha instead of the feared shark.
“The whole theme of that camp was ‘take small bites. Take little bites all night long until you see you can take some more,’ ” Atlas said. “The thing is, if you’re taking small bites all night, hopefully in the later rounds, you can do something else. I told him, ‘We’re going to be like a piranha, not a shark. Be content with taking little pieces, because if you do that consistently, there will come a time in the fight when it’s appropriate to be the shark and then you can go for the big bite.’ And that’s what happened.”
Gvozdyk stopped Stevenson in the 11th with one of those shark attacks, a multi-punch combination that ended the fight and sent Stevenson to the hospital. Fortunately, he recovered and is at home.
Gvozdyk has moved on and is one of the best-kept secrets in boxing. His goal is to be undisputed champion in a deep division that is perhaps boxing’s best and in its best shape since the 1970s and 1980s when legendary 175-pounders like Michael Spinks, Victor Galindez, Mike Rossman, Marvin Johnson, Yaqui Lopez, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Jerry Martin and many others plied their trade.
In Beterbiev, he’ll face a power-punching opponent who stopped him in an amateur bout.
He believes a win over Beterbiev could be a star-marking performance.
“It’s a blessing to be in a division like this,” Gvozdyk said. “There are a lot of good boxers and so you have a lot of opportunities to prove yourself. Sometimes a world champion is in a division where there aren’t a lot of opponents and even though he is very good, no one gives him the respect because they don’t think the division is talented.
“But in this division, there are a lot of great opponents to fight and [Beterbiev] is definitely one of them. That’s why I wanted to take this fight.”
And while WBA champion Dmitry Bivol is extremely impressive, he hasn’t been facing the top opposition. That’s why Atlas believes the Gvozdyk-Beterbiev winner will be the world’s No. 1 light heavyweight.
You fight the best and you deserve the spoils that come with those kinds of wins.
“This is a risk for both of them and so if you take that risk and go ahead with the fight, when you win, you deserve the reward of being regarded [as the best in the division],” Atlas said. “These guys are special and they have that kind of ability.”
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