Sunday, February 11, 2007


The first thing you notice about Sergei "The White Wolf" Lyakhovich from Belarus, is that he doesn’t look mean at all. No fangs or claws and no intimidating snarl. He has soft cheeks and his brown eyes haven’t yet seen the worst that boxing has to offer. At age 30 he is the WBO Heavyweight champion of the world and Saturday night in his adopted hometown of Phoenix, Arizona he meets perennial contender Shannon Briggs. It was Aesop and his fables that talked about wolves who wore sheep’s clothes, but maybe this kid named Sergei Liakhovich is the real thing.

The last time I saw Lyakhovich was in Las Vegas back in May of this year and he had just separated Lamon Brewster from his senses, his retina and his title belt. He looked polished now, was wearing a nice suit and was polite, unassuming and soft-spoken. His wife was with him and she is strikingly beautiful. It doesn’t take much to figure out what he fights for -a better life here in America for himself and the pretty Irina.

Certainly a life here fighting for money is better than anything Belarus, the home of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear reactor, would ever have to offer. On this night, Lyakhovich was waiting like everybody else in the line for a chance to get to meet the cowboy hat wearing Joe Frazier, who was holding court in the basement of the baroque Mandalay Bay.

It’s ironic, even in this day of multiple heavyweight champions, that Lyakhovich was relegated to stand in the same line as everybody else. On this night his WBO title meant little. Lyakhovich didn’t look much like a heavyweight champ standing there in his tailored suit. In fact, a frail Joe Frazier who was seated in a wheelchair with his son Marvis pushing him, still looked more like the heavyweight champ than did Lyakhovich, and maybe that is boxing’s problem.

The night I first saw the man who would become the 15th WBO heavyweight champion was in December 1999 and he was at the Grand Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. Then he was a boyish 23, with a record of 6-0(5)KO and he beat up a nobody named Donald Macon who only managed to last a very painful four minutes and forty-two seconds. He was already the heavyweight champion of Belarus, a title he won in his very first professional fight with a first round knockout over 39 year-old Igor Sharapov who had a pro record of 0-4 before fighting for the title.

Apparently, Don King figured the heavyweight championship of Belarus wasn’t worth much as he made Lyakhovich the walkout bout on a marathon card called "Night of the Heavyweights".

But that was a lifetime ago by boxing’s yardstick. Between then and that May night in Vegas waiting in line to meet Joe Frazier he had come a long way. George Foreman, once the heavyweight champion of the world himself likes what he sees in Lyakhovich. "This guy has power and he believes in his power. He is sneaky and he is powerful."

Interesting, as George Foreman’s last career bout was a controversial loss to Shannon Briggs, who is Lyakhovich’s opponent on Saturday night at Chase Field in Phoenix. Briggs, a 34 year-old heavyweight underachiever says he has plans for Lyakhovich, "On Saturday night, the fans can expect a knockout. I’m going for it. If he is still there after the first round, I will be surprised." Briggs has 27 first round knockouts in 41 career knockouts and many would be surprised if Briggs himself is there when the final bell rings. Briggs has a propensity to show up for bouts in less than top condition.

His has been a career full of unfulfilled promise, stops and starts, affairs with the mixed martial arts, acting and modeling. Last year Briggs was ordered to pay $2 million in damages in a lawsuit brought against him by former University of Miami football player Brian Stinson for injuries he suffered in a bar fight with Briggs in 2001. Briggs has learned that nothing pays the bills like boxing so he finds himself in Phoenix on Saturday night.

He gave Lennox Lewis all he wanted and then some back in 1998 before going down in flames in five rounds. The biggest knock against him has been that he would never give his all in the gym and looked to take shortcuts in training. It caused his former trainer, Teddy Atlas, to desert him after Briggs blamed "asthma" for a third round knockout loss to Darroll Wilson back in 1996. Atlas knew better.

In his last bout against club fighter Chris Koval in May, Briggs weighed a career high 273 pounds and he was huffing and puffing after only a few rounds of action. In 1995, in Lewiston, Maine I saw Briggs fight Sherman Griffin when Atlas was still training him. Briggs weighed a svelte 220 and won in the first round. Trainer, Jeff Mayweather reportedly left Briggs’ training camp several weeks ago because Shannon was not serious enough about his preparation for the Lyakovich fight. "I hate scales," says Briggs. "I don’t weigh myself anymore. I’m trying to perfect the art of the one-punch KO."

As for Lyakhovich, he is being guided by the steady hand of the no nonsense, Texan trainer, Kenny Weldon who has steered the corners of Evander Holyfield and numerous other champions over the years. It was Weldon who remained calm and stared into the face of danger called Lamon Brewster and didn’t allow Sergei Lyakhovich to blink. They won the WBO title together that night.

Last week, the rigors of the regimen that Weldon (a solid featherweight back in the 60’s and 70’s) has put his young charge through showed on Lyakhovich’s face. Sergei had a blackened right eye, proving that he, unlike Briggs does not cut corners in training. During the win over Brewster, Weldon was the glue that held the title winning effort together. After a rough fifth round, Weldon could be heard scolding Lyakhovich, " Next time I see you on the ropes like that, I swear, I’ll throw the stool at ya’! What are you doin’?"

Lyakhovich picked up the pace in the sixth and it was that round which began to swing the Brewster fight in his favor. When Lyakhovich took a knee in a tough, brawling seventh round it was Weldon who was there with a calm voice and a question, "Sergei, listen to me man. Why won’t you listen to me? This is for the championship of the world! And you know what? You won’t listen to me! Now get out there and box!" And box he did – all the way to a unanimous decision win.

In the confused and muddled heavyweight division it can be argued that Sergei Liakhovich is the real heavyweight champion of the world today. Arguably, he beat the man who beat the man. Lyakhovich beat Brewster for the WBO title, who beat Wladimir Klitschko (the current IBF titlist), who beat Chris Byrd who beat Evander Holyfield.

Showtime network boxing analyst Al Bernstein called Lyakhovich’s fight against Brewster from Cleveland, Ohio and had this to say when asked about Lyakhovich, "Let’s say this. Except for Sam Peter he’s the youngest of the top 20 contenders in the heavyweight division, the youngest of the champions. And from what I saw, he’s got something to build on. Hand speed, good technique, power and a great chin."

Saturday night in Phoenix, another chapter of the story of Sergei "The White Wolf" Lyakhovich will be written. Only then will we know if he’s really a wolf in sheep’s clothing or just another heavyweight fable.

November 2006

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