Sultan Ibragimov was 19-0 and looked like a rising star in the heavyweight division until the night in July of 2006 that he fought Ray Austin in a title eliminator. It was an excruciatingly boring fight. Ibragimov looked fairly ordinary, and the best the Russian could do was manage a draw. Suddenly Ibragimov looked like he might be more pretender than contender.
That perception certainly wasn't helped in March of last year when the same Ray Austin got a title shot against Klitschko and didn't last two rounds. Austin looked pitiful and hugely overmatched. Inevitably Ray Austin became the measuring stick for Ibragimov's chances against Klitschko, the reasoning being that if the best Ibragimov could do with Austin was fight to a draw, how could he possibly beat the 6'6" Ukrainian with the huge 81-inch reach?
That logic has pretty much dominated talk in the lead up to this fight on Feb. 23 at Madison Square Garden. But the logic is somewhat flawed. Nobody factored in Jeff Mayweather. It was Mayweather who was in Austin's corner the night he held Ibragimov to a draw. "Ray was a lot better for the Sultan fight because I was training him," Mayweather said. "After that, they used a different trainer."
Dismissed by the Austin camp, Mayweather slipped back into the shadows, still looking for his big break. He might have had it over 11 years ago, were it not for a family squabble involving Floyd Jr.
Floyd Sr. likes to say often and loud that he is the one that created his pound-for-pound king son, not his brother and current trainer, Roger. And to an extent that is true. Floyd Sr. was his son's trainer right through the Olympics, where he won a bronze medal. But just before the start of Junior's professional career, Floyd Sr. was incarcerated. Guess who stepped in while daddy was in jail?
It was Jeff who negotiated a lucrative contract with Bob Arum's Top Rank. It was Jeff who managed and trained Floyd through his first 16 fights, all the while giving Floyd Sr. the credit.
"At the time, our cut man was getting two per cent, me three per cent and Floyd Sr. 10," Mayweather said. "Then Floyd Jr. brought in James Prince as his manager and gave him 20 per cent, more than his entire team had been making. I walked away and have no regrets, although I felt that Floyd Jr. betrayed and disrespected me."
If that sounds similar to a Floyd Sr. rant, the comparison between brothers stops there. The only thing Jeff has in common with Floyd and Roger is that he was also a professional boxer, fighting 47 times as a lightweight and retiring with a record of 32-10-5. Although he never won a world title like Roger, he fought top caliber opposition, with eight of his losses coming to boxers with a combined record at the time he faced them of 193-7.
Where Jeff really differs from Roger and Floyd is in temperament. Jeff is soft-spoken and reserved, does not trash talk, writes poetry and has contributed well-written articles to boxing publications. Jeff's demeanor very closes matches Ibragimov's, but that was not what landed him the job as the Russian's trainer.
Right after his fight with Austin, Ibragimov's manager, Boris Grinberg, decided to bring in a new training team for his title bout with Shannon Briggs. Grinberg was familiar with Mayweather because the trainer had worked the mitts for Sultan's cousin, Timur, when ever Timur had a fight in Las Vegas, where Mayweather lives.
"When they called me about training Sultan for the Briggs fight, it was sort of like American Idol," Mayweather said. "I had to audition in Florida with other trainers competing."
Grinberg says he was immediately impressed with Mayweather's handling of Ibragimov. "We had four or five trainers in, gave them each a week with Sultan and Jeff was the best," Grinberg said. "He is one of the best trainers in the United States, but nobody knows him because he is always in the shadow of his two brothers. Jeff is a genius."
Being recognized on his own was what Mayweather was desperate to be, and in Ibragimov he finally had a chance to achieve it.
"Getting to train Sultan has been a coming out party for people to notice me," Mayweather said. "I needed a fighter who would help me get out from under the shadow of my brothers and showcase what I could do. I wanted people to see that I was not just another Mayweather, but I was a good trainer as well."
In order to do so, Mayweather figured he needed to change Ibragimov's style if he was to have any chance at beating Briggs.
"My goal was to take him from being just a brawler and make him into a boxer-puncher," Mayweather said. "At first he was not happy about the idea. So I said, give me one week to work with you on my strategy. I told him he couldn't go toe to toe with Briggs, and even if you win, eventually that style will cut short your career.
"The first day I told him I just wanted him to move around the ring, that's all. At the end of the day he did not like it. He said, 'Oh, I am the rabbit now, come get me?' Every day I would implement one new thing. At the end of the week I asked him how he liked fighting like a rabbit and he said he liked it fine. Sultan is a smart guy. He was a top amateur. He had the ability to box, it's just that nobody taught him."
Grinberg blames Ibragimov's previous trainers for the limited style that he fought with. "Sultan has very good boxing skills, but he began his pro career in America and had only American coaches who wanted him to fight a slugfest every time," Grinberg said. "They taught him to fight like a Mexican. Sultan is not a big heavyweight. That was not a good style for him. Blessed with fast hands and quick feet, Ibragimov beat Briggs easily by sticking and moving, and preventing Briggs from landing a bomb. When he emerged with a unanimous decision and Briggs' belt, Jeff Mayweather had made boxing history. It was the first time that three brothers had trained world champions.
"Making history is one of the things that will last longer than what people say about us not getting along," Mayweather said.
Grinberg tried to match Ibragimov up next with another title holder, Ruslan Chagaev, in what would have been the first reunification heavyweight fight since 1999 when Lennox Lewis beat Evander Holyfield. But Chagaev was forced to withdraw due to health reasons, and ironically, it would be Holyfield, still chasing his Holy Grail, who would step in and take his place.
Ibragimov easily won a unanimous decision over the 45-year-old Holyfield, and now finds himself with another chance to be a unified champion. Beating Klitschko, however, is not the same as defeating a stamina-challenged Briggs or an over-the-hill Holyfield. The Russian is a 4-1 underdog in this fight, odds that do not deter the Ibragimov team, however. Grinberg it seems is not all that impressed with Klitschko, who is widely considered the top heavyweight in the world. "Klitschko is boring and arrogant. He fights the same way every time - bam bam and then clutch. Yes, he has been winning all his fights, but those boxers came into the ring to get beat. Sultan is not like that. He is determined to win," Grinberg said.
Like Grinberg, Mayweather is not convinced that Klitschko is the best of the heavyweights.
"It's a situation where all of a sudden a guy becomes looked at as invincible, a guy who has been knocked out three times and two of those times I thought he quit," Mayweather said. "He hasn't had a person willing to stand in front of him and fight. Sultan is not afraid of Klitschko."
One of the boxers who knocked Klitschko out was a then 37-year-old Corrie Sanders in 2003. Sanders, who many considered yesterday's news at the time, required less than two rounds to put Klitschko away. What makes Sanders' victory so encouraging to the Ibragimov's camp is not that it exposed Klitschko's questionable chin. It is the fact that Sanders is a left-handed fighter with quick feet -- two things he shares with Ibragimov - and that he knocked Klitschko down four times, all with left hands.
"I know Klitschko's weaknesses and how to beat him, but I am not going to give away all my secrets," Mayweather said. "All I'll say is we don't have to fight the whole fight inside the way people say we have to. What we need to do is fight inside and outside and throw combos."
Perhaps the biggest question is how the 6'2" Ibragimov, who generally fights at about 220 pounds will deal with the 6'6" Klitschko, who usually weighs in the 240s. Chagaev may have shown him the formula when he gave up 11 inches and nearly 100 pounds to the seven-foot Nikolai Valuev, using his superior boxing skills and lateral movement to stick and glide his way to victory.
Ibragimov is no stranger to fighting bigger man. In all but two of Ibragimov's 23 fights, he has come into the ring the smaller boxer. And in the 2000 Olympics, he fought a man in the championship round who was the same size as Klitschko, the legendary Cuban, Felix Savon, who had won gold in the two previous Games. Savon was a massive specimen, the same 6'6" as Klitschko, with long, highly-muscled arms, a wrecking machine who also was gifted with great lateral movement, something the Ukrainian does not have.
The Cuban was successful in keeping Ibragimov at arms lengths in the first round, which he swept, 7-0. But the determined Ibragimov deftly slipped under Savon's powerful jab and caught him inside enough to win the second round, 7-4. Scores for the final two rounds were 6-2 in favor of Savon, and 4-4 in the last round, giving the Cuban a 21-13 victory and leaving Ibragimov with a silver medal. After the bad 7-0 start, it is worth noting that the cumulative score of the final three rounds was just 14-13 in favor of Savon.
Was Ibragimov's ability to deal with the big Cuban a sign of what he might be able to do against Klitschko? Perhaps. But one thing is for certain. Should Jeff guide Ibragimov to the upset victory, he will no longer be the "other Mayweather."