Monday, February 4, 2019

The Kovalev Chronicles

Maybe it was when he was five years old and his father threw him down the steps, breaking both of his legs. Or perhaps when he was living in a shelter when his family had no place to live and his mother was trying to kick drug addiction. Or how about when his family, his mother and seven siblings, all lived in one-room apartment." Or maybe when he was nearly paralyzed during sparring as a 13 year old when an undiagnosed neck injury from that fall as a child reared its ugly head. A loose bone from his neck had broken off and he couldn't move his head. 

Or maybe it was when he had to live in a chair for weeks at a time during recovery because his family couldn't afford a medical bed. Or perhaps it was just after he received the call that he had been waiting for all his life, to fight on HBO Boxing, only to be rear-ended in a car accident, leaving him out of the ring for another 15 months.

Ray Robinson isn't supposed to still be here.

Despite having myriad reasons for self-pity and justification many times over to quit, Robinson perseveres, refusing to let a bad hand, or in his case, several bad decks, define him. Through it all, the glories and the down times, hope sustained him and boxing has been his salvation. 

After his neck surgeries and over a year of recovery as a teenager, he begged his amateur coach and his mother to let him go back to the gym. Despite their initial skepticism, his undying passion for the sport convinced them to give him another chance. At first, "Moses," his amateur coach Howard Mosley, insisted that Ray use the ring and avoid mixing it up. Moses had made a promise to Ray's mother that he wouldn't let anything bad happen to her son. But after some amateur losses on the comeback trail, Ray's competitiveness took over. He knew that he needed to stand his ground and fight. 

Incredibly, within two years of coming back to the sport after his surgeries, he was winning national tournaments. He was invited to Northern Michigan University to train with the best amateurs in the country and qualified for Team USA. From barely leaving Philadelphia growing up to fighting in Turkey, Italy and Russia with notables like Tim Bradley and Adrien Broner, it was almost out of dream. Yes, the lows had been terrible, but the highs were beyond what he could even imagine.

"I had never been on a plane," he said. "Not only was I leaving the city, but I was leaving the country." Once I started to travel to different countries, it was just a whole different world. I used to run back and brag to my brothers, like, 'Dude, there’s a whole other world out there.' It was amazing to see. From at one time being stuck in a shelter to wearing U.S.A. clothes and representing the U.S.A., it was such an honor." 

Robinson (24-3, 12 KOs) fights Egidijus "Mean Machine" Kavaliauskas (21-0, 17 KOs) at the 2300 Arena in Philadelphia on March 30th. The fight is the co-feature to the Oleksandr Gvozdyk-Doudou Ngumbu matchup and will televised by ESPN. Robinson knows that he will be the underdog in the bout, but fighting at home and finally having a full training camp, he feels 100% confident. 

When Robinson last fought in February of 2017, he lost to Yordenis Ugas via seventh-round knockout. It was perhaps the only time in his career when he didn't listen to his trainer, Derrick "Bozy" Ennis. They didn't have a full camp and Ennis didn't think the moment was right. Robinson, who was still upset about missing that date on HBO against Dmitry Mikhaylenko, jumped at the chance. 

"My last fight," said Robinson. "Bozy kind of didn’t want me to take it, but I didn’t agree with him. I said, 'Let’s do it.' Sometimes trainers are right. Sometimes they see things they don’t like. With me and Bozy, it’s about trust. Bozy’s been in the game for a long time, way longer than me...He knows what’s best for his fighters. It’s important that I put trust and confidence it what he says. 

"I felt like I had my back against the wall because of the HBO fight that didn’t happen...everything with the car accident. So this opportunity came and I think that I jumped at it too quick. I think I didn’t have time to prepare properly...But no excuses, he was the better man that night. And now I’m back on the horse."

Robinson, a 5'10" southpaw with a slick boxing style, has always struggled to get big fights as a professional. His favorite fighter is Pernell Whitaker, and like Whitaker, very few wanted to deal with him unless they had to. Even after losing to Ugas, a scenario when the phone often rings because a fighter now looks vulnerable, the calls didn't come. Robinson's manager, David McWater, who has represented him the past three years, is amazed at how challenging it's been to get Robinson fights.

"Ray's a wonderful person," said McWater, "but it's hard because nobody wants to fight a slick southpaw. It's hard to get a break for this kid...Ray is a number-one guy. I love him to death. I would do anything for him, but it's hard. I thought after he lost to Ugas we would get offers right and left. Not true."

But the lack of opportunities or fights on short notice has been a theme throughout his career. Despite his amateur pedigree, he wasn't signed by any of the major powerhouse promoters in boxing. As a young fighter, he faced three undefeated boxers in a four fight span – Darnell Jiles Jr., Brad Solomon and Shawn Porter – and he lost decisions in last two. After the loss to Porter, he was fed up. He felt mistreated by the industry.

"I was confused, he said. “I wasn’t sure. I was ticked off by managers and my promoters [he was promoted by Star Boxing at the time]. I was a fighter that spoke well in front of the cameras. I wore a suit. I thought they would have taken care of me better, that they wouldn’t have rushed me in there like that. I was irritated and ticked off. After the Porter fight, I found out that certain people were stealing from me. I didn’t understand that side of boxing.

"[Former champion] David Reid was out there with us in Michigan too [where Robinson trained for Team USA]. He used to tell me about that side of boxing, that it can be a dirty game if you end up in the wrong hands. I had never really seen that side – you know basically using you up like a workhorse until they tossed you to the side. That’s how I felt. I was being used for their benefit. So I took some time off."

Robinson got a nine-to-five job in the auto body industry. He thought he might be done. But as he had more time to reflect, the sport that he fell in love with as an eight-year-old kept calling him back. After a year out of the sport he came back and went on a 13-fight winning streak.

Throughout it all, hope has sustained him, providing him with a sense of optimism despite tragedies and setbacks that would have made many lesser fighters quit. Robinson still believes that better days are ahead. 

"If you don’t have hope in life" he said, "You’re going nowhere. Because the moment when you’re stuck, the only thing you do have is hope...Never give up. If you have a dream, just go get it. Anything in life – it doesn’t have to be in sports – you have to appreciate your ups and your downs. The downs give you your tough skin. I had a lot of downs growing up and that gave me my tough skin...With me having a couple of roadblocks in life in general, the shelter, getting thrown down the steps, whatever it may be,  it gave me my tough skin. Seeing my mom going through the hell that she went through. I got to have that tough skin.

"Any day you could always get that phone call. Boxing could be that lottery ticket. And I’m not talking about money. But any day you could get that dream call, that dream opportunity that could change your life."

The phone did ring for Kavaliauskas. And Robinson and McWater loved the fight. "We jumped at the opportunity," said McWater. "Ray thinks it's the perfect opportunity for him now, and so do I. I more than jumped at it. I basically begged [Top Rank matchmaker] Brad Goodman for it. We're excited." 

And Ray has never had this type of opportunity fighting in front of his hometown fans. He thinks it will help propel him in the fight. Even though he might be the "opponent," he's going to be the opponent with a lot of crowd support. 

"This is amazing," he said. "I’m so excited. It’s so weird how the boxing game is. You can be up but once you get down, you feel like you’re not getting a shot to win the fight. And I’m OK with that. 1000%. But I took that one setback and everyone makes it out that I lost nine straight. But things happen for a reason. You can’t stop God’s plans. Maybe if I didn’t fight Ugas, I never would have gotten this fight. Maybe these guys think they see something that they can take advantage of, and this is why I got this opportunity. This is the reason why I’m training so much harder. I can’t wait to get in there."

At 33, there might not be many more chances to get to the big time. Although he is now a veteran fighter, with over 12 years of experience as a pro, his passion for the sport still burns brightly. The science of it keeps him hooked. Hit and not be hit. All those fantastic Philly gym sayings – “swim without getting wet" or "playing in the mud without getting dirty – continue to speak to him.

Kavaliasukas awaits and Ray has been preparing diligently at the Harrowgate Boxing Club. Spending a lot of time sparring with his good friend, uber-prospect Jaron "Boots" Ennis, who is also Bozy's son, Ray feels ready for this opportunity. 

He has no excuses. The problems the plagued him as a young fighter – the short camps, the inactivity, the people who weren't looking out for him – that’s all in the past. Yes, his tragedies have helped form who he is, but don't possess him. He seems to have made peace with his past. He just needs that one performance, that one night to put it all together. 

"You got to love what you do," he said..."In boxing, nothing is guaranteed. Nothing is stamped. Sometimes the fight gods won’t always go your way. What's perfect about boxing is that any given night, anyone could have that big uh-oh, that big moment or the big upset...I absolutely love this shit."

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