Dan Rafael: Evgeny Gradovich

Evgeny Gradovich-Jayson VelezChris Farina/Top RankEvgeny Gradovich makes the fourth defense of his featherweight title against Jayson Velez.
While a potential featherweight title unification between Vasyl Lomachenko and Nicholas Walters is all the rage, and a fight that promoter Top Rank plans on putting together, the promotional company has another 126-pound titleholder, Evgeny Gradovich, who has also been rolling along.

Gradovich (19-0, 9 KOs), 28, known as "The Mexican Russian" for his aggressive Mexican fighting style, is also every bit as confident as Lomachenko and Walters are when it comes to beating opponents.

It's no different for his fourth defense, which will come against Puerto Rico's Jayson Velez on Saturday (HBO, 10 p.m. ET/PT) on the undercard of lightweight titlist Terence Crawford's hometown defense against mandatory challenger Raymundo Beltran at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska. The broadcast will open with a replay of Manny Pacquiao's six-knockdown demolition of Chris Algieri to retain his welterweight title last Saturday in Macau.

"I always train hard. I never take a day off and I take all of my fights seriously," said Gradovich, who trained with Robert Garcia in Oxnard, California. "I am the 'Mexican Russian' and know all about Velez and the power he brings to a fight.

"I have to deal with that on Saturday. It won't be that difficult actually."

Gradovich, by the way, grew up with unified light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev. They share the same manager, Egis Klimas, and are good friends. All of Gradovich's previous three title defenses have taken place on undercards in Macau.

Velez, who is regarded as the top fighter in middleweight champion Miguel Cotto's promotional stable besides, of course, Cotto himself, is pumped for his first shot at a world title.

Velez (22-0, 16 KOs), 26, trained for two months in Big Bear Lake, California, with trainer Abel Sanchez, who is most known for his recent work with middleweight machine Gennady Golovkin.

"This is a big fight so I went to Big Bear in the mountains to train for the last two months," Velez said. "We had some cold weather but I was able to totally focus on this fight. We had a great camp and Abel put together a game plan to beat Gradovich."
The featherweight division is getting hot, and Top Rank promoter Bob Arum plans to take advantage of that.

On May 31 in Macau, Arum promoted a card on which Nonito Donaire won a 126-pound world title via fifth-round technical decision against Simpiwe Vetyeka in the main event. On the undercard two other featherweight titleholders promoted by Arum -- Evgeny Gradovich and Nicholas Walters -- looked good in title defenses of a show that was appropriately dubbed “Featherweight Fury.”

Then this past Saturday night, Vasyl Lomachenko, the two-time Olympic gold medalist from Ukraine, looked sensational as he outpointed Gary Russell Jr. in surprisingly easy fashion to win a vacant featherweight belt in just his third professional fight. That achievement matched the all-time boxing record for fewest fights to a title.

Throw in the fact that Top Rank also is talking to the handlers of titleholder Jhonny Gonzalez and has a good relationship with the Vetyeka camp and there are a lot of quality matchups that can be made in the division -– and made rather easily.

Arum intends to put some of those fights together, with Donaire and Lomachenko as the centerpieces.

“Lomachenko is a great fighter; that’s what we’ve been saying,” Arum said. “HBO is very high on him, and now we have the opportunity to put together a quasi-tournament with all of these great featherweights. Featherweight happens to be a loaded division. There are some big names in the division, and they don’t bust the bank like some of these fighters do in other divisions, so the matches are makeable as far from a money standpoint.”

Arum said he will soon talk to HBO about the direction it wants to go, but he said some of the fights will happen beginning later this year.

“I need to talk to the HBO guys and to the fighters, and we need to see who’s willing to fight who. Who would like to fight who? What fights HBO wants,” Arum said. “There are a lot of things to discuss, but I want to make these fights and HBO has indicated to us that they are interested and looking very heavily at the featherweight division.

“It gives them the opportunity -– for not crazy money -- to do some good, high-profile fights. A lot of people think Lomachenko is the best of the featherweights. You have Donaire there. He’s a great fighter. I know HBO is excited about it. So we’ll sit down and figure out how to proceed.”

Arum's Russia trip on hold

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Had things gone to plan, Top Rank promoter Bob Arum would now be in Moscow working on a deal to bring regular fight cards there featuring the various Russian boxers he promotes.

Arum had intended to fly from San Antonio (where he promoted Saturday night’s Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.-Bryan Vera rematch) to New York on Sunday and then head to Moscow on Monday with Top Rank’s Brad Jacobs.

However, the political turmoil between Russia and Ukraine and the tension between Russia and the United States, caused a change of plans, with Arum not making the trip.

“We were expecting to go and then with what happened we thought it would be inappropriate to go,” Arum told ESPN.com on Wednesday. “I let everyone in Russia that we were supposed to meet with know that we were postponing the trip and they all said that they understood and that we did the right thing. With the president calling for sanctions against Russia and everything going on with Ukraine and in Crimea, I thought it was inappropriate for an American to go over to talk about putting on fights in Moscow.”

So instead of flying to New York on Sunday, Arum got a lift back to Las Vegas in the private jet of a friend of his who had been one of his guests at the Chavez-Vera fight.

However, some of Arum’s stuff is in New York. His wife, Lovey, had already shipped a bag with some of his clothes ahead of time, which he had intended to pick up for the trip to Russia.

So his bag is at his usual New York hotel waiting for him when he arrives in New York next week for the first stop on the press tour for the June 7 middleweight championship fight between Sergio Martinez and Miguel Cotto.

“So when I get to New York for the press conference my suit will be there waiting for me. Lovey had already shipped my clothes there, so I’ll be reunited with my bag,” Arum said with a laugh.

He said he hopes to reschedule the trip to Russia when the political situation eases.

“Hopefully, the people will come to their right minds and get this resolved on both sides and then I will go,” he said. “I can’t wait to do events in Moscow.”

Arum has signed several Russian fighters and plans to put on cards there involving fighters such as featherweight titlist Evgeny Gradovich and light heavyweight Egor Mekhontsev, the 2012 Russian Olympic gold medalist.

Full training camp helps Gradovich

July, 25, 2013
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When Russia's Evgeny Gradovich accepted a featherweight world title shot against Billy Dib, he took it on less than a month's notice and pulled off the upset.

Dib had been scheduled for a March 1 defense against Luis Franco, but Franco abruptly retired in February (although that ended quickly and he returns Aug. 2). So Gradovich had a brief training camp with trainer Robert Garcia in Oxnard, Calif.

Despite the short prep time, Gradovich, a nearly obscure fighter before facing Dib, was in excellent condition and outfought Dib to win the title via well-deserved split decision.

If Gradovich, nicknamed "The Mexican Russian" because of his aggressive style, was able to claim the belt in such a tough fight despite such a short training camp, doesn't that bode well for his first defense?

Gradovich (16-0, 8 KOs) said he has trained for nine weeks to prepare for his mandatory defense against Argentina's Mauricio Munoz (26-3, 12 KOs), which takes place on Saturday (HBO2, same-day tape, 5:30 p.m. ET/PT) at the CotaiArena at the Venetian Macao-Resort-Hotel on the card headlined by flyweight Zou Shiming, the two-time Chinese Olympic gold medalist and star of the show. Shiming (1-0, 0 KOs) faces Mexico's Jesus Ortega (3-1, 2 KOs) in the six-round main event.

Shiming is the star attraction to the Chinese, but Gradovich-Munoz and the fight between unified flyweight titlist Juan Francisco Estrada (23-2, 17 KOs) and Milan Melindo (28-0, 11 KOs) are the attractions for the rest of the world. There is also the interesting fight between heavyweight prospects Andy Ruiz (18-0, 12 KOs) and Joe Hanks (21-0, 14 KOs), which will air on tape delay Saturday night (midnight ET/PT) on Spanish-language network UniMas.

"I feel good. My training was good, my weight is good," said Gradovich, 26, whose English is excellent. "We are just waiting to fight. We have good preparation this time [in Oxnard], nine weeks. This time was better preparation [than for the Dib fight]."

Munoz, 27, is experienced. He won a controversial split decision in Argentina against Franco in an elimination bout last October. He also had a previous world title fight, but he was knocked out in the ninth round challenging then-junior featherweight titlist Toshiaki Nishioka in Japan in 2011.

"I know [Munoz] is a good fighter. He has good experience," Gradovich said. "I hope it will be a good fight. I saw a couple of his fights, his last fight [against Franco] and his fight against Nishioka. I'm prepared for this fight."

Winning the title has not done much to change Gradovich's life, but he believes a win over Munoz just might.

"Everything will change next if I defend my title," Gradovich said. "I'm going to have big fights in the future. So, right now, nothing change, not too much."

Because Gradovich is with Top Rank, there are possible fights with opponents such as Nonito Donaire, junior featherweight champ Guillermo Rigondeaux and Vic Darchinyan.

However, if Gradovich wins, he also will owe Dib a contractual rematch. After their fight, Dib took an interim bout and outpointed Mike Oliver on July 5. Gradovich has his mandatory, and then they are supposed to fight again.

But Gradovich didn't want to talk about Dib or any of the potentially bigger fights in his future.

"I don't think about Billy Dib right now," he said. "I focus on [Saturday] against Mauricio Munoz. I have to defend my title, so I am only thinking about this fight."

Roach hopes for progress in Zou

July, 24, 2013
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As an amateur boxer, flyweight Zou Shiming was one of the best in history. He won three Olympic medals -- including two golds -- and became the symbol of boxing in China and one of the nation's most famous athletes.

As a pro? Well, he's still popular and famous, but let's just say he needs some more work. A lot of work.

The 32-year-old Zou was underwhelming, to put it mildly, in his professional debut in April in Macau, China. He slapped his way to a four-round decision win against Eleazar Contreras of Mexico. But whatever deficiencies Zou has as a pro, he is great for business. Without him, Top Rank promoter Bob Arum would not have been able to load up the April card with a number of other interesting bouts, including two world title fights.

Zou was the main event of that April card because, to the Chinese, he was the star of the show. Arum is using the same formula when Zou moves into a six-round bout for his second pro fight against Mexico's Jesus Ortega (3-1, 2 KOs) on Saturday (HBO2, same-day tape, 5:30 p.m. ET/PT) at the CotaiArena at the Venetian Macao-Resort-Hotel.

While Zou gets the main-event treatment, the undercard fights are really more interesting: unified flyweight titlist Juan Francisco Estrada (23-2, 17 KOs), who won his belts on the April undercard, in his first defense against Milan Melindo (28-0, 11 KOs), and featherweight Evgeny Gradovich (16-0, 8 KOs), also in his first defense, against Mauricio Munoz (26-3, 12 KOs).

Another undercard fight matches heavyweight prospects Andy Ruiz (18-0, 12 KOs) and Joe Hanks (21-0, 14 KOs). Their bout will air on tape delay on Saturday night on Spanish-language network UniMas (midnight ET/PT).

Assuming Zou wins, he is already penciled in for his third pro fight – an eight-rounder – on Nov. 23 on the Manny Pacquiao-Brandon Rios HBO PPV undercard in Macau. But will Zou improve enough to warrant Arum's drumbeat that the boxer is a future world champion, or will he continue to fight like an amateur?

Trainer Freddie Roach is trying to work his magic as Zou's pro trainer. Roach is working hard to get Zou to embrace a more professional style, mainly to sit down more on his punches to get better power and leverage.

"We are working on his footwork and his power," Roach said. "We have to be more mobile and he has to sit down more when he punches. He doesn't always want to sit down when he punches. Guys get a little nervous because they can be hit. In amateur boxing it's about touching your opponent and getting out."

It's been hard for Zou to break his old habits after such a long amateur career.

"I'm certainly improving. After so many years of amateur boxing, your body and mind think a certain way when you enter the ring," Zou said, speaking through a translator. "However, after my first fight, I have a much better idea of what to expect and I feel that I'm adapting well to the professional style."

Roach is also encountering issues because of the language barrier.

"Working through translators is very hard because they don't really understand what I'm saying," he said. "I'm talking boxing, but they don't know boxing. So if I can't get my point across, I physically show him what I want him to do, plus his English is getting a little better.

"So we have to push a little harder and I show him exactly what I want. He picks it up quickly. He's not on his heels anymore and he's not allowed to turn southpaw anymore because he was getting square and stuck in the middle of switching. In a fight, you get caught in the middle and you're in trouble. He's not allowed to do it anymore. I whack him if he does it."

Roach said he is pleased that Zou has held his own in sparring sessions against former flyweight champ Brian Viloria. But Roach wants to see Zou fight more the way he did against Viloria in the gym than in his pro debut.

"I told [Zou] I like when fights end in knockout, and I told him he can do that if he sits down on his punches," Roach said. "His managers told me we need a great performance. I'm doing my best to make that happen. If he does what I say, he'll win by knockout and it will be fun to watch.

"If he reverts to his amateur style again, it's really hard to pull him out of it because he's been doing it his own life. It's a process."
Former featherweight titlist Billy Dib is picking himself up, dusting himself off and aiming for a rematch with Evgeny Gradovich, who took his title in a hard-fought split decision on March 1.

Dib had a rematch clause in his contract with Gradovich, but it wasn't a requirement that the second fight happen immediately. So instead of facing Australia's Dib right away, Russia's Gradovich (16-0, 8 KOs) is taking an interim fight and will defend his belt against mandatory challenger Mauricio Munoz (26-3, 12 KOs) of Argentina on July 27 in Macau, China.

Dib (35-2, 21 KOs), meanwhile, will try to rebound from the loss and fight his way into the rematch when he faces Mike Oliver (25-3, 8 KOs) in the scheduled 10-round bout that was elevated to the main event of this week's "Friday Night Fights" card (ESPN2, 9 ET) at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, Oliver's hometown.

The original main event -- the first solo promotion for rapper Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's SMS Promotions -- was supposed to have featured light heavyweight prospect Eleider Alvarez (12-0, 8 KOs), a 2008 Colombian Olympian living in Montreal, against Tulsa, Okla., native Allan Green (32-4, 22 KOs), a former world title challenger who participated in the Super Six World Boxing Classic super middleweight tournament. Green, however, pulled out of the fight Friday due to food poisoning.

Dib, 27, is trying to put the disappointment of losing his world title behind him.

"I fought the wrong fight and paid the ultimate penalty," Dib said. "It was really hard for me to lose my IBF belt, which meant so much to me. But the great news is, I know I can win it back. I have to give Gradovich credit for his performance, but it'll be a different outcome in a rematch. I will make a statement in this fight to let world featherweight champions know that Billy Dib is still here."

The 33-year-old Oliver is coming off a 22-month layoff and isn't expected to pose too many issues for Dib. In Oliver's most recent fight, he was knocked out in the second round by former titleholder Juan Manuel Lopez in October 2011. Oliver's two other losses came by third-round knockout, both in 2008.

"He's a crafty southpaw," Dib said of Oliver. "People are going to see a rejuvenated Billy Dib, an aggressive fighter who is coming to fight Oliver. I was shown a lot of love and respect after my last fight in America [the Gradovich fight, which was also in Connecticut], and I will return that love with a devastating performance and knockout victory."

Golovkin-Macklin close, plus more

April, 10, 2013
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Here's the lowdown on a bunch of fights that are either set, in the works or falling apart:

• Middleweight titlist Gennady Golovkin (26-0, 23 KOs) of Kazakhstan and former title challenger Matthew Macklin (29-4, 20 KOs) of Great Britain have a deal in principle to fight June 29 in the main event of an HBO tripleheader, according to both camps. The fight likely will be finalized in the coming days and could be announced as soon as Saturday at a news conference in New York, where many boxing writers will be covering the Nonito Donaire-Guillermo Rigondeaux junior featherweight unification bout. No site is set yet, but the Foxwoods resort in Mashantucket, Conn., is the front-runner to host.

The co-feature will pit South African super middleweight Thomas Oosthuizen (21-0-1, 13 KOs) against Sacramento's Brandon Gonzalez (17-0, 10 KOs). The fight has been agreed to but isn't yet signed. The opener will feature Cleveland junior middleweight Willie Nelson (20-1-1, 12 KOs), although promoter Lou DiBella and HBO have been arguing over an opponent for days.

• Fresh off his junior lightweight title defense against Diego Magdaleno in Macau, China, last Saturday, Roman "Rocky" Martinez (27-1-2, 16 KOs) is looking toward his next defense. It could come against former featherweight titlist Orlando Salido (39-12-2, 27 KOs) in September in Martinez's native Puerto Rico, according to Salido's manager, Sean Gibbons. Salido, who lost his featherweight belt to Mikey Garcia in January, will fight June 1 in Mexico or June 15 in Puerto Rico before the possible bout with Martinez.

• Light heavyweights Tony Bellew (19-1-1, 12 KOs) of England and Isaac Chilemba (20-1-2, 9 KOs) of South Africa will meet in a rematch May 25 in London on the undercard of the Mikkel Kessler-Carl Froch super middleweight title rematch, according to Chilemba's promoter, Lou DiBella, who said he made a deal with Bellew promoter Eddie Hearn. Once again, Bellew and Chilemba will fight for the right to become champion Chad Dawson's mandatory challenger. Bellew and Chilemba met on March 30 in Bellew's hometown of Liverpool, England, and fought to a draw.

• The third fight between cruiserweight titlist Marco Huck (35-2-1, 25 KOs) and interim titlist Ola Afolabi (19-2-4, 9 KOs) is scheduled for May 11 in Germany, and both fighter camps say their man is training. However, promoter Don King, who doesn't handle either fighter yet won the purse bid for a whopping $1.5 million, still doesn't have a specific site or a television deal, leading both sides to believe the fight won't come off as scheduled. According to the Afolabi camp, the WBO, which is sanctioning the bout, has given King a Wednesday deadline to produce signed contracts for the fight or he will forfeit his right to promote the bout.

• Lightweight Ameth Diaz (31-11, 22 KOs) of Panama will travel to Martin Gethin's hometown of Walsall, England, for a lightweight title eliminator on May 24. Diaz was supposed to face Marvin Quintero in the eliminator on April 5 in Santa Ynez, Calif., but Quintero suffered a broken nose, needed surgery and withdrew from the fight. Since Quintero was unavailable, Gethin (24-3-1, 11 KOs) was the next available contender in the IBF's rankings for the eliminator. The Diaz-Gethin winner will become the mandatory challenger for Miguel Vazquez.

• Featherweight titlist Evgeny Gradovich (16-0, 8 KOs) of Russia will make his first defense against mandatory challenger Mauricio Munoz (26-3, 12 KOs) of Argentina. An April 16 purse bid was canceled after the sides made a deal. Top Rank, Gradovich's promoter, plans to put the fight on in June or July, probably on the undercard of featherweight titlist Mikey Garcia's first defense.

• The promoters for junior lightweights Rances Barthelemy (18-0, 11 KOs), a Miami-based Cuba native, and Thailand's Fahsi Sakkreerin (39-3-1, 21 KOs) reached an agreement for their title elimination bout. Warriors Boxing promoter Leon Margules told ESPN.com that the sides have agreed on the terms and that the fight will be promoted in the United States this summer. The Barthelemy-Sakkreerin winner will become the mandatory challenger for 130-pound titlist Argenis Mendez.

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