Sillakh Wants To Change the Way You Look at Boxing

And save his sport in the process

Ismayl Sillakh
Ismayl Sillakh

You are an enlightened modern sports enthusiast, and you think you know boxing. You think the "sweet science" is anything but. You view the pugilists who carry out the blood sport as brain-damaged and violence-prone, and you see the whole charade as just a half-step removed from watching prison gang fights on YouTube.

Spend a few minutes talking with undefeated NABF light-heavyweight champion Ismayl Sillakh, though, and you'll humbly throw everything you think you know out of the ring.

This week’s installment of ESPN's Friday Night Fights features Sillakh in Austin boxing to earn the rank of No. 1 contender for the WBC's prestigious and storied light-heavyweight belt. A win at the Erwin Center means a future date with the winner of the Atlantic City, N.J., title rematch of Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson. To get his shot at the belt, though, Sillakh will have to get by brawler Denis Grachev, a dangerous underdog with his own undefeated pro-boxing record and a history of stunning highly-ranked opponents.

Yet just days before the fight, Ismayl is clearly thinking about more than his own path to a potential world championship. In an interview with The Austin Chronicle, he spoke frankly and eagerly about the need for a better future for his sport, respecting the limits of his boxing career, and working to help the troubled youth in his home country, Ukraine.

When is the last time you heard somebody say, "I like boxing because it is a smart sport"?

"Boxing is not just a fight. It’s a smart sport and a fast sport. Like chess, you need good strategy and every step is important. You need to be faster than chess, though. If you don’t read something your opponent is doing in boxing, well, you know.” Ismayl views boxing as the hardest of all sports, because of the constant focus and discipline required of a champion fighter. “Every millisecond you need to see everything – all the time. And every second I adjust what I do.” In fact, in every round, he changes something – his style, his rhythm, even his stance - to keep his opponent from countering the gambit unfolding before him.

In a sport that has long been dominated by image, a la Don King hairstyles, flashy entrances, and cocky showboating champions, Sillakh offers a long-overdue dose of genuine substance that even the current boxing machine does not quite know how to handle. Take his promotional nickname, The Black Russian. “It’s what they call me here, because it sounds good in the United States, I guess. It’s some alcohol drink, too. I don’t like it. First of all, I am not Russian! I was born in Ukraine, and my skin color is black. Ukraine is more of a white country. When I was a kid, people looked at me every day, and I remember how it felt. I got in fights all the time.” It is hard to fathom why anyone would use this shamefully cruel moniker today, but it gives the boxer just the opening he needs to crack his own favorite joke, “Call me Ismayl!”

Even in this environment, Sillakh is confident that a new generation of fighters can save boxing. If audiences could just see higher-quality fights, they would view boxing as the cunning, fast-paced battle of wits as much as fists that it is. He doesn't approve of the way boxing's current curators seem to allow the best fighters to avoid each other, and he is willing to be the voice of a new era that would put an end to exhausting dramas like the Mayweather-Pacquiao perpetual card tease. “Today, everybody, like Mayweather and Pacquaio does it only for the money. [Promoters] are not looking for good performers and good fights. We need something to change. We need high-quality fights, and we’ve got a lot of young boxers who can show the world what we love in quality boxing. But we are dying in the training gym every day. Just because some promoter doesn’t want a fight between me and some other guy, we stay in the gym, and wait, and die.”

As much as he loves the sport, though, Sillakh knows the ring isn't the place he wants to be 10 years from now. "I don't want to stay in boxing like other boxers who are 40 and 50 years old. I don’t want to be a stupid man who can barely say anything," the 27-year-old says. "Every fight, you give a piece of yourself - you give a piece of your life." Before he becomes the shopworn fighter that can't parry his opponent's quick jab, he plans to step out of the ring and let the next generation of chess masters take over. It is a comforting display of foresight and maturity that makes you wish Sillakh could have given finishing lessons to some of boxing's greatest champions before it was too late for them.

If making way for the next generation in the ring sounds like an awfully selfless act, just ask Sillakh about the youth in his home country. When Sillakh was five years old, his dad abandoned Ukraine and returned to Sierra Leone. Sillakh's mom, a Ukrainian doctor of gynecology, was left to raise the three Sillakh brothers on her own $100 a month income. “I saw every day how it hurt for my mother. She cried every day. It’s very hard in Ukraine.” Left in a rough country with rough circumstances, street fights with his brother at his side soon followed. Within two years, his mom had steered the boys to a boxing gym to keep their energy focused on positive activities. 317 amateur and 17 professional fights would follow his mom's decision, and now 20 years later, while he lives and trains for his fights in California, Sillakh manages a nonprofit foundation for troubled youth back in Ukraine. "In Ukraine, kids are criminals at 10 years old. Kids go to the streets, drink alcohol, and do something not right.” Sillakh wants kids back home to see the example he set, and his foundation serves as a source of inspiration for the kids that he reaches. "Every kid must have a dream. If he has a dream, it will help him."

And just like that, you find yourself pulling for a guy with zero household name recognition to breathe life back into a once-proud pastime that has been hemorrhaging fans for decades. It's rare enough to find a pro athlete in any sport that is simultaneously successful at the highest levels and so self-aware, mature, and humble, but if boxing can manage to focus less on the glitter and more on Ismayl Sillakh's affable smart-guy approach, this Friday's fight may open the door to a whole new future for the sport.

(Oh, and just in case you need something familiar to make you feel like you still know boxing: before every one of his 317 amateur fights, Sillakh watched clips from Rocky IV to get pumped up. He knows every line. Don’t expect too much cliché out of him though, because he does have his limits. “I like every one except Rocky V. That’s when he fights his kid, right? No, I don’t like that at all.”)

ESPN's Friday Night Fights: Fri., April 27, 8pm. Frank Erwin Center, 1701 Red River, 477-6060. $25-100.

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Ismayl Sillakh, Friday NIght Fights, Rocky IV

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