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‘They might be taking over boxing!’ – legendary Lebedev trainer Roach on Russian fans & fighters

Revered boxing trainer Freddie Roach visited Moscow this week ahead of the WBA and IBF world title showdown between his charge, champion Denis Lebedev, and unbeaten Murat Gassiev on December 3.

The fight between cruiserweights Lebedev and Gassiev at the city’s Khodynka Ice Palace is expected to be one of the most explosive matchups in the boxing calendar, with the pair having registered a collective 39 knockouts from their 55 professional fights.

Speaking at the open training session for the fight, Roach, who has been working with Lebedev in California, had some kind words for his fighter, the city of Moscow and Russian boxing.

“Moscow’s nice, [I’ve] been here before and this is part of the fight, we gotta let everyone know about the big fight coming up and it’s gonna be a very good fight on Saturday,” said Roach, clad in an ocean-blue tracksuit with Russian lettering, at Moscow’s World Class gym, where the open training session was held.

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“Denis is in great shape, he’s ready for this fight and we’re 100 percent here right now. I mean we didn’t work out too much today because we’re already there, he’s ready to go.”

Roach owns the iconic Wild Card gym in Hollywood, Los Angeles, known as an elite school in one of the world’s boxing capitals, where he has tutored no fewer than 28 current or former world champions – including three Russians.

“I have a lot of Russians in my gym and they work hard and they do well. I mean it’s good for boxing in America and it’s great for them to come over and show what they are learning overseas. [Gassiev and Lebedev] are both hard workers, both good fighters, good punchers – someone’s gonna go!

“I’ve had a lot of champions with my Russian fighters and they’ve done very well and they’re very hard-working, good guys. I love people who work hard and that’s what turns me on, that’s what makes me work.

“[Russians] are great fans and there’s great fighters and I think they can reach that level, yes. They have a great market and a lot of good Russian fighters and a lot of Ukrainians of course, and you have ‘Triple G’ [middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin] of course from this area also. There’s some great fighters out there, they’re making a lot of noise and might be taking over boxing!”

Born in Massachusetts, Roach had a 53-fight professional boxing career before making his name as a trainer under the guidance of legendary coach Eddie Futch.

Roach has since won a number of accolades in his career. The six-time Boxing Writers Association of America ‘Trainer of the Year’ is most famously associated with six-weight superstar Manny Pacquiao, the Filipino fighter whose match with Floyd Mayweather Jr. was billed as ‘The Fight of the Century’.

He has also trained heavyweight kings ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson and Wladimir Klitschko, but does he think the heavyweight scene, once ruled by Klitschko and his brother Vitaly, is what it once was?

“The heavyweights were great, training the heavyweight champion of the world was a big deal at one point and lately – not so exciting. It’s not the same anymore, we don’t have the heavyweights we had at one time.

“The competition is coming back a little bit now, we talk a little bit about it with [IBF heavyweight champion Anthony] Joshua and those guys coming up and it looks like they are going to make some noise pretty soon.”

Roach has also recently branched out into training MMA fighters such as former three-time UFC welterweight champion ‘GSP’ Georges St-Pierre. Roach believes that the difference between the two disciplines is instantly noticeable.

“Oh they are completely opposite sports, I mean it’s completely different. We’re just teaching hands mostly because that’s all we really know about and so forth. But submission holds and ground game, I wrestled a bit in high school so I know a little bit but not enough to be at that level of knowledge that they need,” says Roach.

Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor, probably the two biggest names of boxing and MMA respectively, are two fighters known to train at the Wild Card. A multi-million dollar mega-fight between the two has long been mooted, but Roach believes the winner will depend on which fighting rules the pair observe.

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“It’s two different sports; if an MMA fighter fights a boxer by boxing rules, the boxer will win. If you go by MMA rules, the MMA fighter will win, almost 99 percent of the time. They are two opposite sports, I don’t think they are comparable but I don’t really keep them together like that.

“But I do have to learn a lot about MMA, because striking for an MMA fighter is a lot different than it is for a boxer with the stance and so forth, because they have to use their legs a lot more and there’s a lot more to it of course.”

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Having mixed extensively with Russian fighters in his stable, does this mean that Roach has become acquainted with the mighty Russian language?

“Russian...not too much, I can probably say ‘hi’ and that’s about it. And I can say ‘yes’, ‘da’, my favorite word (laughs). But Russia is a great place, great city, great restaurants, I love coming here, little bit cold but that’s ok.”

It seems the universal language of boxing is a handy substitute in the instance of a communication barrier.