Long read: Wallin vs Granat - a fight that really matters

Luke G. Williams
13/03/2018 1:30pm

Photo credits: Team Sauerland, Adrian Granat, Otto Wallin, EC Boxpromotion

The road to the 21 April heavyweight showdown between Otto Wallin and Adrian Granat has been a long one. Luke G. Williams has regularly interviewed both boxers over the past two years and brings you the full story behind a uniquely Swedish grudge match…


s493881354368189662 p598 i9 w2560The forbidding shadow of the great Ingemar Johansson looms large in Swedish boxing history, as well as in the popular imagination of a certain post-war generation of Swedes.

Equipped with a fearsome right hand and matinee idol good looks, Johansson remains one of the few European boxers to have risen to the cherished status of World Heavyweight Champion. His reign was short but his trilogy of championship contests against Floyd Patterson was utterly thrilling.

His aforementioned right hand, which was variously nicknamed ‘Ingo’s Bingo’, ‘The Hammer of Thor’ or ‘Toonder and Lightning’, was once described by Johansson himself as “something mystic”.

“There is something strange about my right hand, something very hard to explain,” he once claimed. “The arm works by itself. It is faster than the eye … Without my telling it to, the right goes, and when it hits there is this good feeling all down my arm and down through my body.”

Johansson returned to Sweden a hero after winning the heavyweight title in 1959, triumphantly being helicoptered into Gothenburg to the delight of thousands of waiting fans. Although he died in 2009, he remains a folk hero to many in his homeland, as demonstrated by Lasse Hallström’s charming 1985 coming of age film ‘My Life as a Dog’ in which the protagonist is named after Johansson, and the Swede’s great victory against Patterson is prominently featured.

Despite Johansson’s heroics, Sweden is a country that has maintained a complicated relationship with prize fighting. Swedes are renowned for their “nanny state” culture and have a longstanding reputation for pacifism – as a consequence large sections of the country have long maintained an attitude towards boxing best described as ambivalence mixed with hostility.

When the Olympics came to Stockholm in 1912, boxing was axed from the programme due to the organising committee’s distaste for the sport, while professional boxing was banned altogether from 1970 until the beginning of 2007.

Johansson himself once eloquently defended the sport against its critics, declaring: “People with strong humanitarian feelings often lack knowledge and clear-sightedness to see through the outer brutality of boxing and to see it for what it really is - an image of our existence.”

It is against the context of Johansson’s overwhelming dominance of Swedish boxing history and the country’s complex relationship with the sport that the upcoming showdown between heavyweights Otto Wallin and Adrian Granat on 21 April in Sundsvall must be viewed.

In many ways the contest is your typical heavyweight grudge match, but in others it remains an event with a uniquely Swedish flavour, upon which the immediate health of the sport in the Scandinavian country is arguably dependent.

Above all else though, as is ever the case with a big domestic boxing showdown, it is a fight about pride and two conflicting personalities - in this case men born a little under six months apart whose careers have followed remarkably similar trajectories as they jostle for a possible position at the top table of what remains boxing's most glamorous weight class.  

***

SetWidth840 Granat rillI first interviewed Adrian Granat in the spring of 2016. As he has been in all of our communications since, he struck me as well-spoken and polite, while also being commendably direct and to the point.

He has also proved himself scrupulously reliable at answering emails and Whatsapp messages and keeping phone appointments. In short, there is little pretence about Granat and nothing of the prima donna about him.

Unlike many boxers, he also seems keen to understate the traditional ‘misspent youth’ narrative that pugilists often parade as a badge of honour or a mark of their ‘authenticity’.

“Compared to the standard of living in [some places in] America, growing up in Sweden is a piece of cake,” he told me during our first interview. “It’s not that I had it hard, but you can still be a troubled child even if you come from Malmo.

“[As a boy] I used to get involved in a lot of fighting and this sort of stuff. Don’t misunderstand me though - I didn’t have a bad upbringing. I just never liked it if anyone ‘messed with me’, so to speak!”

Granat’s amateur career was successful, although his opportunities for international experience were limited in Sweden, with the country’s suppression of professional boxing having inevitably also stifled the growth of the country’s amateur scene.

Despite scooping national amateur titles in 2009 and 2012, the 6'7½" Granat remains modest in his own appraisal of his spell in the unpaid ranks. “In my amateur career I had a lot of ups and downs,” he shrugged. “I had a natural talent. I was skinny but I could still knock people out, so I’ve always had my punching power, but I had a little problem with my mind, my mentality.

“I could win against, for example, the English junior champion, but might lose at home against a local fighter because of anxiety or because I was a little bit nervous before my fights. That hindered me. But gradually I learnt to cope with this, so now it’s no problem.”

In a country with so few full-time boxers, turning pro was a risk, but one that Granat was more than willing to take, even though his university education could have led to a comfortable and far less precarious existence as an accountant or financial auditor.

“Boxing is a passion,” he emphasised. “I’m not satisfied sitting in an office typing numbers in to a computer. That doesn’t satisfy my needs as a person. Maybe it’s not exciting enough! Whatever the reason, I’ve always wanted to be a professional boxer. Ever since I started out at amateur level, I always talked about being a professional, so it wasn’t a hard decision [to turn pro], it was what I had always wanted. It’s like a need inside of me. I want to do this so bad.”

Granat made his professional debut in November 2013, securing a second-round TKO of Polish trial-horse Patryk Kowoll. “I put a lot of pressure on myself because I aim high,” Granat recalled of this contest. “Before I turned professional I was often afraid to look bad. So before my debut I was a bit nervous, but still it was a thrilling feeling to turn pro, finally the moment was here!”

After two fights in Sweden, Granat decamped to Hamburg, Germany, to fight under the banner of promoter Erol Ceylan’s EC Box Promotion stable.

“It’s still a challenge to be a Swedish boxer,” was Granat’s explanation, “particularly compared to other countries, like the States and England. I had to move to get better opportunities because it’s not possible to live in Sweden and make a living in professional boxing. I think it’s going to change, but it’s going to take time. In Sweden there are still people that work against boxing.”

Granat’s words carried an echo of the sentiments of another Swede who left the country in order to further his boxing career – light heavyweight Badou Jack, who once declared: “Being a boxer in Sweden is like playing ice hockey in Africa.”

Granat’s promoter Ceylan, also speaking to me in 2016, pinpointed the Swede’s persistence as having been key to him earning a promotional contract.

“He originally came to Hamburg for some sparring as an amateur in 2012,” Ceylan said. “He came to help Christian Hammer out before a fight and he gave a very good performance, sparring against Hammer and also Juan Carlos Gomez. He was very good and at that time I told him that if at any stage he wanted to become a professional he should find me.

“Two years later, he kept writing and emailing me saying: ‘I want to be a professional give me a chance!’ But from an email I couldn’t remember him! Anyway, he had a fight in Sweden and then our manager Thomas Schmidt said, ‘hey, this guy keeps emailing us,’ so I said ‘okay, he can come and spar and we will watch him’.

“So Adrian came, I saw him and then I remembered him straight away, so I said: ‘There’s no need to spar, go upstairs and sign a contract!’ After that he grew up very fast. He took everything on board, he was good in sparring, and we’ve given him good opponents and he’s had a very fast career so far.”

By early 2016, Granat was indeed moving fast, with a perfect record of 13 wins, 12 by stoppage. Since his debut in 2013, only Czech Tomas Mrazek had extended him to the final bell (a six-round encounter in September 2013) while there were several notable, albeit faded, names on his CV, such as Danny Williams (KO2), Darnell Wilson (KO 2), Michael Sprott (KO1) and Evgeny Orlov (TKO2), all of whom were ruthlessly dispatched.

Most impressive of all of Granat’s early fights though was his March 2016 victory against Serbian-born tough guy Samir Kurtagic, who he became the first man to stop, a feat that had proved beyond Otto Wallin, as well as the likes of Mariusz Wach, Denis Boytsov, Carlos Takam and Francesco Pianeta.

Nevertheless, in appraising his own talents, Granat remained circumspect, weighing his words carefully.

“I always want to improve,” he said. “My biggest strength is that I’m big but also quite athletic. What’s also become a big strength is my mental toughness, compared to most fighters and most people in general. That would be my biggest strength, along with my natural [physical] strength and physique. I’d also like to add that I’m never satisfied, I always look for things that I’m doing wrong or not doing well enough.”

The impression that Granat took his pugilistic craft extremely seriously was reinforced by his assessment and explanation of how he has sought to develop his uppercut.

“The uppercut is important especially as a tall fighter,” he explained. “[If you have a good uppercut] you are able to stand your ground with the in-fighting when somebody comes at you. It can be quite frightening to be hit by an uppercut. Having a good uppercut means you feel security when somebody comes at you. It makes you feel secure.”

Granat’s fistic education undoubtedly benefited from working as a sparring partner for Wladimir Klitschko ahead of his contest with Tyson Fury. “I learned a lot,” he said of this experience. “First of all, I got to feel that I could hang with the best, so to speak. That was quite a confidence booster.

“Also I got to see a champ in real life, how he works, how he operates. So I took a lot with me from that training camp. It’s not like I want to be Klitschko and do things exactly as he does but his discipline I look up to and I’ve taken that with me. Plus it made me realise I was working hard but not hard enough!”

Although Granat pinpointed Anthony Joshua, Joseph Parker and Tyson Fury as possible future obstacles to his world title ambitions, fellow Swede Otto Wallin inevitably absorbed a large portion of our conversation.

Although I had seen Granat quoted elsewhere speaking about Wallin in fairly withering terms (for a scrupulously polite Swede anyway), when speaking to me he steered clear of anything that could be construed as trash talk.

“I challenged him a couple of months ago, but since I’ve done so well [in my recent fights] they’ve been quite quiet,” Granat said when asked for his thoughts on this potential domestic blockbuster.

“I don’t know what is going to happen. I’m up for the fight tomorrow. I would love to make a fight in Sweden like [Dillian] Whyte versus Joshua was in the UK.”

Ceylan was more forthright, expressing doubt about the willingness of Wallin’s promoter – Nisse Sauerland - to match his man with Granat.

“We’d fight Wallin immediately,” he declared. “I think Adrian could fight him with only one hand, his left hand. But I don’t think Sauerland will allow it as I think he knows Otto Wallin has no chance against Adrian Granat.

“Adrian is in the first league and I think Otto Wallin is maybe in the second league. I don’t think Sauerland will risk it. It’s a dangerous step for them. I don’t think they’ll take the risk, I hope that they do but don’t think they will.”

Subsequent to our conversation Granat vs Wallin, for reasons that differ depending on who you talk to, failed to be brokered.

Instead, Granat handily disposed of Brazilian trial horse Saul Farah and German tough guy Franz Rill and prepared for a special homecoming fight, scheduled for the town of his birth - Malmo - on 18 March 2017 against the experienced 39-3 Russian Alexander Dimitrenko.

‘The Rumble in Malmo’ was set to be Granat’s first appearance in a Swedish ring since his second pro fight and he knew that victory would virtually assure him of a top 15 ranking with the WBC and edge him closer to European and world honours.

In the build-up Granat radiated confidence, telling me: “It's going to be fun fighting at home - I'm hoping for a good turnout. I am stable and tough in my mind. I'm ready for war. I expect to face the best Dimitrenko there's been next Saturday - he is a pretty stable boxer, with solid foundations and a good jab.”

He then added, in a dramatic flourish I found slightly out of step with our previous conversations: “It doesn't matter what he brings, I will break him. I will not be happy to go the distance ... he is going down."

***

otto1Otto Wallin was born a little under six months before Adrian Granat and has a well-earned reputation as one of boxing’s nice guys.

Unlike his domestic rival, there was not even a hint of trouble or mischief during Wallin’s upbringing in the pretty east coast city of Sundsvall (population a touch over 50,000).

“I grew up good,” Wallin told me in April 2016. “I first started boxing when I was 15. My father used to box and my brother, too, so that’s why I started. It was something I wanted to try. I’d done other sports before, like ice hockey and soccer, but I wasn’t that good at those.

“When it came to boxing, right away it was something I wanted to do and that I realised I could be good at. I had a good family and friends. In fact, I have the same friends now as I did back then.”

When he first took up boxing, Wallin admitted that the idea of eventually turning professional was not uppermost in his mind. “Originally, my dream was to go to the Olympics,” he recalled. “We had a guy in my boxing club [Ugandan-born Kennedy Katende] who qualified for the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing - that was big for me. I wanted to do the same.

“But then the opportunity came about to turn professional with Sauerland. I decided this would be a better path for me. I could get better training and train full time, too. I thought turning professional would give me the opportunity to become as good as I could.”

In a sport often renowned for its absurd bluster and hyperbole, Wallin is an unusually and endearingly understated and modest man. Like Granat, he is also incredibly reliable when communicating and arranging interviews. It must be a Swedish thing.

When I first asked Wallin to assess his own strengths and weaknesses, he was more than willing to admit the need for improvement.

“I’m a pretty fast heavyweight and I move well,” he explained. “I’ve got good footwork. So I’ve got good fundamentals, but I’m looking to work on my power, and become more explosive. I feel that’s where I can improve the most. Of course, you can always improve in every area, but the most would be in my power and explosiveness.”

Wallin also revealed himself to be an enthusiastic fan of Ingemar Johansson, telling me: “I grew up hearing stories about him.

"Stories about how he took the title. Everyone who was around then remembers it. It was a very big moment for Sweden. [Johansson] was a big icon in Sweden - not only in boxing, but for all Swedish sport.

“I take a lot of inspiration from him. He showed that it’s possible to become a world champion coming from Sweden and he did it when there was only one champion, one belt. That’s very inspiring.”

Like Granat, Wallin had found it necessary to leave Sweden to further his ambitions, going to train with former WBA super-featherweight and lightweight titlist and Lewiston, Maine native Joey Gamache in Denmark from his third professional fight onwards.

He also travelled elsewhere in order to gain experience sparring, notably spending several weeks in camp with Britain’s Anthony Joshua prior to AJ’s two-round destruction of ‘Prince’ Charles Martin for the IBF heavyweight title in April 2016.

“I really enjoyed my time in England,” Wallin recalled. “I was supposed to go for five nights at first, so I went there thinking I’d take each day at a time. In the end, I was there for seven weeks. It was amazing. We did a lot of sparring and that’s the most important training you can get. I feel like I improved and he improved, too, so it worked out very good.”

Despite the majority of his training taking place abroad, the reboot of professional boxing in Sweden, led by Wallin’s promoters the Sauerland brothers, meant that he was a far more regular fixture in Swedish boxing rings than Granat. Indeed, from September 2015 until April 2017 five of Wallin’s six fights took place on home soil, including an appearance on the high profile ‘Capital Showdown’ bill in Stockholm’s historic Hovet stadium in April 2016, a card headlined by unbeaten compatriot, the light heavyweight Erik Skoglund.

The Hovet was an apt choice of venue for Sweden’s biggest boxing show in decades, for it was in the very same stadia that Ingemar Johansson sparked Henry Cooper in 1957 and held on desperately to squeak past Brian London in 1963.

All that was needed – it seemed – to complete boxing’s return from the wilderness in Sweden was a blockbuster domestic clash to seal the sport’s renaissance.

In that respect, as 2016 rolled into 2017, Wallin (17-0) vs Granat (14-0) looked like being the super fight that Swedish fight fans craved.

For his part Wallin seemed keen. “He likes to talk …” he told me of Granat, before pausing diplomatically and then adding. “That fight would be great for Swedish boxing. I’m looking forward to it. If we both keep doing well we will see that fight absolutely. Two hopefully unbeaten heavyweight in a domestic fight? It doesn’t get better than that.”

***

“There’s a long back-story,” Swedish historian and writer Olof Johansson, who is now secretary of the country’s pro boxing commission, told me when I asked him for his take on why the country banned professional boxing.

“Rabid politicians in Sweden have often pursued boxing over the years. There’s always been resentment within the political elite about boxing and when we had a misfortune in ’46 when [Jacques] Beneto [a French light-heavyweight] died after a fight [in Malmö against Finn Oiva Purho] that really stirred things up.”

According to Johansson, the abolitionists were muted during the glory years when his Gothenburg-born namesake Ingemar was wielding his mighty right hand. However, after Ingo’s retirement in 1963, the next big star to emerge in Sweden was light-middleweight Bosse ‘Bo’ Högberg, whose exploits caused controversy and consternation.

“[Bo] wasn’t the kind of guy you could point to as a role model,” Olof laughed. “He was wild, he had affairs left and right. Then Sonny Liston came over as well [for four fights in 1966-67], which didn’t help in terms of the political discussion.”

However, it was an investigation by the Nordic Council, a geo-political organisation of which Sweden was a member, that provided the most significant ammunition for boxing’s opponents.

“An investigation was brought to the Nordic Council recommending professional boxing be banned,” Olof explained. “The Danes said: ‘What the fuck?’ and threw the report out. The Norwegians did the same and the Finns didn’t even look at it. But the Swedes said: ‘We’re going to take it to parliament for a thorough discussion.’

“Suddenly the bandwagon rolled like you wouldn’t believe. It was typical Sweden. Everyone was saying the world was a rotten place and the most rotten thing in it was professional boxing. It all went bananas in a very short time — from the report appearing in 1967 in just two years it went to a vote in parliament and professional boxing was suddenly outlawed.”

For years, Olof was one of the few voices trying to keep the issue of professional boxing on the political agenda. In 1978 he was joined by an energetic ally in the form of lawyer Björn Rosengren, the new head of the Swedish Amateur Boxing Federation.

After his appointment, Rosengren promptly announced a five-point plan for Swedish boxing, with point one being “to get professional boxing back”. That was easier said than done. “To change the law in Sweden is nearly impossible,” he confessed. “Sweden is Sweden and the state concentrates on very small things.”

Ironically, it was the rise of rival combat sports such as K-1 in the 1990s that eventually proved professional pugilism’s salvation in Sweden. “The question became why the hell these professional sports were allowed when professional boxing was outlawed,” Olof points out.

“That embarrassed the politicians, because people suddenly realised there were contact sports which weren’t being pursued in the way boxing had been. The pressure grew and by the turn of the century the politicians looked silly.”

Eventually, a parliamentary investigation was launched and, by November 2006, a new law had been passed that ensured the legal status of professional combat sports, including boxing, from 1 January 2007.

There was a proviso, though — namely that contests would be restricted to 12 minutes. Bouts longer than this would require special approval from a newly formed three-person committee, named the Kampsportsdelegationen.

IMG2720So it was, from 2007, that Swedish boxing slowly but surely rebuilt its profile. Due to the diligent paperwork and patient lobbying of the Kampsportsdelegationen by the likes of Rosengren and Johansson, permission even began to be granted for contests longer than 12 minutes, with the first full-length 12-round contest on Swedish soil since the 1960s being Erik Skoglund’s IBF intercontinental title fight against Oleksandr Cherviak in September 2015.

Nisse Sauerland, of the influential Sauerland Brothers promotional outfit, was a key figure in brokering the Skoglund contest.

“It’s been quite a hard thing to get Swedish boxing going,” Sauerland told me. “It was pretty much dead. They were only doing four rounders and there were no 12 rounders allowed. Along with Erik Skoglund we decided to apply [for a 12 round fight] and finally after meeting the government quite a few times we were able to get the first show done which was a great success."

With this watershed moment having been reached, Swedish professional boxing entered its healthiest period since the mid-1960s, with a group of increasingly high-profile boxers jostling for position on the world and European scene.

“It’s been pretty good,” Sauerland reflected of his experiences over the last few years promoting shows in Sweden and Swedish fighters. “We’ve got quite a good amount of talent in Sweden. Skoglund, Anthony Yigit, Klara Svensson and quite a few others. So now in a small country where boxing has pretty much been dormant for many years there is quite a nice little crop of good talent.”

Rosengren, though, who is now president of the Swedish Pro Boxing Commission, does not consider the battle to have been fully won.

“It’s a miracle we got professional boxing back, but a miracle with some shadows, because we have this authority that we have to report to all the time,” he explained.

“Thank God I’m a lawyer, because you can’t possibly understand how much paperwork I have to complete for every event. So the campaign is not over until we have permanent permission to arrange matches. Whether I live long enough to see that, though, I don’t know.”

Sauerland also alluded to some of the frustrations of arranging fights in Sweden. “You need to apply for any fights above four rounds two months in advance, which is, pardon my French, but it’s a bit of a ball ache. If you get a pull-out from a six rounder you can’t just replace them. So quite often you apply for quite a few fighters in one go. It’s quite hard to keep a show going there - especially an undercard.”

If anything, Swedish boxing seems likely to face more stringent regulations in the future for, in a cruel irony, the man who headlined the first 12-round bout in the country since the 1960s, popular light heavy Erik Skoglund, suffered a brain injury in sparring last December in his native Nykoping and was subsequently placed in a coma after surgery for a bleed on the brain.

A few weeks earlier, Skoglund had moved down 7lbs to super middleweight from light heavy to face Callum Smith in the World Boxing Super Series, losing on points after a fierce and unyielding tussle. Speculation was rife that a contributory factor to Skoglund's injury may have been the rigours he went through to lose weight.

The fall-out from the incident has already led to the swift introduction of a new rule whereby Swedish boxers can only apply for a licence in one weight category, and must re-apply if they want to move weight classes.

Thankfully, Skoglund has since come out of a coma and is now back home recuperating. However, he will never fight again, rendering the words he emailed to me a few days before he collapsed all the more poignant: “I believe and I hope Callum Smith has what it takes to go all the way [in the WBSS].

"It’d make me feel better myself and even though I fell short in a close fight with a controversial decision, there’s really no hard feelings between us. I like and respect Callum, [but] I’d do anything for a rematch!

“[But] I’m still young and I’ve [now] proved myself at the absolute top level.

"I believe there’s still many interesting fights for me out there.”

***

SetWidth840 Rumble in MalmoPrior to 2017, most Swedish boxing insiders felt that, if they fought, Adrian Granat would prove too strong, too hard hitting for Otto Wallin.

However, after the ‘Rumble in Malmo’ the dynamics of any future contest between the men shifted, possibly irrevocably.

Against all expectations, in front of his hometown fans, Granat was knocked out by Alexander Dimitrenko in just one round, a huge right hand flooring the Swede heavily, before a further flurry by the big Russian saw a still stunned Granat floored for the second time and the referee wave the contest off.

His unbeaten record and potential WBC top 15 ranking gone, Granat went to ground to regroup.

For Wallin the show went on, initially at least. The following month he had his own homecoming fight in Sundsvall, disposing of Gianluca Mandras by fifth-round TKO. However, the rest of the year was one of frustration for him, with several fight dates falling by the wayside due to injuries.

As the year drew to a close, Wallin admitted it had been a frustrating few months, but also couldn’t resist aiming a couple of verbal jabs in Granat’s direction.

“I know Dimitrenko is a decent fighter and he's a big guy so I knew that anything could happen," he told me in December when I asked for his views on Granat’s first loss.

"Adrian got caught in the first round and that was it. It can happen to anyone, but I think Adrian's problem is that he believes his own hype and wants to rush things.

"[Granat's loss] didn't give me any satisfaction, this is business and I wanted to be the first to beat Adrian but Dimitrenko beat me on that one. I've been wanting to fight Adrian since day one, he's been doing a lot of talking but wouldn't do much to make the fight.

“I hope we can get it on next year even though he hurt that fight a lot with his loss to Dimitrenko. I believe in my own ability, we have been around each other since we were amateurs - I was better than him then and I'm better than him now. I'm looking forward showing the Swedish people that talk is cheap.”

By now Granat had returned to Sweden and was on the comeback trail, having linked up with his former trainer Armand Krajnc, the retired former WBO middleweight champion.

“A lot of things were going in the wrong direction and that's why it [the Dimitrenko fight] went the way it did," Granat told me. "But I have taken this experience positively and I now feel strengthened by it.

"I now train with Armand Krajnc and it is going very good. I know I have to improve many aspects of my game and that is what I am working on. I'm always trying to get better.”

With the European Boxing Union having mandated a Granat vs Wallin contest for the vacant EU title, a showdown between the two men suddenly looked more likely than at any time in the previous couple of years.

Amid the growing hype and social media chatter, Granat returned to the ring in December, securing an easy victory against Georgian journeyman Irakli Gvenetadze which offered few clues what, if anything, the Dimitrenko loss had taken out of him. Wallin himself returned to action the following month on the Usyk vs Briedis WBSS card, also easing to victory against an overmatched opponent in Srdan Govedarica.

With both men’s careers in danger of becoming marooned in a sea of victories against underwhelming opponents, it came as something of a relief when, in mid-February, Granat vs Wallin was finally made official.

The talk would soon be over and the two best Swedish heavyweights since Ingemar Johansson would finally meet in the ring.

***

otto2With a couple of months still to go before he faces Adrian Granat in the Gärdehov ice hockey arena in his hometown of Sundsvall, Otto Wallin is training hard in New York. His trainer Joey Gamache relocated to the city in spring of 2017, and his Swedish charge eagerly joined him soon after.

“Normally I train at 11 or 12 with Joey each day,” Wallin tells me one morning, his cheerful voice offering no indication that he is in the least bit nervous about his impending date with his greatest rival.

“I’m staying in West Harlem, Manhattan. It takes me 40 minutes door to door to get to the Mendez gym on the subway. Today I’m sparring a Polish guy who’s visiting. I’ll spar him today and tonight I’ll do my strength and conditioning work.

“It’s great to train in New York. The best thing is there’s loads of sparring, tons of sparring here. That’s always something I had problems finding in Europe and Scandinavia so that’s a really big and good change for me. I think it’s going to develop me a lot.

“Joey is a former world champion, so he has all the experience in this game. He knows what it takes and he knows how to build a fighter too. He’s been around boxing for a long time so he brings a lot of experience.

“He’s made me a lot better fighter but the best is yet to come out. We’ve been working together now for five years and we have great chemistry and we will keep working together. It’s nice to have someone you can trust that you’ve been with for a long time. It means a lot to me to have him in my corner.”

KronkJust over 600 miles west of Manhattan, Adrian Granat is also training as never before, at the latest incarnation of the legendary Kronk gym in Detroit. It’s one of the many unlikely twists in the Granat and Wallin story that these two modest young men from sleepy Sweden are now both preparing for the biggest fight of their life in the United States.

Granat's reunion with Armand Krajnc lasted just one fight, and ‘The Pike’ has now enlisted the services of Johnathon Banks, heir apparent to Emmanuel Steward at the Kronk.

“My training is going good,” Granat tells me, as he kills time after a morning training session and before a lunch appointment. “I’ve been training all this year already. I got to Detroit last week and it’s going really good with Banks, Kronk 2it’s real fun. I’m learning a lot, it couldn’t be better.

“I met him a couple of years ago when I was invited to the [Wladimir] Klitschko camp, obviously I made a good impression. We called him a couple of months ago and it wasn’t hard after that, we agreed right away.

“I believe I have good power and good size but I’ve been lacking some boxing ability perhaps and I really believe he can bring my game up a couple of notches so I can realise my full potential.

“Of course, it’s an honour to train at the Kronk, I’ve been boxing for half my life and the Kronk is a very famous gym. It’s very cool to be here and to be training here. It’s changed locations but the spirit still lives on and it’s cool to be a part of that for sure.

“The first day I came I was really excited, I jumped up and down almost. It’s really cool. I’m living the dream at the moment. It’s my first time in the States. I’m very lucky to train with Banks so everything is very positive. It’s exceeded my expectations.”

Wallin argues that Granat’s sudden association with Banks gives him a psychological advantage over his rival. “I think for sure there’s got to be some concerns there for [Granat]. Johnathon is a good trainer but two months is a very short time to make changes or make a good fighter. I don’t think it’s time enough to do anything really.

"But that’s an issue for them - I’m just happy with my team who I’ve been with now for five years. We know each other well and I think that’s going to show on 21 April.”

It’s an interesting assertion. It’s also noticeable throughout my latest interviews with the pair, that while Wallin eagerly discusses his views of Granat, his rival remains more aloof, detached and business-like in his assessment of Wallin. Read into that what you will.

Above all, though, both men seem pleased to be getting their chance to prove – at last – that they are the best heavyweight in Sweden.

“Finally it’s happening,” Wallin says enthusiastically. “We had to build it up and I think we’re finally at a point where it’s time to fight. That’s good. There’s been a lot of talking, it’s been a while and I’m just going to be happy to get into the ring and show who’s the best.

“I think I’m a more complete fighter than him. I trust my worth ethic. I’m very serious in this game. I want to become something and I work hard every day to be that. I don’t think he works as hard as me. I think I’ve got a bigger heart than him. I think I’m a more complete fighter – I’ve got better defence, I’ve got better offence and better footwork, and I’m faster too.

“This is boxing and it’s a business, but if there’s anyone I want to beat, it’s him. That’s the way it is. I really want to beat this guy, to shut him up and let everyone know that he can only talk so much, he’s got to back up the talk too and I don’t think he’ll be able to do that.

“I think his strengths are that he’s big and he has some power, but I think that’s about it. His weaknesses are that he lacks a proper defence and I think that the Dimitrenko fight took a lot out of him. Mentally I don’t think he’s in a good place. He’s changed trainers twice since that fight. I just think I’m a better fighter than him. I think he lacks defence. He’s an ok fighter but I’m just better.

“I was never crazy about him, even in the amateurs, He’s from the southern part of Sweden and I’m from the north. The rivalry has nothing to do with that, but he has an aura around him that I don’t like and I’ve never liked.

“We never fought in the amateurs, which is funny. We were around each other at the same tournaments and stuff. I know him well, I know who he is. I think I know his weaknesses and his strengths. So I’ll be aware of his strengths and I’ll exploit his weaknesses.

“I would say that he’s a guy that I see as a bully. He tries to bully people and when it gets tough he breaks down.”

Granat’s demeanour when we speak is less lively than Wallin’s – at one point he yawns deeply mid-response - but he speaks with a steely conviction and a sense of certainty that is both convincing and persuasive.

“2018 is going to be my year – that’s how I feel,” he argues. “2017 it was tough after the loss but still I have to take it as a positive. I’ve learned a lot and I’m ready to come back with a good win now and move on to bigger and better things. All my focus now is on beating Otto Wallin. The future don’t really matter – I gotta win this fight.

“It feels good. It’s going to be fun to be involved in such a big domestic showdown. It’s just positive vibes – I’m feeling great. Wallin has got a solid foundation boxing wise, but he don’t got no power – or he hasn’t shown that he has any power or any killer instinct. I feel that especially now with Banks training me, I definitely feel like I have the edge in almost every department.

“It’s going to be a fun fight, a domestic fight, it’s got all those positives. I don’t put any value in whether it’s in his hometown or not, I’m coming to fight and I’m going to win the fight, I don’t care where it is. It doesn’t matter.

“It’s just business. I don’t really know him that well. I don’t really care about him that much either. Personally I don’t think he has any entertainment value or that kind of thing, but as for personal feelings about him I don’t care about him. It’s business, it’s a good fight and it’s going to be fun to be involved in a domestic showdown.

“A win will put me back in the mix after my loss. I’m thinking it will be a good win and that it’s going to feel great. I don’t have any prediction apart from I’m going to be victorious.”

Granat's refusal to be dragged into any trash talk forms an interesting contrast to the words attributed to him in the press release his promoters sent out when announcing the fight.

In that release he said of Wallin: "I don’t like him. Boxing is supposed to be entertainment, but he’s not entertaining. He’s not got an entertaining boxing style or personality. I think he’s dull all the way through, and I’m 100 per cent confident I will win this fight.

“He’s got a weak mind and no punch so it’s going to be difficult for him. He’s fought lower level journeymen his whole career so it’s going to be a big step up for him to face me, and I think he’s going to notice the difference.

“For me, it doesn’t matter that the fight is in Sundsvall. I think that’s great. It’s going to be fun. I look forward to the crowd booing me in, and they’ll be booing me even more at the end when Otto is lying on the canvas!”

Despite both men’s confidence, who will actually win the fight remains the big unanswered question. I, for one, still can’t decide which way I think it will go. Furthermore, having communicated so often with Granat and Wallin, I've reached the point where I like and admire them both, and wouldn't want to predict a winner.

Wallin’s promoter Nisse Sauerland also maintains that it is a pick 'em showdown.

“I think it’s truly 50-50 fight,” Sauerland told me. “Adrian has got a big punch, Otto doesn't. Otto's a good boxer, Otto can move. Otto will most likely frustrate Adrian. I think Otto will have to move the whole fight to keep away from Adrian’s power. It's definitely Otto's biggest test so far. Adrian was up against a guy in Dimitrenko who was a level up and he lost.

"So it is an interesting fight for both of them, it's an acid test, a make it or break it fight, really. Otto has to beat Adrian Granat to progress to the next level. If he loses then obviously it’s back to the drawing board for him.

"It’s a fight he has to win really. It’s a fight that has come at the right time for both of them. Both of them want to progress to that next level, which would probably be a European title fight against Agit Kabayel, who beat Dereck Chisora.”

Olof Johansson, meanwhile, put the contest into historical context for Boxing Monthly: "Yes, Wallin vs Granat is BIG, but it has strangely enough not caught 'fire' yet [with the Swedish public]. I think it will pick up interest closer on.

"It is one of the big ones regarding two Swedish heavyweights clashing, which is a rare thing on a high level in the pros: there was Harry Persson vs Johnny Widd in the 1920s, Nisse Ramm vs Olle Bergvall, John Andersson vs Ring Larson and vs Arne Andersson in the 30s and Olle Tandberg vs Nisse Andersson and vs John Nilsson in the 40s.

"But there have been no such clashes since, except, of course, some hot ones in the amateurs. several involving Ingemar Johansson - for example, vs Holm, Modigh and Thörner Åhsman, as well as Åhsman vs Lennart Risberg. The biggest such clash in the amateurs was in qualifying for the Moscow Olympics in 1980 when Anders Eklund faced Roger Andersson (in front of 7,200 spectators!)

"Sweden has had nothing remotely close since - except of course the truly big Scandinavian showdown of Eklund vs Norwegian Steffen Tangstad in 1985 in Copenhagen (which was similar to Persson vs Otto von Porat in Stockholm in 1931).

"Wallin vs Granat will be up there, among the big ones and if it can live up to expectations - and I believe it can - it will surpass most of the bunch above!

"The strange thing with this fight is that it is being staged up in the north - Sundsvall-ians keep pointing out that that geographically Sundsvall is only halfway up north and ought to be regarded as the "middle of Sweden", but 80 per cent of the country's population think anything north of Gävle is beyond 'civilization'! The location will, as far as the public goes, have some effect on the crowd, but I still think it will be a fairly big crowd.

"Who wins? Otto´s the better boxer, Adrian´s the bigger puncher - it is a good set-up and a big pro-Wallin crowd may be important in terms of how it plays out!"

In the grand scheme of world heavyweight boxing, Granat vs Wallin may only cause a small ripple, but in the fragile world of Swedish boxing – which is still bearing the scars of the its very own ‘prohibition’ era and coming to terms with the tragic recent injuries to Erik Skoglund – as well as in the minds and careers of Adrian Granat and Otto Wallin, it’s a fight that really matters.