Kazakh Thunder: Daniyar Yeleussinov interview

Mark Butcher
03/08/2018 9:48am

As a pro Daniyar Yeleussinov is just starting, but his amateur record demands attention. He tells Mark Butcher he'll be fighting for world titles within 18 months...

Nothing is promised in life or boxing. Reputations soar and dreams are crushed ad infinitum. Potential stars wane and hopes drift with the change of the seasons. But every so often a highly decorated boxer, a perceived mega talent, emerges from the amateur system and special things are expected, beyond the scope of others. Daniyar Yeleussinov is a fighter who inspires such belief.

Having conquered every aspect of amateur boxing, from a World Championship to an Olympiad, the gifted southpaw from the remote village of Berezino in western Kazakhstan has set his sights on professional dominance after forging an intriguing link-up with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom organisation, recently bolstered by its lucrative deal with streaming network DAZN.

Ahead of Yeleussinov’s second pro contest – a decisive points win over tricky Hungarian Zoltan Szabo at York Hall, a handful of people were privy to the Kazakh’s closed doors workout at Darren Barker’s 12x3 Gym, just across the road from London’s bustling Paddington Station.

Arriving that morning on a red eye flight from Miami, Yeleussinov was running fashionably late; clawing back some missed sleep in his hotel room before ghosting up the flight of concrete steps outside the gym in a garish Kazakhstan national team tracksuit with a small entourage in tow.

Once inside the atmospheric, almost moodily dark, gym, Yeleussinov stripped to his gold and black fight trunks and started working the pads in the ring. A smooth-as-they-come southpaw, he fired off effortless jabs and combinations like he has done thousands of times before as members of his entourage playfully shouted ‘Errol Spence!’ or ‘Terence Crawford!’ in part joke, part motivation.

After two pro fights, and two inevitable wins, a sizeable promotional push is cranking into gear and Yeleussinov sat down with Boxing Monthly to discuss his aspirations as regular patrons encroached on the gym to pound heavy bags and ping leather on outstretched pads.

It was a bitter-sweet reunion of fighter and city. London was the location of a rare disappointment for Yeleussinov in 2012; his first Olympics and an unaccustomed failure on points against Italian Vincenzo Mangiacapre in the quarter-finals. A loss that proved the catalyst for glory four years later and saw Yeleussinov emulate Kazakh legends Bakhtiyar Artayev (2004), Bakhyt Sarsekbayev (2008) and Serik Sapiyev (2012) in earning Olympic welterweight gold. But, unlike those great names, Yeleussinov has bucked the trend and turned professional.

“Of course, I have great memories of London because it was my first Olympic games. And I have bad memories because I lost!” Yeleussinov told BM through interpreter and representative Ziya Aliyev as we sat on a gym bench after his workout.

“It was very important to focus after the [London] Olympic Games. I was even thinking to turn pro. I had to pick myself up because, before the next Olympic games, there was a World Amateur Championship and then I would think about [turning pro again]. But at the end of the day I decided to go to the [Rio] Olympics because it was a responsibility for me, as everybody knows welterweight is a Kazakh weight class.”

Being regarded as a national sporting superstar can be a boost or a burden. Yeleussinov’s stellar international career, where winning seemed second nature, shows he can shoulder such a weight.

“It’s half pressure, half responsibility because I’m representing my nation first of all,” said the former captain of the Kazakhstan boxing team. “It’s hard sometimes, because I want to always win, in the same style as the amateurs, having great fights. Now, in the professionals, it’s the same goal for me, to be champion of the world for Kazakhstan, to promote the prestige of my nation. It’s more a responsibility because I’m like the face of my country now.”

Considered the crown jewel of his sporting nation, representative Aliyev had to persuade the Kazakh Boxing Federation to let Yeleussinov turn professional far away from home comforts and now a new adventure has begun.

Relocation to a training base near Miami, under the eye of respected coach John David Jackson, has taken Yeleussinov to the other end of the social spectrum. The quiet village life of Berezino, located in the Uralsk region of Kazakhstan, and Miami with its exotic nightlife and thumping Latin heartbeat are worlds apart. Inside a boxing ring, every place feels the same, however, and the fledgling pro has been sparring with the likes of former world title challenger Matt Korobov in his quest to add professional steel to his undoubted silk.

“It’s a different life. I need to learn English,” mused Yeleussinov, who can count touted British stars Josh Kelly and Josh Taylor among his many amateur victims. “I’ve prepared in Miami for one month and liked it. My management group [Boxing Stars] is also based in Florida so that’s why we located there.

“I’ve sparred at the 5th Street Gym and every time I’ve been there [Victoria’s Secret model] Adriana Lima has been there, too. She talked to my team and said, ‘I will come to watch you fight in New York. I want to become your fan.’”

Occasionally, Yeleussinov interjects during mid-translation and contributes in lucid English, showing a comprehension of the language despite utilising an interpreter. Even celebrated compatriot and elder statesmen Gennady Golovkin hasn’t quite mastered English – so how important is adopting a new language for Yeleussinov in his goal of becoming a global superstar?

“I understand I need to learn English, but sometimes I don’t have enough time with everything happening in the ring,” he said. “With my [American] trainer, I understand some words, but I need to sit with a teacher who can teach me to speak proper English, to know the rules, how to talk. Not just know and say some separate words.”

One might think that Golovkin has reached out to his countryman about the transition to pro, given Yeleussinov’s similar path and national standing, but not so. “He has never talked to me about that,” said Yeleussinov. “In [recent] times, Triple G has changed. He is not reachable. People from his own city, let’s say his friends, someone who knows him, they can’t reach him. Sometimes people change.”

At 27, with every amateur accolade in his possession and numerous elite fighters vanquished, some might assume that Yeleussinov will opt for a Vasyl Lomachenko fast-track route and dive head first into deep waters as a pro, but the welterweight is planning a more measured approach.

“I don’t want to be rushed like Lomachenko. I want more rounds, more experience,” said the fighter dubbed ‘Kazakh Thunder’. “In Lomachenko’s second fight he lost to a more experienced guy [Orlando Salido]. Solely on experience, not through technical ability. That’s why I want to be built properly. My condition, my pace, everything [has to be right] and after that I will be confident to fight for the world title. Lomachenko’s father trained him from childhood and his condition as a fighter is something [else]. He is good. I’m just starting.

“Maybe next year, or in a year-and-a-half, I will be ready for the world title. We will see. I’m training now for that moment, it’s building in stages. Spence or Crawford first, it doesn’t matter. I would like to fight them both in the ring.”

Such confrontations are a tantalising prospect but some way off yet. Yeleussinov’s assimilation to the pro ranks began smartly enough when he halted the unbeaten Noah Kidd in three rounds after displaying some clinical body-punching, in evidence again in his win over Szabo.

“In the amateurs, I tried to hit the body but with those big gloves – they felt nothing. Here in the professionals, with the different gloves [8ozs at welterweight], it’s more comfortable to hit and hurt with the leather,” said Yeleussinov. “The United States is so far from my home in Kazakhstan, but yet I saw my countrymen there, many with flags. After the fight, they took pictures with me and thanked me so I was very happy and excited about that.”

At present, his countrymen back home can only see his fights on grainy internet streams. Now Yeleussinov is an international star in the making, with fights in London and Brooklyn under his belt and plans to fight in London again, at the O2 Arena on 28 July, and Monte Carlo in November.

In the coming years, most fighters’ dreams will rise and fade, but many feel Yeleussinov will hit the heights and keep soaring. Visions of glory, wealth and a strong sense of patriotism, a genuine devotion to his country, light the path ahead.

“One of my dreams already came true when I became the Olympic gold medallist in Rio. To be motivated to continue in this sport, I have made new goals,” he said. “I will work hard to become undisputed champion. I want to achieve everything. I won’t lie to you and say I don’t want to be a millionaire or a billionaire or be wealthy. That would be a lie. But I want glory. I want to be well known and represent my country with distinction.”

Yeleussinov's next fight is on Saturday vs Gabor Gorbics. This interview was originally published in the July issue of Boxing Monthly magazine.