Unfinished business: Mairis Briedis interview
Image courtesy of Siesta Boxing
In an exclusive interview, Latvian cruiserweight Mairis Briedis talks to Luca Rosi about being a role model, his WBSS experience and why he has "unfinished business" with Tony Bellew...
It’s difficult to put into words just how much of an icon Mairis Briedis is in his native Latvia, a country of close to two million inhabitants – roughly the same population as Manchester. As a role model for the country’s youth, he takes his civic responsibilities and duties very seriously.
Speaking to Boxing Monthly immediately after an afternoon training session, he said: “I don’t consider myself to be a superhero or anything like that. What makes me happy is to see that the youngsters in Latvia who are looking up to me can become good human beings first and foremost. And then, should they wish to follow the sporting route, good athletes too. I want to set the right example for them, the right template if you will. There are other ways of looking at life rather than just peering into a phone all day.
“You can fulfil your ambitions with discipline, perseverance and a passion for what you do. There’s a code of behaviour that you must adhere to at all times. I’m extremely proud of my work as an officer in the Latvian police force, which I’ve been doing for over 10 years now. In the last couple of years my role has become more office based, focusing more on the administrative side of things but I wouldn’t give it up for the world.
"It’s not just athletes who are role models. People working for government and public organisations must do that too. It’s so important to respect and love your country and take care of the people around you.”
Such is the 33-year-old’s popularity that he received Latvia’s highest state accolade in 2017 - the Order of the Three Stars Class III. “I actually found out about it on 18 November while I was training in Benidorm ahead of the Oleksandr Usyk fight. I had flown back on the Sunday but I had media obligations on the Monday and Tuesday, so that was the earliest day that it could be arranged [Wednesday 24 January].
"It was very humbling to receive the award from president Raimonds Vējonis. What made it even more special was the fact that it was voted for by the Latvian people. You can imagine how honoured I was. Now I must live up to all the acclaim and continue to uphold the highest levels of integrity.”
The ceremony itself was held just three days before the World Boxing Super Series showdown against his Ukrainian adversary. It turned into a pulsating 12-round contest that had viewers on the edge of their seats for 36 magical minutes.
Briedis gave his account of the fight to Boxing Monthly, “I still haven’t had time to watch and analyse the fight. I completely accept the decision of the three judges. That’s the official result and it has to be respected. The final verdict rests with the judges. But it gives me even more motivation and an extra incentive to train hard and improve going forward.
"Hindsight is a wonderful thing and of course there are some things I would have done differently. I should have raised the tempo sooner and not left it too the last round, as I felt Usyk was running out of steam. But for whatever reasons, which I can’t explain myself, I just didn’t do that. I should also have brought in a more diverse group of sparring partners during my training camp in Spain.”
Briedis has nothing but praise for the WBSS tournament. “The WBSS is the best thing to have happened in boxing for many years. It’s truly been spectacular, and I’m sure all the fans worldwide would agree. Kalle Sauerland and Comosa AG and everyone involved in the whole organisation have done an incredible job.
"The fighters are treated brilliantly and the spectacle itself on the night is something to behold. No stone is left unturned. I think it’s an unbeatable package. From a fighter’s perspective, the best part about the tournament is that you can’t duck anyone, it’s only the best against the best.
"Normally, you get to fight maybe once or twice a year against someone who’s picked for you or you have a mandatory obligation. Whereas in WBSS you fight the best in your weight category in a short period of time, one after another in quick succession [the Usyk fight came just four months after his win over Irish-based Cuban, Mike Perez at the same Arena Riga venue].”
However, it was sheer coincidence that led the father of five to boxing in the first place. He recalled, “It’s probably a story you may have heard before from other boxers. A classmate was doing some boxing training and I went along for the ride. As I started to improve and become better than the other fighters, I decided to channel my energy more and more into boxing and make the switch from kickboxing.
"I’d become European champion and there was nowhere else for me to go in that sport. I also liked boxing more and so I decided to go for it as I felt I could really progress. It helped that my coach at the time was also a boxer and kickboxer.”
Ironically it was in the ring where Briedis got to know his current trainer. “That’s actually how I met Sandis [Kleins]. He is also from Riga and boxed for ten years as an amateur before competing in triathlons and the Ironman triathlon [2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride followed by a marathon].
"This has added another dimension to my training regimen and getting ready for 12 intense round of championship boxing. At first he was my strength and conditioning coach but became my permanent coach and head trainer two years ago. He takes care of my schedule and calls the shots with all aspects of my preparation. But I also have a team around me, a separate strength and conditioning coach, nutritionist and masseur.”
And what about the defining milestones of his career? “Each fight for me has been a stepping stone, a learning curve in accomplishing my dream, which since I started has always been to become world champion. That’s been my goal since day one.
"I’ve been on a journey, one step at a time. I would say that my breakthrough fight was the 2015 win against Manuel Charr [the Lebanese-born Syrian fighting out of Germany and current WBA 'regular' heavyweight champion was stopped in five]. The fight opened a lot of doors for me and gave us options. I think it was then that the boxing world started to sit up and take notice of Mairis Briedis.”
Having already previously fought in the US, Greece, Russia and Germany, as well as in his home country, British fans were to catch their first glimpse of Briedis in the flesh just over a year later at the Echo Arena, Liverpool. The Matchroom Boxing event was televised by Sky on 15 October 2016.
“I was on the Tony Bellew-BJ Flores undercard and I fought [Middlesbrough’s] Simon Vallily. That was another good win for me. I don’t think he prepared as well as he could have for the fight. Maybe he took me lightly, who knows. I enjoyed fighting in the UK, the atmosphere was fantastic, it reminded me of home. Talking of Brits, I also fought Danny Williams in my eighth fight at heavyweight [six of Briedis’s first 10 fights were in the premier weight division]. His best days were behind him by then. But it was a good learning experience to have under my belt. Williams was very experienced, having beaten Mike Tyson and fought the likes of Vitali Klitschko.”
Six months after his UK debut, the likeable Latvian reached the summit of the boxing world. “I managed to achieve my dream when I beat Marco [‘Captain’] Huck in Germany for the vacant WBC belt, which was vacated by Tony Bellew [who was declared Emeritus champion by the same sanctioning body]. I won by a wide unanimous margin on the scorecards in Dortmund.
"The only downer was that I couldn’t really enjoy the moment as much as I would have liked, as I was injured in the fight and had to go to hospital straight after. That said, I can’t describe how proud I was to become Latvia’s first world champion. To be mentioned in the same sentence as our other great sporting champions and internationally recognised athletes such as Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks and Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open women’s tennis champion, fills me with pride. I put her through her paces the other day – she’s very good!”
As for the future, there’s one fight that’s gnawing away at Latvia’s favourite son. And it’s not the one that immediately springs to mind. “Yes, of course I’d love a rematch with Usyk. Why not do it again and put another great show for the fans? I leave that side of things to my manager, [Southampton-based] Al Siesta. [Subsequent to this interview, the WBSS announced that Briedis will appear as the co-feature on the cruiserweight final bill in Saudi Arabia in May, as well as acting as substitute in the event that either Usyk or Murat Gassiev are injured].
"But Bellew is the one that got away. Now he’s fighting Haye a second time and I think he’ll do very well. There are a lot of Latvians living in the UK who could fill any sized arena so Bellew would get to sample the electric Latvian boxing atmosphere like we have at the Arena Riga, but in his country. The Latvian fans are my legal doping! I really want this fight to happen, I don’t care where it’s staged. That’s the fight I’d really like. Bellew and I have unfinished business.”