“Boxing found him, he didn’t pick boxing”
By Richard Damerell
Last Updated: 18/05/20 8:46am
Sultan Ibragimov has been the subject of sensational stories, some barely believable, but none have explained his hasty disappearance as a world heavyweight champion.
He will forever be known as Wladimir Klitschko’s most unsatisfying world title win, a dire points decision in the most forgettable unification clash in heavyweight history.
But why? Why did Ibragimov fail to pull the trigger in 12 tedious rounds, and then suddenly vanished from the sport following his sole defeat to the dominant Ukrainian?
“I don’t know what went through his head,” admitted Leon Margules, who promoted Ibragimov on his rise from obscure challenger to impressive WBO champion.
That majestic first name did not seem to sit right with Sultan, despite his ascent to the heavyweight throne. Standing next to the chiselled Klitschko, the shorter, stocky Ibragimov did not look like a heavyweight champion. He did not talk like a heavyweight champion, offering the occasional sentence in broken English, whilst opponents like Shannon Briggs ranted down the lens. At the end, he did not fight like a heavyweight champion either.
Make no mistake, Ibragimov had more than enough power and strength to chop down boxing’s biggest man when he was in the required mood. Lance ‘Mount’ Whitaker, a contender who received this nickname due to his lofty stature, incited a rare show of anger from Ibragimov at their pre-fight press conference. Both fighters traded punches in front of the media, injuring a matchmaker in the process, but when they later entered the ring, Ibragimov inflicted a punishing beating on Whitaker, who was stopped in the seventh round.
It is rumoured that Ibragimov delivered a similarly painful lesson to a crop of Russia’s national boxers, who had arrived in the remote region of Dagestan in search of capable sparring partners.
Sultan had humble beginnings as a goat shepherd and was even thought to have resided in a mud hut on the side of a mountain. With a physique more suited to wrestling, Ibragimov had barely shown his boxing talent until asked to withstand punches from the visiting Russians. After toppling their top talent, Ibragimov was soon welcomed into the national squad and returned with an Olympic silver medal from the 2000 Sydney Games.
“Boxing found him, he didn’t pick boxing,” recalled Margules, President of Warriors Boxing, who helped to guide the professional boxing careers of Sultan and Timur Ibragimov.
Despite sharing the same surname, Sultan and Timur did not have a close family tie and would have differing success in the sport after they journeyed together to America.
Timur, an Olympian for Uzbekistan, struggled to replicate his impressive form in the gym, suffering disappointing losses to American contenders such as Calvin Brock and Tony Thompson, and would eventually drift out of world title contention.
A brief setback for Sultan came in the form of a split decision draw with Ray Austin, although he would make short work of Javier Mora, demolishing him in 46 seconds to warm up for a WBO title battle with Briggs.
He just destroyed Briggs – and that wasn’t a close fight.
Dressed as a skeleton, Briggs played up to his fearsome reputation. Stood quietly next to him was Ibragimov. A smart suit and shirt made it appear that he was offering financial advice to Briggs, rather than preparing to trade punches with the brash-talking Brooklynite.
“When he fought Briggs, he was the mandatory challenger, and he totally outclassed him. Briggs was just so much bigger than him, physically,” said Margules who stood between the odd pairing as they posed for pre-fight pictures.
“Briggs, about six foot, five (inches), 270(lbs) or something like that, and Sultan was maybe six foot, 215(lbs), 220 (lbs).
“He just destroyed Briggs – and that wasn’t a close fight.”
Having lifted a world title, Ibragimov immediately went after another and a unification clash was arranged with Ruslan Chagaev in Moscow, only for the WBA champion to withdraw from the fight.
In stepped Evander Holyfield, who was hoping to beat George Foreman’s feat as the oldest world heavyweight champion, but his spirited effort was not enough as Ibragimov sealed a wide points victory.
Klitschko, with famed trainer Emanuel Steward by his side, had rebuilt his reputation following a defeat to Lamon Brewster and Sultan was seen as the opponent to seriously test his credentials as the division’s ruler.
But the fight did not play out that way.
“This shouldn’t be going 12 rounds with him,” Steward chastised Klitschko in the corner after another drab round, punctuated by prodding jabs.
Wladimir was reluctant to engage with his southpaw opponent, instead he pounded down Ibragimov’s fist to create openings for his jab. In the first seven rounds, Klitschko threw 162 punches, all but 22 of them were left jabs.
By the 11th, an exasperated Steward had seen enough.
“Winning a decision in this fight is not good at all.
“You have to try to knock him out, or it’s going to be bad.”
The legendary cornerman had also acted as a commentator for American television network HBO, and watching on, his colleagues had also lost patience.
“He didn’t complain that he wasn’t throwing rights in the early rounds,” said announcer Jim Lampley said, “But if it’s a disgrace going into the 12th, why not do it in the first or second?”
Klitschko added the WBO title, which he would hold for seven years, but acknowledged the displeasing performance.
“I thought I was going to knock this guy out, but it wasn’t easy. I know you’re not satisfied, but I have to keep the belts and knock everybody else out.”
Manager Boris Grinberg made vague suggestions about ‘bone trauma’ in a bid to explain Ibragimov’s lacklustre showing, but his fighter had simply refused to risk it all on his biggest night.
Ibragimov’s deadpan exterior did not change, regardless of the result in his fights, and no explanation was offered publicly about his sudden exit from the sport.
“I was disappointed, because at the time he lost to Klitschko, he was still in the prime of his career, said Margules.
“He could have made a lot of money and been able to maybe regain a title at some point.
“He just decided, enough, I’m done.”
Just as quickly as Sultan had arrived as a world champion, he was gone.
Wildly entertaining tales still circulate about the goat herder, who returned to Dagestan as a conquering hero. Some say that Ibragimov received a horse as a gift for his achievements and then rode into the best restaurant in town. Some say he was greeted like a god by wide-eyed villagers as he returned from Moscow by helicopter.
One thing is for certain, Sultan had gained what he wanted from boxing.
Margules still occasionally hears from his former fighter, who shows his face at major fights in Russia.
“The guy had a bunch of money, maybe he said, ‘you know what, now I have something to lose.'”