Despite still posing proudly in his aiyr kalpak national headgear, the young, smiling assassin draped in the cow-skin trunks was surrounded by unfamiliar faces. The weather was significantly different in Sutton, South London. The people were different, too.
Hailing from Shymkent, known as the ‘city of turf’, the next wave of Kazakh fighters had launched an assault on British fight cards, but it was Sultan Zaurbek (6-0, 4KOs) who’d made a lasting impression. His stunning showing in Dubai last week, coupled with previous outings in Peterborough and the slightly more glamorous Monte Carlo had allowed our domestic audience a glimpse of his talent.
Trading the historic resting place situated on the Silk Road for busier coffee shops and modern housing, culturally, the amateur superstar had been forced to adapt. Boxing was his only constant. Coupled with his friend and stablemate, Nurtas Azhbenov, the pair had elected to pursue their professional careers under the watchful eye of MTK Global.
“I really like Sutton!”, Zaurbek proclaimed. “It’s similar to my city, Shymkent. The weather, the nature is great. The area is very peaceful and quiet compared to other busy cities. The calmness of the town allows me to focus on my training, it has a great park for running, nice large, open spaces and fresh air.”
“I guess the only thing I miss about being at home is the delicious, high protein, traditional Kazakh food! Which, with some types of meat, if you get a good cut it has about half the fat, less cholesterol and twice as much iron and vitamin B as beef.”
Sure, you’d struggle to find yourself horse meat or festive Kazakh camel in the London Borough, I thought. Although their delicacies and clothing vastly differ from Western countries, their boxing has always carried importance. The travelling that Zaurbek had completed as an amateur would stand him in good stead for the next phase of his professional journey, something which – after over three hundred and fifty fights – is remarkably in its infancy.
During that celebrated career bearing the blue vest, he’d already bettered reigning Olympic champion, Robson Conceicâo and British talent, Peter McGrail, scooping up medals at most events. Now, just twenty-two, the former AIBA Youth World Championships silver medalist recalled his introduction to boxing as a kid in Shymkent.
“I was born in Kazakhstan, I have a lot of respect for my city, Shymkent City is always in my heart and with me wherever I go.”
“I am the middle child of my family. I have an older sister, a younger brother and sister. We all live at home with my mum and dad. I have a lot of relatives, friends and family in Kazakhstan. I started going to the boxing gym at the age of nine, my father is also an athlete. The first time I put boxing gloves on was when I was three years old and I have been boxing to this day.”
Discussing his success in the unpaid ranks, Sultan continued, “I was very successful, I won gold at the 2014 Asian Games and silver at the AIBA World Youth tournament the same year before going on to claim silver at the 2017 Islamic Games. I competed in a number of world youth tournaments in different countries like Bulgaria or Syria. I had about three-hundred and fifty-four [fights].”
As a fully-fledged professional, Zaurbek has linked up with Spanish coach, Angel Fernandez, with the pair working diligently from their Sutton base. The young Fernandez has yet to guide a fighter to the top of the sport, but his drills and the bond he’d established with those under his tutelage has impressed many. Nurtas Azhbenov, Isaac Chamberlain and Sultan are all pushing together with plenty of potential and championships as their priority.
Schooled by Cuban greats Ismael Antonio Salas and Jorge Rubio, Fernandez has developed a rare style of his own, working with foam piping and taping spacial awareness drills to the ring apron to achieve a certain fluidity, focusing on footwork and positioning. It was that Latin smoothness, mixed with power and vicious efficiency that had grown the Angelo Boxeo stable in recent months. When I’d caught up with Fernandez at the start of the year, he told me that Zaurbek had fought so often as an amateur, he didn’t plan on making any great adjustment to his style, merely refining his existing attributes.
The Kazakh stylist told me, “I really enjoy working with Angel. I like his training drills and his mentality in boxing. Training with Angel is another whole new level. I really get on with him as a person and we are starting to understand each other, so communication is not an issue. It has been amazing so far. I enjoy training in Sutton, the area and the nature outdoors is great for running.”
Surrounded by positivity and backed by management powerhouse, MTK Global, the remainder of 2019 could prove to be busy for the Kazakh prodigy. After featuring in Dubai, Monte Carlo, London and Peterborough, it was clear that the larger promoters were impressed by his performances. His punishing accuracy had pleased Eddie Hearn and Frank Smith of Matchroom Boxing, though Zaurbek said he wouldn’t let their compliments change him as a person. I wondered, could anything?
The lightweight from Central Asia was determined to throw himself headfirst into meaningful fights. Beating Brazilian gold medalist and unbeaten professional, Robson Conceicâo, as an amateur was an achievement. However, since the Olympic champion from Bahia had been taken on by Top Rank, he’d grown his profile with explosive performances during the last eighteen months. Zaurbek seemed keen on doing the double over his rival if the fight ever presented itself.
“Yes, I would like to replay this fight in the future, as we are both in the same weight class. This is something I would really look forward to and I am ready. I believe the experience you gain as an amateur is very different from fighting as a pro boxer. I mean it may help to get you fast-tracked into bigger professional fights, but it all depends on how my manager and my team see fit.”
As he built his team and found his feet as a professional, the undefeated star shared his excitement over the early parts of his paid career. Backed by a company with enormous scope and the ability to thrust him into big fights, he knew he was in a fortunate position. Training with a group of like-minded fighters in South London, Zaurbek had a long way to travel in search of riches and world titles. But travelling, on horseback or plane, had never phased him before.
It was almost expected of Sultan and his stablemate Nurtas Azhbenov to box worldwide as MTK continue to expand their global operations. The appeal of elite boxers surging through the rankings was undeniable, considering the promotion’s shows on British soil often contain domestic clashes which could flatter to deceive. Witnessing fighters the quality of the Kazakh pair was a treat for any fan of the sport, a glimmer of class, displaying boxing as an art form.
Fighting spirit in Shymkent has been prevalent since the days of its violent defeat at the hands of Genghis Khan. The stereotypical boxer isn’t often seen from these parts, with traditional wrestling challenging boxing amongst the hills and townships. Kazakhstan has retained its identity through generations of change in surrounding nations, something that Sultan Zaurbek was proud of, smiling at every opportunity.
“I believe everything is going great and progressing really well in my training. I am developing a close-knit a team around me and we are starting to understand each other even with the language barrier. I am getting some great opportunities to showcase my talent on some big stages. My last bout was in Dubai and I was very excited to be part of this show. This is a very exciting time for me in my career and I am training and developing my skills to be able to hopefully get a title shot by the end of the year.”
Article by: Craig Scott
Follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209