The similarities between St. Louis’ native and former world champion Leon Spinks, and Uzbekistan’s diminutive talent Murodjon Akhmadaliev (8-0, 6 KOs) can hardly be described as ‘striking’.
Gap-toothed heavyweight (and part-time cruiserweight) Spinks – brother of Michael – toppled an ageing Muhammad Ali in only his eighth fight, seizing both the WBC and WBA crowns unexpectedly in 1978. Four decades later, Akhmadaliev matched that two-title accomplishment in Miami, winning the IBF and WBA championships in January after beating well-respected Californian Danny Roman by split-decision.
Only eight fights into his own professional career, the unified super-bantamweight titlist from the city of Namangan tells Boxing Social that his aspirations can be summed up in a single word, “history”.
“That was the most important fight of my career [beating Danny Roman],” explains ‘MJ’, with the assistance of translator Aliko Frolov. “Now I’ve started writing my own history for Uzbekistan as the first ever unified world champion, and as our quickest ever world champion.
“I’d been preparing for the Roman fight for about a year, because I was the mandatory challenger when the fight was delayed. Roman got injured and I was a bit frustrated, but it gave me that extra time to prepare for the fight. I knew that Roman was the best, most respected champion at 122lbs, so I wanted to beat him. People expected me to go to war with Roman, but it was more calculated, because I knew I was the better boxer.”
History wasn’t kind to Spinks after his sensational victory in Las Vegas, but Akhmadaliev has reached boxing’s summit without the same weight of expectation, and while campaigning in one of the sport’s least profitable divisions. His journey from a 10-year-old theme park employee to champion of the world is miraculous, considering his doctor’s prognosis that walking would be unlikely after his leg was smashed to pieces when hit by a car as a child. But we’ll come back to that.
Known as ‘Kaka’ to friends, the young Akhmadaliev only had eyes for football, playing regularly with his peers in the suburbs of Namangan, an important economic district known as ‘the city of flowers’ thanks to its stunning, rolling hills and colourful architecture. Akhmadaliev stumbled into the boxing gym for the first time after being left high-and-dry on the football pitch, searching for his main sporting companion.
“I was always wearing the jersey with ‘Kaka’ on the back, the Brazilian football player,” said the 25-year old, explaining his moniker. “At that time, my best friend used to train with me, we’d play football every day. But then, he left for like seven days. I just couldn’t find him. He never showed up and I kept wondering where he was. A week later, I found him and asked, ‘Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you all week’ and he said, ‘I’ve been going to boxing’. I told him that I would give boxing a shot and I went to the gym for the first time.
“I didn’t really feel scared. You just know if boxing is in you or not. As soon as I put on the gloves, they were these really old gloves, [I just knew]. I was just trying to practice throwing my one-two and obviously you don’t know anything as a small kid, but a couple of weeks later I overheard the coaches saying that I had a lot of passion. The first sparring session we did, I scored a knockdown. Now I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this is what it is? I can hurt people’. I ended up with more than 100 knockouts in that lower weight class.”
Akhmadaliev had sport running through his bloodline, despite never taking an initial interest in boxing. His father was a taekwondo instructor while his mother played volleyball, and the pair were teachers by trade. Akhmadaliev shared the house with his three sisters, whom he explained were also interested in various sports. The four children were encouraged to further their interests by participating, despite the lack of disposable income in their family home.
“When I was young, we were very poor and I have been working since I was a kid, from about the age of nine. When I was little, I worked and helped out my neighbours with tasks for money, as little as 25 cents, if we use American currency. Then I started working at the amusement park in the city, next to these big rollercoasters and with lots of people around. I had to work to help myself, and to try and become a man for my family. The daily payment [at the park] was $1.50, and that was a big part of my childhood in Uzbekistan. Those long days.”
The reigning unified champion at 122lbs told Boxing Social, “I can remember being 10 and 11-years old, working every single day for three or four weeks at a time, and that drives me, even now. I was saving up my money for weeks to buy one pair of boxing shoes or some trainers. My family had no money at all and I was just a poor, skinny kid. That’s something that I’ll always find motivating, remembering those harder times when I had nothing.”
It was while commuting on foot to the theme park for his routine shift that ‘MJ’ would suffer serious, career-threatening injuries. Struck by a car, he would break his right leg severely, with bone protruding and blood soaking his beloved trainers.
Reflecting on the incident, Akhmadaliev understands his recovery was almost superhuman, but failure wasn’t an option then, “I had to have steel pins in my leg and they were telling me I wouldn’t walk again. It was really, really bad,” he said. “But these things are here to challenge you. You shouldn’t listen to anyone who tells you, ‘You cannot do this’, because it’s not true. Not at all. You can do anything if you truly believe in it. I told them then that I would fight in the Olympics.”
He turned up to work that day with two serious, visible breaks in his leg and writhing in agony, prepared to complete his shift.
That dogged determination is what carried Akhmadaliev through Uzbekistan’s burgeoning amateur system, amassing over 350 fights and representing his country at the World Amateur Championships (2015) and the Rio Olympics (2016). His silver medal in Doha and bronze medal at the Olympic Games garnered attention from promoters, and Akhmadaliev was soon whisked away by professional outfit World of Boxing, currently working with fellow Uzbek prospects Shakhram Giyasov, Israil Madrimov and Bektimir Melikuziev.
Just over two years since his professional debut in March 2018, ‘MJ’ has achieved more than any of his countrymen though some look destined to follow suit. With the backing of Matchroom Boxing – notably keen admirers of Eastern European talent – he’s been able to climb the division’s rankings at rapid pace, dethroning Roman who was unbeaten in his previous 19 contests.
The little boy from Namangan who proudly decked himself out in the ‘Kaka’ shirt (ironic, as the Brazilian playmaker suffered a spinal fracture which almost ended his own career at a young age) has proved he belongs at the top. But what comes next?
“My goal is very simple. I’ve got two belts and there are two more that don’t belong to me yet,” Akhmadaliev states, coolly. “The number one priority is to be the undisputed champion at 122lbs. I really feel that it’s possible. If everything goes well, then I’ll think about moving up in weight. I feel very strong, but I could move up to 126lbs, maybe even 130lbs. My boxing idol is Manny Pacquiao who travelled through eight divisions, but I’m not looking for anything like that, because that is just unbelievable.”
“History is the most important thing to me as a boxer, as I said. I want to be remembered as someone who reached the very top with the fewest fights, and just becoming a part of history [is key]. I want to be remembered as someone who done something special. Becoming world champion gave me one, maybe two-days joy afterwards. Then I remembered being that little poor kid in Uzbekistan.
“I went to New York [after my fight with Danny Roman] and I could see the little Uzbek children training in the gyms there. I still had bruises from my fight, and I realised I was just the same kid. Hungry. I’ll always remember where I came from and what I’ve gone through – that will never leave me. I will keep fighting.”
After trailing off, Akhmadaliev and Frolov drop the line. He’s due back in training with Joel Diaz, preparing for their next adventure when boxing is deemed safe enough to fully return. With a belt over each shoulder, Akhmadaliev continues hunting, determined to cement his name in boxing’s history books. Sure, he’s matched Leon Spinks’ eight-fight accomplishment, but as a smaller fighter, he knows that isn’t enough.
Moving up in weight or becoming wholly undisputed will lead to a lasting legacy. Those are just a couple of additional stops on an already incredible journey, and Akhmadaliev knows first-hand that he can do anything if he truly believes in it.