A comeback story: Former WBO champion seeks redemption at Westworld of Scottsdale

DETERMINATION: At home in Phoenix-based Hammer Boxing Gym, 43-year-old Scottsdale resident Sergei Liakhovich says he is ready to regain his former prominence in a sport defined by grit and toughness. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Standing in Phoenix’s Hammer Boxing gym, 43-year-old Scottsdale resident and Belarus native Sergei Liakhovich eyes a small round punching bag.

Wearing a dark blue sweat-stained shirt tucked into his black trunks, the former World Boxing Organization heavyweight champion begins dancing around the bag, alternating jabs with his boxing glove-sheathed fists.

Mr. Liakhovich’s eyes remain fixated on his target as he carefully maneuvers his 6-foot-4 body around the bag as the occasional hiss or grunt escapes from his bearded face.

He continues this ritual for a few more minutes before resting and chatting with his trainer George Garcia, owner of the gym. Mr. Liakhovich has a determination in his eyes as he hopes to make an announcement to the rest of the boxing world.

“I’m here. I’m back.”

He’ll have a chance to make that statement at a Sept. 14 boxing competition at WestWorld of Scottsdale featuring several fighters, including Mr. Liakhovich. Event organizer Dennis Rider says he hopes this will be one of many regular boxing showcases at WestWorld.

This will be the first fight for Mr. Liakhovich, who also goes by the name “White Wolf,” in almost two years and second in about five years. He got his nickname from his native Belarus since Belarus means white Russia, which led him to be the White Wolf.

Sergei Liakhovich. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

He’ll enter the fight with a 27-7 record with 17 knockouts. Over his last five fights, however, he’s won two since 2012. This hasn’t diminished Mr. Liakhovich’s resolve.

“I am very serious about my comeback,” he said. “I’m looking forward to get what I got before: A title.”

Mr. Liakhovich won the heavyweight title in 2006, relinquishing it later that year. His career rolled on but fights started seeing more time in between.

Despite these lulls, Mr. Liakhovich continued to grow as a fighter, not shying away from big fights such as Deontay Wilder in 2013 and current heavyweight champion Andy Ruiz, Jr. in 2014.

It is Mr. Liahovich’s resume that impresses Mr. Garcia the most, saying he sees past experience come into play many times as he trains him.

“It’s easy to work with him because I show him how to do it once and he adapts to it right away,” Mr. Garcia said. “My style, his style are more the less the same, so it’s really easy to train him.”

WestWorld of Scottsdale will be home to the Heavyweight Explosion Saturday, Sept. 14.

Always moving forward

As an amateur, Mr. Liakhovich amassed a 145-15 career and made an appearance in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, where he boxed in the super heavyweight division for Belarus.

He also won a bronze medal in the 1997 World Championships before turning professional in 1998.

His first two fights were in Belarus and his third was in Russia but after that, he moved to the U.S. to fight. He called the U.S. the “Mecca of boxing.”

“It [the U.S.] has a big, long history of professional boxing,” he said. “There’s so many great names and great champions. Maybe it’s not correct, but I will say this is where boxing builds [boxers,] especially professional boxers.”

Mr. Liakhovich said he met a former manager in 1996 who lived in Scottsdale, prompting him to move to the area in 1998 upon turning pro.

Mr. Liakhovich posted 16 professional wins before losing in 2002. He recorded six more wins, including one over then-undefeated Dominick Guinn in late 2004.

(Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

His next fight was in April 2006 against Lamon Brewster for the WBO heavyweight title, which he won after a unanimous decision. It was this moment Mr. Liakhovich said he felt like he arrived professionally.

“It’s hard to describe when you win the title,” he said. “It was a great moment in my life.”

Seven months later, Shannon Briggs recorded a technical knockout against Mr. Liakhovich, stripping him of the title at Chase Field.

Since losing the title, Mr. Liakhovich’s amassed a 4-5 record. Despite that record, he sought to fight top opponents with six of his opponents having three or less losses at the time of their fights, four of which were undefeated.

Some of those opponents included Mr. Wilder, Mr. Ruiz, Bryant Jennings and Robert Helenius. Mr. Liakhovich lost to each of his undefeated opponents but said he grew during that time since losing his title belt, learning to “expect the unexpected.”

“I look over this and just move forward,” he said. “God help me, maybe once again I can step in the ring with both of them again. With Wilder and Ruiz.”

— Sergei Liakhovich

Mr. Liakhovich’s fight with Mr. Ruiz lasted the full 10 rounds and ended in a unanimous decision for Mr. Ruiz. Mr. Liakhovich went on to defeat Ramon Olivas in Ciudad Obregon, Mexico in late 2017, three years after his fight with Mr. Ruiz.

Mr. Garcia began working with Mr. Liakhovich ahead of the fight with Mr. Olivas. Since joining up with Mr. Liakhovich, Mr. Garcia said he’s seen his fighter grow because of his knowledge of the sport and his motivation to stay in shape.

“I think that he knows exactly what to do,” he said. “It’s easy for me to coach him because I, myself, had 30 professional fights. We can put our heads together and we make a good team.”

Back in the ring

Mr. Liakhovich said he sees the Sept. 14 fight just like any other. He says he’s boxed enough times to know what to expect.

Leading up to the bout, Mr. Liakhovich has approached training in a slightly different way. Simply put, he said he trains harder now than he has in the past.

Mr. Garcia said as a fighter ages, they don’t lose their power but rather gain more of it. Despite not losing power, he said older fighters can lose quickness and have slower reactions. This leads them to learn to compensate in other ways in the ring.

Another obstacle Mr. Liakhovich has had to overcome was stretches of inactivity in his career. Early on, he was fighting several times a year but recently, he’s had years-long stretches without fights.

Having those lulls doesn’t worry Mr. Liakhovich, especially not ahead of the Sept. 14 fight, because he’s boxed for so long that fighting has become second nature to him.

It’s just experience,” he said. “You can’t buy experience. You can’t buy it. It will stay with me for the rest of my life. It’s what drives me and it’s what keeps me moving forward.”

— Sergei Liakhovich

Mr. Garcia sees this fight as not only a great opportunity for Mr. Liakhovich but for the local community that have become fans of the former champ.

“When he spars in the gym, people come to watch him because he’s exciting,” Mr. Garcia said. “He’s a treat to go out there and watch because he’s exciting. He fights. He doesn’t sit around, he fights. That’s what people like.”

A boxer’s career is typically unique to the individual fighter. Some boxers continue well into their 40s with some, like George Foreman at 45, winning titles late in their careers.

While this does prove to be an anomaly, Mr. Liakhovich isn’t concerned with those who may doubt him or his abilities. He says the only one who can tell him it’s time to retire is himself. He also said heavyweight boxers are different than lighter boxers.

“I don’t care what anybody says about my age or anything like this,” he said. “Only one [opinion] matters. When you go in the ring, when you fight and then everybody will be able to see what I am able to do.”

News Services Reporter Josh Martinez can be contacted at jmartinez@newszap.com or at 623-445-2738

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