Russia in the Boxing Ring

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Ivan Sekretarev / AP

Ibragimov beats Holyfield during the heavyweight title match late Saturday.

It was late Saturday night by the time Evander Holyfield had showered, answered a few questions for the press, and then wandered out of the Khodinka Ice Palace and on into the sleet-slush shadows of central Moscow. Holyfield had just tried and failed to become boxing's heavyweight champion for a fifth time, having come to the place where such things are now attempted. Sultan Ibragimov retained his WBO belt in a 12-round decision.

This was the third heavyweight title fight in Moscow in the last year, since the current wave of homegrown boxers has overtaken the division. An ex-Soviet fighter holds each of the four heavyweight championship belts: Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko (IBF), Kazak Oleg Maskaev (WBC), Uzbek Ruslan Chagaev (WBA), and the Russian Ibragimov.

Capitalizing on such dominance, Moscow promoters are grabbing for a piece of the business that has long been the exclusive estate of American promoters in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. And they are doing so in their own particular manner.

Holyfield discovered this soon after arriving in Moscow last week, as he and his entourage appeared for an open training session at the Krokus City Mall, on the northwestern edge of the city.

This is no mall by traditional classification, but a Russian creation altogether: marble flooring, Doric columns, price-gouge cafes, scores of niche Italian luxury brands — and almost no customers. Holyfield engaged in several rounds of shadow boxing in a ring erected awkwardly between the silks and crystal. Cameras shuttered away as the sparse Russian crowd ogled the man best known internationally for the Mike Tyson-made chunk that's still missing from the rim of his right ear. After Holyfield came Ibragimov, a champion whose humility bleeds into a bashfulness that sees him shy away from the cameras, even though he wears the belt of a champion.

The purse for the fight totaled $6.5 million, a richer sum than could have been found in the U.S., says Yuri Fedorov, the fight's Russian promoter. Fedorov also promoted the first title fight in Moscow, last December, for which he paid Maskaev $3 million, double the fighter's standard fee.

Ibragimov is sponsored by a local oil company, Nafta Moscow. It is just this sort of arrangement that Fedorov believes will perpetuate the current trend of Slavic champions. "We have a lot of rich companies that can have one boxer, or a team of boxers," says the promoter. "We have asked the government for more recommendations. They need only to tell these companies that this is the thing they need to do. To many companies, government opinion is very important." This new economic model, says Kathy Duva, CEO of Main Events, Holyfield's promoter, is "why we all need to pay attention to this country."

There are other reasons to pay attention while inside this country, and on fight night it didn't take long to discover just why. The cops were waiting outside the arena to shake down the approaching guests for any number of supposed infractions, such as a lack of local passport registration or just looking sufficiently moneyed but insufficiently connected. The police parked a battered old bus near the entrance, and once they hauled someone inside, it cost minimum $40 to secure an exit.

Inside the arena, there was a conspicuous lack of Western Europeans or Americans — strange for a title bout involving the biggest name heavyweight American fighter left. The only noticeable foreigners were those attached to the event itself, the pint-sized Latin fighters on the undercard and the backslapping members of the sport's professional traveling circus.

Ringside seats cost $3,000. (By comparison, the top ticket for the recent, much-ballyhooed fight between Oscar De la Hoya and Floyd Mayweather at the MGM casino in Las Vegas were priced at $2,000.) The Ibragimov-Holyfield fight failed to live up to its lofty price tag, however, as the champ and challenger conducted a 12-round Krokus City pantomime. It was the case of a lionhearted, but aged ex-champ conserving his strength in order to go the distance against a belt-holding opponent who has benefited greatly from boxing's fall from primacy in the West. Ibragimov did not display the stuff of a real champion. This was no collision of cultures, no epic battle, no thing to be remembered. It was a night out.

Considering the way in which distance, price, and general hassle have conspired, are the Russians truly ready to host big-time boxing? The most charitable evaluation: not just yet. As for Holyfield, who turns 45 this week, he said he appreciated the visit despite the defeat. Given the chance, he said he would return. "The people have been great," Holyfield said. "Treat me nice, you get me twice."