BEING in a boxing gym for the first time since Covid turned the world upside down was both a weird and completely normal experience. David Avanesyan had invited Boxing News over to former pro Eric Noi’s gym in Oldham to watch him spar ahead of his EBU welterweight defence against Middleton’s Liam Taylor. By way of a thank you, I’d set up a reservation for him afterwards at the Armenian Taverna in central Manchester in order to give him a taste of home.
The 33-year-old was dubious at first. As he got ready for sparring, he said: “Is this going to be a real place? One time, I go for Armenian food and they were Greek. It was not the real food.” After assurances were made, he continued to go about his business of warming up and prepping for the rounds to come.
Boxing gyms have a living, breathing life of their own. On sunny days like the ones we have recently enjoyed as part of the now traditional September Indian Summer, shafts of sunlight filter in from the windows and you can see clouds of dust motes drifting their way through them.
Gyms are inherently dusty places, and that makes sense when you consider that scientists claim that a third of dust is made up of human skin. Fighters wrap their hands before hitting the bags and each other. A microscopic top-layer of epidermis is shed with each punch, and it flies into the air when the gloves and bandages come off, joining the other elements that make up dust.
At any given time, in any given gym, you are not only seeing what a fighter goes through to make it to the top of their chosen profession, you are actually breathing it in. And inside those gyms, amid that skin-soaked air, is where boxers endure a training camp that is often more gruelling than the fight at the end of it.
Presuming, of course, there is a fight at the end of it.
Many boxers have told me that the worst thing in the world is either training for a fight that falls through or for one that keeps getting postponed. Avanesyan experienced this when waiting on a long-anticipated date to defend his EBU title against Josh Kelly, a title he had won by going to the lion’s den in Bilbao to beat Kerman Lejarraga in nine, back in March 2019, before repeating the trick in a single round six-months later.
When he finally got to meet Kelly in February, it led to an emphatic sixth-round win and a sense of vindication, but you can still hear the frustration in his voice when he recalled it. “A big win, it was just a long time to get it,” he told BN. “Too many changes, many training for fights that were not to be possible for the date then I get told maybe another date. Every month it changed. I am thinking, ‘Kelly doesn’t want to fight so I will fight Daniyar Yeleussinov instead’, as I just wanted to get into a fight. I’d have fought Yeleussinov then Kelly next – no problem. My head is ready for those fights and you are wondering what is up, why it isn’t possible?
“Kelly felt my punches early. Yes, Kelly is fast, a good boxer and amateur, but I’m very hungry for the fight because it has taken away all my time. Then I get the win, I see everyone screaming ‘Argh’ and this team of (trainer) Carl [Greaves] and (manager) Neil [Marsh] is my best friends for my life.”
Once sparring was concluded, Avanesyan spent as much time warming down as he had spent warming up. Time is not his friend at this point of his career, especially after waiting so long for Kelly, and as Richard II said in the play by Shakespeare: ‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me’.
Fighters have short careers and one of their pet hates is inactivity, particularly if there are good fights to be made. Avanesyan and his team have made no secret of the fact that they wanted to defend his title against London’s Conor Benn straight after Kelly, only to be offered a step aside fee if they were to vacate the belt instead so that Benn could contest it.
“What is it with these fighters who don’t want to fight, man?” asked the Russian. By now, we had arrived at the Armenian Taverna and thankfully it had met with his approval. “If you want the title, why not just fight for the title?” he said again. “I don’t understand.”
The journey to the Kelly fight was an odyssey that began in 2014 when Avanesyan came over here to fight on a bill in Liverpool. It was a routine 10-round decision win over Laszlo Fazekas, but one that got him in touch with Marsh, who saw potential in the visitor and made him a managerial offer. “I was with Neil for a week, he gave me five thousand for family back home and said it was up to me if I came back and signed with him,” he recalled.
The next piece of the jigsaw was getting him a trainer. Marsh set up a few gym visits but the search was over as soon as he met former fighter Carl Greaves. They hit it off and have not looked back since. It was tough at first, conversations had to go through Google Translate as Avanesyan barely spoke a word of English.
Fortunately, they added another member to the team, Eric Teymour, formerly from Georgia but now based in London, in order to ease the transition and ensure someone was there to translate for them. Former pro Alan Levene completes the team. Avanesyan constantly texts him and the two have formed a strong bond.
“Here, we are relaxing, eating good food and speaking slow English together. In the fight, Carl talks fast, and Eric tells me the words. I talk to my friend Alan on the phone when I am alone. These things all help me. At first, I trained, went hotel, trained, went hotel. I make sacrifices. I have missed four of my children’s birthdays in my career. I miss my children very much. It is a long time to be away from them. They are growing every month and every day is not the same because they change, but I am here to work for their future.”
Skype calls aren’t the same, all they do is underline how far away they are from him. For his own sanity, he had to come to terms with it.
“It is the number one bad thing for me not seeing my children,” he said. “I miss, what is the word? The hugs. I want to get home for my grandmother’s birthday after the Liam fight. After I fight, I always see her first. I fly another two hours to get to see my parents, children and friends.
“For relaxation I try not to think about missing home and to focus on my fights. If I think too much, I won’t be happy and I need to be happy for training. I think about the good things, the good times and how long it is until I get to go home. They know I am working.”
Home is a place called Pyatigorsk in southern Russia. It takes him four flights to get back there after he’s fought over here. His parents had to find work, so as a child he would spend weeks with his grandmother, who is a two-hour flight away in Tabynsko, where he was born and spent long periods of his childhood even after the move to Pyatigorsk.
An only child, “Ava” broke his mother and grandmother’s hearts by heading into boxing. They have come to terms with it but are still waiting for the day when he phones them to announce his retirement, although he told me that that day is still a few big fights away. “My mama is number one, she just doesn’t like me fighting,” he said. “I went to her every day and would say, ‘Mama please’, but I understand because I’m the only one child. I’m the special boy. Grandmother is same as my mother, she says: ‘No, please – I will give you money if you stop boxing’. It is good for me that I get to see her after my fights then go back to my city. Now I have two children of my own and am happy. I have a boy and a girl, but I want more.”
“Do I want my boy boxing?” he said when asked the perennial question. “Yes. A man needs this (hits fist against open palm) so my son will go to boxing. My daughter goes to ballet. She had her first lesson last week. My daughter boxing? No, I want her to stay in ballet. Go to the gym to learn boxing, but no boxing fights. Ballet is good for her.
“I wanted to do kickboxing, wrestling and boxing – I’d train even before going to school,” he added when expanding on his decision to enter the trade. “I speak to physical trainer at school and ask if I can please start training, so he opens kickboxing training. Then I go to a gym that does boxing, and that started my boxing career.
“There was no money in amateurs so many times my decision was to finish with boxing. One time, my coach says I’m good enough to fight professional. I tell him that I’m ready for it if I can earn money for it. I became Russian Champion in 2010, kept my belt then got more wins and went on to get belt, belt, belt after coming here. I came here without any money to find fights. It wasn’t working for me, so I changed things – that is my mentality even though I didn’t speak the language.”
There have been lows as well as highs. A standout decision win over an old Shane Mosley was followed by losses to Lamont Peterson and Egidijus Kavaliauskas (l pts 12 and l rsf 6 respectively). This reversal of fortune led to questions about whether he still had the same desire. The wins over Lejarraga answered those questions. Now, though, he is fully focused on the future rather than the past. Time is of the essence and he has a clear idea of what he wants to do.
“Having Armenian food like today, listening to the traditional duduk music, it gives me energy after sparring – it makes me feel at home again,” he said. “I thought after Kelly, I would fight again soon. Then we must wait for six-months until Neil calls me with this fight.
“I want to win, keep the belt and then go home to my friends, but this is hard, difficult work and anyone can cause problems. I need to make the money to have the life I want for when I retire. I like boxing, understand, especially when you win, but it is the risk that you could end up not fighting again so getting wins for future is number one.”
His friends have remained a constant despite the travel and continual changes due to his fighting life. Although he spends months away from them, life slides back into normality once he is home. “My friends now were my friends as children,” he said. “Over 23 years of friendship from our time at school. For me that is also number one in my life and I hope that stays the same. My friends do many different things: a restaurant owner, a doctor – lots of different things in their life. I used to think about education, but then went into boxing and then the babies come. But when my friends come over, we never speak boxing in front of my mama. We have to go to different room.”
When he is finally done, Avanesyan plans to walk away completely. As talk turned to the recent spectacle of the seniors tour, he shook his head. It must be tough chasing big fights and life-changing money only to see other fighters handed both for doing much less in recent years. Some fighters are the rewarded ones, others like Avanesyan, are the avoided ones.
“Holyfield,” he said with a shake of the head that told the whole, sad story. “Why do this to yourself, man? Just as I cannot understand some boxers not wanting to fight me, I cannot understand some who carry on and carry on, and they get paid for it. For me, I can only focus on the next one and beating Liam Taylor.
“I would never know when boxing finishes for me. It can finish anytime. I just want to have many fights. Now Liam wants what I have. He might think I see him as below me, but that would be a big mistake to make. This is an important fight for me, not just Liam. If he loses, he tries again, if
I lose I go back down and have to start again. I cannot lose.”