Sitting down to lunch in London with young Kazakh boxing sensations Sultan Zaurbek and Azhbenov Nurtas, an unexpected tone is set early.
The pair have brought with them a good friend to interpret my questions to them and their answers to me. Embarrassed by my lack of Kazakh (and Russian, for that matter), I ask the mediator to quietly teach me a swear word or two. I relay it to the fighters with eagerness, thinking I’ve broken the ice in style…
Wearing an expression of at best blankness and at worse of disgust, Azhbenov dismissively shakes his head and says simply: “Not good.” Bad start.
These are men of respect… That’s not to say these two don’t know how to have fun, because you don’t need to hurdle any language barrier to see they genuinely do.
Emerging from Victoria Station, I’m told Azhbenov threw his arms to the small portion of sky visible between buildings and exclaimed: ‘Las Vegas!’ I would also later witness the pair engage in an impromptu sparring session in the boxing aisle of a famous sports shop. When ejected by staff, they simply back-pedalled muttering: “Break” – preparing to be unleashed on each other again.
High jinx on the bustling city centre streets aside, get them around a table in a quiet restaurant and what they want to talk about most is the inspiration they derive from being born to the proud boxing nation of Kazakhstan.
With tongue in cheek, I ask if there’s any rivalry between them – since the early months of their professional careers have been spent living together just outside London and sharing common stages; reeling off effortless stoppage victories in what could be seen as a game of trump cards.
Again, my crass attempt at mischief is met with an answer that makes me feel infantile.
Azhbenov says: “Our nation does not have any jealousy in it. We respect each other, always. There have even been instances – I think one quite recently in MMA – where two Kazakhs have refused to fight each other.
“We aren’t like other nations. Kazakhs will always be proud of a victory for another Kazakh. There is no rivalry between us because we are a team. We support each other.”
Zaurbek added: “There are lots of good boxers all over the world but we are the only two Kazakh boxers in London. Wherever there’s a Kazakh boxer, other Kazakhs will always support them.
“When Nurtas wins, all my friends and family are happy. When I win, all his friends and family are happy. We share the same goals without being in competition. We push each other on and we want each other to do well.”
What is, then, that makes this nation of 18m – a nation that has already produced professional world champions such as Gennady Golovkin and Beibut Shumenov to add to its consistent amateur glory – so successful at fighting?
Zaurbek says: “We are a very proud country and we’ve always been good at fighting. I was pretty much born in a boxing gym! There are photos of me with boxing gloves on from when I was as young as two years old.”
Azhbenov says: “The amateur coaches you encounter from a young age teach you a lot about discipline. Money is not an important factor in our situation. It’s about unity and patriotism. From the President of the country to the average person, we stick together.”
Despite the fact I simply don’t know what they’re saying, I get the impression these two aren’t prone to hyperbole. Minutes later, Zaurbek shows me the photo he spoke of. I also distinctly remember seeing them ringside for each other’s fights in late 2018, throwing and eluding every punch from their seats.
In truth, I’m slightly humbled by their earnest support for each other and their country and therefore not entirely sure I’m looking forward to their review of the UK.
Mercifully, Zaurbek said: “We really like it here in the UK. We respect the discipline and the unity. They see everyone as equal and they’re great hosts with smiles on their faces.”
Azhbenov adds: “We’re very grateful to have the opportunity to fight here. We’re future champions and we’re going to put on great shows for the UK fans, so we hope people come and enjoy it.”
It’s hard to doubt. Both knocked their opponents out inside a round last time so it appears UK fans are in for more treats with the duo fighting a collective four times in the next three weeks.
Zaurbek kicks things off at York Hall on Friday, both feature on the bill in Cardiff the following week and then Azhbenov rounds off the madness at the Brentwood Centre on March 9.
Somewhere at all three venues, if you dare take your eyes off the one in the ring for long enough, you’ll see the other straining his neck until he’s almost poking his nose through the ropes. You’ll probably also be able to see (or at least hear) a pocket of proud Kazakhs; cheering on their heroes, flying flags and enjoying a slice of home.
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