I’d be lying if I said that I knew much about Josh Taylor’s next opponent, Ivan Baranchyk. And, to be honest, that makes me slightly nervous. There’s a temptation to over-look fighters you’re unfamiliar with. Your expectations are raised, an arrogance develops, and you start looking to the future. I’ve already started analysing the strengths and weaknesses of Regis Prograis, anticipating that he and Taylor will meet in the final of the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS). But when your home favourite is facing an undefeated IBF world champion known as The Beast, you should probably cut the bullshit and do your homework.
Baranchyk hails from Belarus, a country so removed from our cultural imagination and political and economic ties that our foreign minister probably couldn’t locate it on a map. The former-Soviet republic was smeared by George W. Bush as ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’. And while that was a cynical jibe by a political foe, there is no doubt that Belarus stands unique in the continent.
Most former-Soviet republics have liberalised their economic system, adopted parliamentary democracies, and attempted to seduce western states to achieve European Union membership. Belarus, contrastingly, has retained much of the Soviet Union’s societal model with public ownership of industries, one-party domination of politics, and a security service rather menacingly still called the KGB.
But there’s more to countries than lazy cold-war stereotypes. Far more unites than divides people. And one thing that Belarus shares with its neighbours – Poland, Ukraine and, of course, Russia – is an abundance of gifted, clever and powerful boxers.
A quick search on the internet reveals very little about Soviet boxing, and there’s no widely available books on the subject. That may be due to linguistic challenges and limited public interest, but it’s also a regrettable by-product of the cold war era where anything positive about our former rival was silenced in a cultural struggle. The USSR had one of the most successful amateur boxing teams in history, establishing programmes across its vast territories, and satellite states, to produce world class fighters. That legacy has continued and evolved.
It would be an oversimplification to point at modern eastern European fighters and conclude their success is due to the Soviet boxing tradition. Each nation – each district, gym and individual, even – has created new forms and borrowed from international styles. But the foundations of the USSR system – the investment in sport, the linking of athletic success to national pride, and the network of programmes – echo in the modern glory.
Baranchyk is a proud Belarusian hoping to emulate other eastern Europeans – the Kiltchkos, Golovkin and Kovalev – in moving to the United States and becoming a household name. At the age of 25, he is showing tremendous promise at achieving that dream.
After four successful professional fights at home, the former amateur junior world champion, relocated to the US, beginning his career on the east coast. He steam-rolled his next eight opponents, knocking out seven, before catching the attention of promoters in Miami. Unfortunately that was Miami, Oklahoma and not the sun-kissed beaches of Florida.
Baranchyk made the Buffalo Run Casino his home for 18 months, battering six opponents in quick, consecutive fights. His first at the venue was impressive, obliterating a decent prospect, Nicholas Givhan, in ten seconds or so. A leaping, fully extended left-hook knocked Givhan out cold, leaving him in a seizure-like condition below the bottom rope, in front of the Showtime cameras.
After stopping his next opponent, the knock-outs dried up for four matches, in which Baranchyk traded show-reel finishes for invaluable round experience. The Belarusian fought for 10 rounds for the first time in his career, learning to pace himself better, pick his shots, and sharpen his boxing fundamentals.
The highlight of that period was an entertaining slugfest against Abel Ramos, whose only prior defeat was to Prograis. Ramos’ razor-sharp jab was effective, but eventually nullified by Baranchyk’s superior conditioning, power and aggression. A unanimous decision victory on Showtime, again, gained him some national attention, paving the way for an invitation to the WBSS super lightweight tournament.
Baranchyk’s quarter final win over Sweden’s Anthony Yigit was a memorable one, not least because of the Swede’s bravery. He was thumped repeatedly by powerful hooks, with the cumulative shots resulting in a horror-scene type injury. Baranchyk had caused Yigit’s eye to swell so profusely that he could have convincingly moon-lighted as Quasimodo in a theatre production. Despite the fighter’s protests, the bout was sensibly halted in the seventh round. The Belarusian extended his perfect record to 19, captured the IBF world title, and sent a chilling message to the rest of the competition.
There is plenty for Taylor, and trainer Shane McGuigan, to fear. Baranchyk is relentlessly aggressive. His baby-face disguises credible power. He comes forward, unafraid of taking shots to land his own, often decisive punches. And, importantly, that ferocity is complimented by amateur pedigree.
Yet, notwithstanding that talent and promise, Taylor remains favourite. The key will be the Scotsman’s intelligence. Baranchyk edges towards the centre of the ring with a high guard before unleashing looping shots. He often neglects his decent jab to lead with hooks and power punches. It can and has been effective, but it does leave him open to counters from sharp opponents. Taylor’s superior skillset, more accomplished and varied amateur experience, as well as higher boxing IQ, should result in a points victory. His piercing jab, quick movement and shot variety should be too much for Baranchyk’s formidable but more limited style.
Of course, victory cannot be assured, and Baranchyk possesses the power to hurt Taylor at any time. He will try to out-muscle and manipulate Taylor into a toe-to-toe war, which is something the Scotsman instinctively enjoys, at times to his trainer’s frustration. And even when the Belarusian’s hooks don’t land flush, they will – when repeatedly connecting against the guard, and the back of the head, which frequently happens when throwing hooks at close-quarters – cause damage. Taylor will have to show absolute maturity, concentration and grit to win the IBF strap, in a fight that we cannot wait to see.