By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Think you’ve got a challenging commute?
It’s nothing compared to what Arnold Khegai has coming.
The Ukraine native is on the verge of his second business trip to the United States, which will involve a 13-hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean to New York and a two-hour jaunt down Interstate 95 for a Nov. 16 date at the 2300 Arena in south Philadelphia.
Upon arrival, he’ll climb into the ring with rugged 25-fight veteran Jorge Diaz, whose five career losses have come to foes with combined fight-night records of 88-1-4.
The match, scheduled for eight rounds at 122 pounds, will comprise one-third of the next installment of Showtime’s “ShoBox: The New Generation.” The broadcast begins at 9:35 p.m.
“I’ve seen many of my opponent’s fights. I like the fact that he’s not a runner and that he likes to engage and he likes to fight, that’ll make for a very exciting fight,” said Khegai, who’ll enter with a 13-0-1 mark and nine knockouts of his own. “That’s what I’m preparing for. With that style, I believe I’ll have the opportunity for a very exciting and a very skillful knockout.
“I have two more weeks of intense training – running, sparring, hitting the bag, hitting the pads – and finalizing the different strategies that we’re working on specifically for this fight. I’m very hungry and very anxious to come to the United States to make a statement.”
Confidence, it’s clear, is not an issue.
Khegai, a former Thai boxing champion, debuted in his current style three years ago and has fought all but one of his 14 bouts in Russia. He crossed the pond for his initial Philadelphia adventure five months ago and returned home after a unanimous 10-round decision over twice-beaten prospect Adam Lopez.
He scored a second-round stoppage in one subsequent fight in Moscow and has already been quoted suggesting he’s the best super bantamweight in the world – though he’s had just two scheduled 10-rounders and fought precisely zero high-profile contenders.
“I’m working very hard and I’ve been working very hard for a long time at a very high level to feel that I can fight the best fighters in the division,” he said. “I don’t want to say anything more about it, but I do want to fight them and the results will speak for themselves. I want to fight the top contenders and the champions and let the results of those fights speak for themselves.”
Khegai works with Brooklyn-based promoter Dmitry Salita, a fellow Ukrainian who went 35-2-1 as a professional – including a title-shot loss to Amir Khan – between 2001 and 2013. Khegai will head to Brooklyn about a week before the fight to get acclimated, then shift his operation to Philadelphia a day or two before the fight. About 95 percent of his training and conditioning are still done overseas.
That, though, could change once the opponents and the stakes get higher.
“The United States is the capital of professional boxing,” Khegai said. “All the best fighters of the world come to the U.S. to make a name for themselves for the fans to see. It’s where the top networks are. And it’s much different than Russia, Ukraine, or any other European space for a professional fighter.
“If you can make it in America that’s where you become a star. That’s where you take the steps to become a world champion.”
Boxing Scene connected with Khegai to discuss his U.S. aspirations, the boxing atmosphere in Ukraine and what he feels he needs to accomplish with the Diaz fight.
Boxing Scene: How is it different in the United States? There are fighters from all sorts of countries and they draw crowds in different places. Why does a guy not from the States feel like this is the place to come and become a star? Why here as opposed to somewhere else?
Khegai: First of all, you have to be a very good high level world-class boxer to come from another country and be able to compete in the United States. More so for the premier television networks that are based in the United States. For them to televise you and to show you, that means that your skills are good enough for that. I always have the support of my country any my city wherever I go. But I feel that with the different networks and different media outlets that have been in the United States such a long time, it’s important for a fighter to showcase his skills here to show that he’s world class and he’s the best.
Boxing Scene: Lots of boxers have come from the Ukraine – particularly the Klitschkos and Lomachenko as of late. How engrained is the sport there? Is it still the sport that all the 8-year-old kids want to do, like it used to be here?
Khegai: A lot of people still have a tough time making ends meet and they have to struggle putting food on the table, so a lot of kids when they are very young, boxing is a way out. A way out to make some money, become an accepted member on a higher level. Ukraine has great boxing trainers and a rich boxing culture that’s encouraged. A lot of kids that have come from those tough upbringings see boxing as a way out, so that’s why you see so much great talent. They have the ambition and the hunger and the desire to be very successful in the ring, and they also have the tools via the boxing schools – where they’re taught and the skills are taught – that appear to be in line with the best in the world.
Boxing Scene: Is the two-country plan – training there and coming over shortly before fights – going to continue, or will you relocate at some point?
Khegai: I definitely plan to train for the bigger fights in the United States. I definitely want to train in the U.S. and box with the top American boxers to get myself ready and digest the American system of training. At this point, I have a routine that works for me when I’m back home, but when there’s downtime I definitely plan to come back and train in the U.S.
Boxing Scene: Now that you’re on Showtime, how important is an impressive performance that people are going to remember? Is it not only a victory, but a memorable one, that’s necessary?
Khegai: I feel very prepared and very ready and I definitely want to make a big statement in this fight. I’ve been calling out the big names and I’m ready to fight one of those guys, even after this fight. Last time was my first fight in the U.S. and I really want to get acclimated and control the fight and win each round and digest the atmosphere. Now that I feel comfortable, especially fighting in Philadelphia again, I’m planning to go for the knockout and put on a very impressive performance to let the fans know that I’m the next guy in line for the world title.
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This week’s legit title-fight schedule:
WBA bantamweight title – Glasgow, Scotland
Ryan Burnett (champion/No. 4 IWBR) vs. Nonito Donaire (No. 6 WBA/Unranked IWBR)
Burnett (19-0, 9 KO): Third title defense; Five unanimous decisions in five 12-round fights (5-0, 0 KO)
Donaire (38-5, 24 KO): Seventeenth title fight (13-3); First fight at bantamweight in seven years
Fitzbitz says: Perhaps the weight drop will enable Donaire to turn back the clock, but it’s more likely a fruitless search for a guy whose best days are passed. Burnett out-skills him. Burnett by decision (75/25)
WBC super featherweight title – El Paso, Texas
Miguel Berchelt (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Miguel Roman (No. 1 WBC/No. 7 IWBR)
Berchelt (34-1, 30 KO): Fourth title defense; Fourth fight in the United States (3-0, 2 KO)
Roman (60-12, 47 KO): Third title fight (0-2); Ten straight wins by KO/TKO (50 total rounds)
Fitzbitz says: Hard to imagine this won’t be a fun one to watch, for as long as it goes. The vibe here is that Berchelt has more tools in the box, and can evade decisive adversity. Berchelt in 10 (85/15)
Last week’s picks: 3-0 (WIN: Jacobs, Baranchyk, Alvarado)
2018 picks record: 76-31 (71.0 percent)
Overall picks record: 996-335 (74.8 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body’s full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA “world championships” are only included if no “super champion” exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.