Fighting their way up from -4

A dedicated trainer and a talented boxer battle dismal conditions as they set their sights on the Olympics.

Boxing (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Boxing (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Give a good man the tools and he’ll do the job. It’s not a lot to ask – to start from scratch and build from there. But when you have two people, one, a former Soviet boxer-turned-trainer who’s fallen on hard times, and the other, a 17-year-old Russian-born boxing prodigy who can barely afford a pair of gloves, starting from scratch seems an almost unattainable dream.
Next time you descend below ground to the underground parking lot at Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, falling further and further into the bowels of the building where the unmistakable whiff of carbon monoxide emissions waft through the stale air, look around for a sign to the bomb shelter on floor -4. You may well struggle to find it.
There’s something almost metaphoric about the fact that the shelter/training room – you could hardly call it a gym in the proper sense of the word – in which 47-year-old Emil Adinagoyev trains young prospect Anton Sipko is four floors below ground level. If ever two guys were starting from a negative position in an attempt to compete against the very best in the world, this is it.
It’s barely believable that a potential Olympic athlete is training out of an underground car park, in a “boxing gym” with no ventilation, no windows, no water, no toilet, no showers, no mirror, no weights, and, wait for it... no boxing ring! Even flat-broke “Rocky” had a ring in which to box, a water tap from which to drink, a floor that wasn’t breaking apart, and a toilet to... well, you get the picture.
It’s remarkable then that despite the odds being heavily stacked against trainer and boxer, Sipko is already an Israeli champion; has competed with distinction at the European and international levels; and is potentially a candidate to become Israel’s first Olympic boxing contender since 1996, when the 2016 games come around in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
If not Rio, then surely at the Tokyo games in 2020.
His trainer and mentor, Adinagoyev, a talented boxer in his time, originally hailing from Dagestan in the northern Caucasus of the former Soviet Union, greeted me at the “gym,” wondering politely what this English-speaking guy could understand of his world, his sport, his struggle. I told him I know a little of what it takes to succeed in boxing having been a ringside reporter for Britain’s Boxing News some years ago. His face lit up.
AND IT’S a classic boxer’s face – the battered nose a tribute to many a battle against granite-tough Soviet fighters a quarter of a century ago. He’s a decent man, struggling to make ends meet in a country that seems to do little to encourage him and his ilk, but who is determined to do everything he possibly can for the boy, Sipko, who might yet make his nation proud.
“I came here in January 1991 from the Soviet Union,” Adinagoyev tells The Jerusalem Report. “I was studying and hadn’t even thought of leaving, but my aunt came back from Israel to the Caucasus, and told us how good it was in Israel and everyone was Jewish, and suddenly my father had this dream to leave. That’s how we got here, but sadly my father died soon after we arrived. It was only because of him that we came. We didn’t think about going back after he died, though. We were here, we’d landed, and that’s it.”
Adinagoyev started learning to box at the age of 12½. It was forbidden in the Soviet Union for boys under the age of 13 to take up the sport, but because his father was a sportsman and had friends in boxing they agreed to let him begin a little bit early without informing the authorities.
“There were 35 lads in training divided up into different groups,” Adinagoyev recalls.
“When you came along the first time they stood you in front of the mirror, told you to watch what the others were doing and try and follow them [he says with a laugh]. They didn’t even ask your name. It would only be after some time had passed – weeks or even months – that they learned your name, usually if you had a competition coming up!” Over the next few years he developed into a talented boxer and kept rising through the ranks. He limited his social life, became completely dedicated to his training regime, and soon was travelling across the Soviet Union in top competitions achieving impressive results.
His training was interrupted though by having to serve two years in the Soviet army.
“I fought as a lightweight at 60 kilos before I was drafted, and after the army I went up to [junior welterweight] at 63.5 kilos. I competed in a few high-level competitions, had some good wins, and realized then that my life path could only be in sport. I wanted to be a trainer, so I passed first and second exams, and went to study in St. Petersburg, all the time still boxing, but this time for the St.
Petersburg club in the national championships.
I kept on winning, but then the idea came for the family to move to Israel, so I left St. Petersburg, went back to Dagestan, and from there came here.”
Adinagoyev believed the change from the Communist regime, in which he had been raised, to the capitalist society in Israel would bring about lots of new opportunities. He began boxing in his new country and quickly became Israeli champion representing Israel overseas in international tournaments.
Professional boxing in Israel is illegal, so there was no way for Adinagoyev and other talented Russian immigrant boxers like him to easily make a living from their sport.
When he stopped boxing, he found he missed it badly, so he decided to complete his studies to be a trainer so he could stay involved in the sport he loved. Arik Drukman, a longtime stalwart of the local boxing scene, who runs his own club at Azariya, near Ramle, encouraged him to get an Israeli trainer’s license and train to be a boxing judge and help build a new generation of boxers.
“We’re building everything again from scratch,” Drukman explains to The Report.
“We’ve started to run regular Israeli championships, and this year at the European championships we had one guy finish fifth and another, from Afula, did tremendously well to get a bronze medal. It’s been years since something like that happened. We’re trying now to develop the youth team, among whom Anton Sipko is probably the most talented, and we hope he will continue to progress.”
“In the past there was little mixing of the races here in boxing, but we’ve changed that.
At the last junior championship, we had four Jews and four Arabs [winners]; there were no problems. That’s how it should be. What we really need is for boxing to be reintroduced into the Maccabiah Games – it’s been absent for many years.”
Yakov Wallach, who recently took charge of developing boxing for the Israel Olympic Committee, agrees that Sipko is among the most talented young boxers in the country.
“Things are moving forward now,” Wallach says. “Sipko is very talented and has a fine work ethic instilled in him by a good trainer who has produced other talented boxers, but there are other very good young boxers as well. It’s the same old question as we don’t have much funding, ‘What comes first, the chicken or the egg?’” And that’s the big problem with boxing funding in Israel. Boxers, both junior and senior, receive little, if any, funding until they produce impressive results; but for them to be built into a boxer who can achieve impressive results, they inevitably need funding.
“I hope that, if not in this Olympics then maybe at Tokyo 2020, Sipko might be good enough to compete. But before then he has to serve in the army, and so on, and a lot of things can happen between now and then,” Wallach tells The Report.
Four years ago, Sipko came to try boxing and Adinagoyev quickly saw that the young boy had real talent – but he wasn’t the first with outstanding ability that had come the trainer’s way in Israel.
A few years earlier, Adinagoyev unearthed another potential star, Oleg, also a Russian boy. He soon became very good, but his family couldn’t afford the training or equipment, so Adinagoyev paid for everything, getting himself into debt in order to give the teenager a chance to compete on equal terms. But it was to no avail. Oleg had “problems with his papers” and eventually fell by the wayside, drifting from the sport, but leaving Adinagoyev without a passport that the authorities won’t release until all the debts are paid.
The knock-on effect of his trainer’s travel restrictions has been a major handicap to Sipko.
The teenager has already achieved a huge amount despite having to battle with the most basic of facilities. But of more concern, when he travels abroad for big competitions, where every other kid has their personal trainer at their side in the foreign land, Sipko goes alone because Adinagoyev can’t leave the country.
He travels with other members of the Israeli team, but Adinagoyev’s absence in his corner is a massive disadvantage.
IT SAYS a huge amount for the teenager that he is still winning fights against top young boxers from Europe and beyond. Given the right equipment and sponsorship to help him concentrate on his fitness and training, Sipko would likely achieve even better results. He’s won everything there is for his age in Israel.
He’s also beaten older boys and adults at his weight. The kid is tremendously talented.
“My next target is another local championship,” Sipko – whose family came to Israel from Stavropol in western Russia – tells The Report. “Then, in April next year there is the world championships in Russia. I’ve been with Adinagoyev about four years now. He’s very, very good. I want to go to the Olympics in 2016, but I need to take in a lot of competitions first. It’s not possible to know now quite how many, but maybe five or six championships before the Olympics, and it all costs a lot of money, and I’ve got to pay most of it myself.”
Because the “gym” is only open to them on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 19:00 – 20:30, Adinagoyev trains Sipko in local parks, in all kinds of weather – blazing heat in the summer, sometimes driving rain in the winter.
I WATCHED Sipko train alongside 15 others (mostly older than him), who attended Adinagoyev’s training session in the stifling airless heat of the bomb shelter on -4. In these most basic of conditions, I saw a man who loves his boxing and loves his boxers. He’s patient, tough, but fair. He teaches them to respect one another. Someone talks while Adinagoyev is explaining what’s required. He’s told to shut up. He doesn’t, and takes the strict discipline and the scolding to heart, turning on his heels, packing his bag and walking out. If you can’t stand the heat (and it is so hot in there)...
Adinagoyev outlines his training philosophy.
“When a boy arrives here I don’t put gloves on him. I start with building up his fitness first. The first thing that catches my eye is if I see that a boy is prepared to work hard.
There is no shortcut. I talk to him, find out what he does with his life; how he is doing at school, what he’s good at, if he’s intelligent.
I get a feeling inside that tells me he might have what it takes, but if that fire isn’t burning inside of him and the boy is not prepared to really work, he isn’t going to succeed. The boy is 99 percent, the trainer is one percent; but without that one percent looking after him and guiding him, he won’t get anywhere.”
Only Sipko and a couple of others are training to be fighters. The others just want to get fit and enjoy the routine. They come to this “no frills” camp because they believe Adinagoyev is the best around.
“I came here when my former trainer went overseas for a couple of weeks and I’ve now been with Adinagoyev seven months,” 25-year-old Yogev told me. “The only thing [Adinagoyev] lacks is the proper facilities to do his job. If he had the proper facilities, being the trainer that he is, I think there is no limit to what he could do.”
Mark, who arrived in Israel two months earlier from Australia and is studying Hebrew at a nearby ulpan, appeared unannounced at -4 after seeing one of the guys pass through the Dizengoff Center carrying a boxing kit bag. He was curious to see where the boxer was going, but couldn’t believe it when he kept descending through a labyrinth to the bottom of the underground parking. He asked to join the session, took off his shoes and socks, and completed a tough 90-minute workout.
“I’ve been to another well-known gym here in Israel and the training was nothing compared to what we just did,” the Australian observed. “He’s not about being a slugger, this guy. He’s training guys properly.”
Whatever the future holds for Sipko, Adinagoyev is committed to always being there for him and to always be training boxers, taking often rough-and-ready street kids and making them respect others and, just as importantly, themselves.
“No normal wife would agree that her husband doesn’t go out and bring in a normal wage,” Adinagoyev concludes, “but being a trainer is a crazy profession. I’d live in the gym if it meant giving my boys everything they needed and to be there for them.”
The buzzer rings, and Adinagoyev has to take charge of the training session, but not before spelling out his prime motivation as a trainer.
“For me,” he says, “the most important gift is when someone comes in here a man, but goes out a ‘gentleman’; that’s the most important and the most rewarding thing of all.” ■
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist.
His website is and he can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster