Tough upbringing prepared Andrei Mikhailovich for title opportunity against Janibek Alimkhanuly

14 Min Read

New Zealand middleweight contender Andrei Mikhailovich says he always knew he would fight in Las Vegas.

The 26-year-old Aucklander will get the chance to make his dream come true when he challenges The Ring’s number one 160-pounder Janibek Alimkhanuly (15-0, 10 KOs) for his IBF and WBO belts at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada on July 13.

“I feel fantastic. I feel great, I feel alive, I feel ready. This is my moment, this is my destiny. This is what I’ve trained years for. If there was a city built for me to fight in, that city would be Las Vegas,” Mikhailovich (21-0, 13 KOs) told The Ring.

“I’m a natural born performer and it’s just what I do, baby. To me, it’s an amazing deal that I get to fight for a world title, but it’s not like the biggest thing in the world. It’s awesome, but to me, it’s just another day in paradise.”

Mikhailovich began his life a world away from the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip. Born in Saint Petersburg in post-Soviet Russia in 1997, he was sent to an orphanage as a baby alongside his twin brother Nikolai and put up for adoption. Kiwi couple Marcel and Paula Driessen adopted them as toddlers and raised in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

“If you really put it into perspective, when I was born I was a baby who was completely not needed or not wanted by his mum,” Mikhailovich said. “And I can understand after the fall of the Soviet Union they couldn’t feed their kids or whatever. I don’t know the whole story, but I came from complete nothing, right? If you think about it in that regard, I wasn’t loved for the first 18 months of my life – sure, people looked after me at the orphanage and things like that – but from here to now, I’ve had this journey where I’ve had to really find who I am.

“I haven’t had people saying this is who you really are. I’ve had to go on that self-revealing journey. I forget who I am, what I like about about myself. And I think that’s why when I win, people are going to be shocked, like ‘How did you do that?’ Trust me bro, the fight I’ve had in life is a lot bigger than 36 minutes.

“The shit I’ve gone through in my life, the pain I’ve felt and the ups and downs and all of that, this is just another day for me, man.”

Sibling rivalry ran strong in his household. Andrei and Nikolai fought frequently as kids and he became accustomed to the bumps and bruises that get traded between twin brothers.

“Imagine two Russian twins growing up in a house together. Do you think that’s going to be an airy-fairy, loving relationship? No mate, it’s not,” he recalled.

But his first introduction into boxing came much later in his early teenage years after a chance encounter in an alleyway.

“This is going to sound like bullshit, but it happened,” Mikhailovich said. “I got into a lot of fights at school. I got into heaps of fights at school. I was notorious for that. But one day I was walking down an alleyway and a dude who was bigger than me bumped me with his shoulder and he said ‘What are you going to do about it?’ I didn’t know what I was going to do, and then he put his cigarette out on my chest. Straight up, that’s a legitimate story. And I felt so scared that I went and took up boxing.

“I fell in love with boxing and that was it. I never saw the dude again. I actually mentioned him maybe a couple of years ago and thanked him for doing that, because he was the one who got me started in the sport.”

Mikhailovich found his way to the Auckland gym of Isaac Peach at the age of 15 and the rest, as they say, is history. Peach, an ex-boxer turned trainer, became something of a father figure to Mikhailovich, who learnt from him the dedication and discipline it takes to become a successful prizefighter.

“I feel like we have a great relationship,” said Mikhailovich, whose stablemates include David Light, Jerome Pampellone and Mea Motu.

“There’s a huge level of respect between us. I respect him as a trainer, as a friend, and I listen to him. But I think the main thing is that I needed a man like that in my life. I had issues with authority figures and people telling me what to do. He found the right path for me and we just have a great relationship.

“The biggest thing I will say about our relationship is that we trust each other. I trust him with everything. He knows everything about me. He call tell when I walk in the gym just by the way my eyes are if I’m going to have a good day or a bad day. He knows me better than anyone else.

“One thing I will say about his training is that he’s tough but fair. He knows when he needs to kick me up the arse and tell me off, and he knows when I’m having a good day and he’ll tell me that I’m doing great.”

Mikhailovich turned pro six years after a moderately successful amateur career. He won the national crown in his 13th pro bout and was moved quickly from there, picking up regional titles in international fights to give him a foothold in the rankings by the WBO and the IBF. Normally durable Venezuelan Ernesto Espana lasted less than three rounds against him in June 2022, while another Venezuelan, Edisson Saltarin, had him on the canvas in the opening heat before succumbing in five frames in April last year.

In the first moments of that fight, the left-handed Saltarin threw a right hook at the same time Mikhailovich lobbed and overhand right. Saltarin’s punch got there first. Mikhailovich found himself on the canvas.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” whispered Mikhailovich. “Before that fight, me and my friends hatched a plan to throw some soap in the ring so that in the first round, I’d fall over, real dramatic and shit. So in the first 10 seconds of the fight, that’s what they did. They threw some soap in the ring and I fell over and made it real dramatic. And hat’s exactly what I wanted. It made the fight dramatic. That’s what really happened.”

Mikhailovich laughs.

“But nah, it was all or nothing, bro,” he said. “I wasn’t even hurt. I was more off balance. When I was going down I was like, ‘No way, me, Andrei Mikhailovich, falling down, down down!’ When I got up I didn’t feel hurt. Honestly, I felt it was more of a balance thing.

“If you watch the replay of the knockdown, I actually put my hand down to brace myself. When I got up, the dude just came flying for me, huffing and puffing and throwing all these wild punches. I was like ‘You’ve got another 21 minutes with me, mate.’

Saltarin attacked. Mikhailovich soaked up the pressure. Then he launched a counter attack of his own, attack the Venezuelan’s liver like Hannibal Lector. The body attack paid dividends. Saltarin was stopped in the fifth.

Mikhailovich showed great composure to navigate his way through those rocky moments early in the fight. Saltarin, like Alimkhanuly, is a southpaw.

“I’m extremely lucky,” he said. “I started boxing when I was 15 and I think two months into my boxing I broke my right hand, so I had to learn how to use my left hand. Since then, I’ve always had an extremely strong left hand. And over the last four or five years I’ve actually developed an ability to switch stances quite comfortably. Probably 60 or 70 percent of the time, I’m southpaw in the gym.

“In terms of angles and ideas fighting a southpaw, you can read up and study it all you want. I think three of my last five fights have been against southpaws.

“But it’s like this, man. If you think it’s going to be a big thing, it will be a big thing. If you don’t think it will be a big deal, it won’t be a big deal.

“It’s all about conceptualizing. If I think that table will be too heavy for me to lift, it will be far too heavy to lift. But if I think it’s just a table, I’m sure with the right attitude and the right leverage, I can move it.

“Don’t over-complicate it, man.

“We over-complicate a lot of things in life and make it into a huge deal. That’s why a lot of fighters drown when they fight for a world title. They make it into this huge ordeal, ‘I’m fighting King Kong!’ They’ve got to prepare for King Kong but King Kong is a gorilla; I’m just fighting a man.”

Despite his self-belief, Mikhailovich isn’t underestimating his next opponent. Alimkhanuly has a well-earned reputation at one of the most dangerous men in boxing. The 31-year-old Kazakh is a highly-skilled technician who had over 300 amateur bouts. As a pro, he has dominated virtually all of his opponents with his speed, angles and clever punch selection.

Mikhailovich knows what he is in for.

“First of all I’m going to say I’ve got a lot of respect for Janibek,” he said “I think he’s a fantastic fighter. I think he’s an amazing southpaw, he’s got an extensive amateur background and he’s a unified world champion for a reason. I’m going to have to up my game and dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s and look under any and every rock. So of course I have to be more diligent, I’ve got to be extremely focused, 24/7, 365, but it’s all part of the job, man.

“But to me, the excitement is bringing that next level of focus, dial in on a few more things, stylistic things for this fight. And yeah, at the end of the day it’s just a fight. Regardless of what’s happening or what’s at stake, it’s just me and him in the ring and what will happen, will happen. He will find what he wants to do and I’ll find what I want to do and we’ll just mix and match.

“It’s just a game of chess and whoever gets the checkmate is the winner.”

It’s been a wild ride for Mikhailovich to get to where he is. Questions of identity have followed him everywhere. At one stage of his career, he was known as ‘The Renegade’. At another, he was ‘The Russian’.

He now seems at peace with who he is.

“The Renegade was a period of my life. The Russian was a period of my life,” he explains. “Now you can just call me Andrei f–king Mikhailovich.”

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