Boxing fans in Russia can hardly believe that Denis Lebedev will face superstar Roy Jones Jr. in a cruiserweight fight on May 22 in Moscow. Jones was someone you saw only on TV, not live in your town.
Lebedev would be among those people. The native of Stary Oskol, a few hundred miles south of Moscow, became the light heavyweight champion of Russia in his third fight. Jones was the undisputed light heavyweight titleholder at the time.
Could Lebedev have even dreamed of fighting Jones one day? You know the answer.
Yet here is, set to fight one of the biggest names in the sport – albeit a faded version of the once-dominating fighter – a short distance from his hometown in what is certainly the highest-profile fight of his career.
"I have always liked Roy, I respect this fighter,” Lebedev told RingTV.com through a translator. “Fighting Jones will be a great experience in my career.”
Nothing early in Levedev’s career portended a fight against someone like Jones.
The 31-year-old southpaw had extensive amateur experience, around 200 fights, but he wasn’t special. He turned pro in 2001 and won his first 13 fights against other developing fighters, including that national 175-pound title.
Then, in 2004, he left boxing for four years. He apparently was disillusioned with the sport and believed he was headed nowhere. Then in 2008 he returned as a cruiserweight, his hiatus coincidentally coinciding with that of Vitali Klitschko.
And like the Ukrainian heavyweight, he destroyed everything in his path upon his return. He knocked out each of his first six opponents at 200 pounds. Lebedev was arguably the most successful Russian fighter of 2009, having stopped Enzo Maccarinelli and two other solid opponents.
As a result, he earned an opportunity to fight for Marco Huck’s title last December Germany, Huck’s home country. The result was a controversial split-decision loss, the first of Lebedev’s career.
"I do not feel that I lost the fight, but what happened happened,” Lebedev said. “I thought I won. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t fight very actively in the last round.”
Lebedev (21-1, 16 knockouts) has the opportunity to bounce back against Jones, which will be a big event in Moscow even if it’s not an important fight.
Lebedev has been working with Hall of Famer Kostya Tszyu, a Russian-born Australian who counts Jones as a friend.
“I like our work together,” Lebedev said. “I can see that Kostya wants to help, and am very pleased that he agreed to work with me.”
Jones once said he would never fight overseas for fear of placing his fate in the hands of foreign judges, perhaps a product of the poor decision that robbed him of an Olympic gold medal in 1988.
That way of thinking is in the past, though. Jones first went to Australia in 2009 to face Danny Green and was stopped in one round. And now he is going to Moscow to face another local fighter, Lebedev.
And no matter what happens, this is a great opportunity for both Lebedev and the fans in Moscow. Lebedev has the chance to rebound from his first loss. The fans get to see legend.