The Baku Fires have a reputation for being the World Series of Boxing’s (WSB) bad boys in some quarters, but General Manager Rizvan Gengiev, says this is just because his team do not fear their opponents. We find out more.
Mr Gengiev, we know that your late grandfather was a legendary Azeri wrestler, who won two World Championship titles. Did his influence impact your life and career?
I was still a child when he passed away unfortunately, so I didn’t have a chance to get to know him very well. However, I was always proud about the fact that my grandfather was such a celebrity. And I find it really symbolic and fortunate that I have had a chance to make my country known around the globe again thanks to my involvement in boxing. In a way it’s a similar thing to what my grandfather did through his performances in wrestling. By the way, I used to wrestle myself when I was young, so I have got those genes (laughs). Actually, I still follow that sport even today and I attend all the major events. For instance, I will be at the European Championships in Macedonia soon.
Your team has been competing in the WSB since its launch. How do you feel the competition has evolved over the last three seasons?
First and foremost, I should say that we like this project, even though many people took a dim view of the WSB before its launch. There was no understanding of the importance and prestige of this competition. That is why it was difficult to attract boxers ahead of the first season, but now it has became so popular and attractive that even world champions want to take part in it. Moreover, the WSB is a great tool for the boxers to increase their wealth and prestige. That will always be an important factor for athletes.
What do you think the future holds for the WSB?
Personally I think this competition will continue to develop and grow. It is becoming more and more interesting. Now, with the introduction of ten weight categories instead of five, it is even more appealing, and now with new sponsors and TV broadcasters, the WSB has every chance to become boxing’s equivalent of the Champions League. Without any doubt, this is a very long term project and it is highly important that it is supported by national federations that understand its potential. It has already become really popular in Azerbaijan where we routinely fill our venues to capacity for matches without even advertising. The public here loves us.
How important do you think the 30 Olympic places the WSB are offering for Rio 2016 are?
That is extremely important for both the boxers and the prestige of the competition. Back in the first season, when there were only five places, the chances of boxers qualifying for the Olympics through the WSB were quite low. Consequently, the boxers were not massively excited about the competition. Now though, with 30 Olympic places up for grabs the image of the WSB has considerably improved in their eyes. That is one of the reasons why the best boxers in our National team have approached us asking to participate in Season IV of the competition. Should this quota be further increased in future, the demand from boxers to compete in the WSB will be even bigger. It is logical as every athlete wants to be Olympian. It is the most prestigious sports event in the career of any boxer as well. Besides that it is prestigious for any country, thus there is always a political component. Each federation wants to see their boxers with Olympic titles. Naturally then, the president of our federation has supported us a lot since the beginning of the competition because he would also like Azeri boxers get gold at the Olympics. And the WSB provides them with the perfect qualification pathway.
Tell us a bit about your boxers. How would you explain the “bad boy” image that your team has?
Well, it is rather easy to explain. Being the Caucasians, we have a very hot blood. It is a well-known fact that we are not afraid of anyone. That is just how we all are here and there is nothing that can be done about it. But I think all boxers are similar. If you climb in the ring without a burning desire to win, then there is no point in being involved with such a hard sport as boxing at all.
You are considered more like a father to the team than a general manager. How do you manage to have such relationship with the boxers?
It is true that I treat them like my children as I partly replace their parents. At the end of the day they spend most of their time with us at the training camp rather than with their families. We are lucky that during the last three seasons nothing extraordinary has happened; no one has gone through a personal crisis for instance. However, any time they have any issues, I try to solve them as best I can. That’s why they all have my number and they call me whenever they feel like discussing anything.
Do you have any special motivational tips that you use to encourage your boxers and to boost team spirit?
I don’t think they need motivation. These guys are really special. They have no fear, refuse to recognize any opponent as their superior and go in there to get the job done. This is why we rarely loose more than one fight per match. For me it is more about education. It is also about their faith that helps them a lot. We pay attention to their life outside the ring as well. You know, it is really important that they get this opportunity to be enriched culturally, to see the world. With the WSB we travel a lot for matches around the world and we always stay at least one day longer to visit a city after the match. When they travel to other competitions, usually with their National team, they leave the host city once the competition is over without even having a clue what the place is like. This is why with the WSB they are also excited about the opportunity to discover the world. And after these trips they obviously post pictures in social networks and give their thoughts about it for a long time.After all, they are all young guys looking for a new experience and keen to share it with their friends.
Do you think that your team will be able to win the title this year?
Before the Draw I had a feeling we would end up in the “group of death” [Group B], and this is what happened, my predictions came true. Honestly, I am really happy about having such strong opponents. In previous seasons we have usually had less strong opponents and our boxers even became a bit too relaxed as it was easy to overcome them. This time we have got the strongest and the most dangerous teams in our group. These include all the important countries in boxing. Russia and Kazakhstan plan to bring in their number one boxers this time, the Cubans were always extremely strong… But as I said, I think it is a great opportunity for our team. I believe that they will get harder only by facing the strongest, so it is up to them now to show everybody their potential. And you know, as soon as the draw was announced I called our coach to tell him the results from the venue, and his reaction was completely calm. He said that if this is what has happened then we simply have to face it. I still haven’t had a chance to discuss it with boxers themselves, but I don’t think it will be a problem for them either. Our team has been getting ready for next season since June when they started training again. They are approaching it very seriously and they really want to become champions this time. That is also what the coaches and Federation want of course. I believe that the most important thing for us is to reach the finals without picking up injuries or losing fighters to illness. I am also convinced that the team which will get the first spot from our group will actually be the Season IV Champions.
Astana Arlans Kazakhstan
Azerbaijan Baku Fires