The Wild and Bizarre Boxing Utopia Called Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is the wild west in a way. There I was, riding in a Hummer down a dirt road chauffeured by the undefeated champion Kanat Islam’s brother with a heavyset man named Zhumabek riding shotgun. Islam’s brother, Erzat, didn’t speak any English. Zhumabek, speaking broken English at best, informs me that we were driving into the hills of Almaty looking for lunch. We end up inside a yurt and feast on lamb and horse milk. “Don’t drink too much milk”, Zhumabek warns. He hints consuming too much will make you drunk.

It’s a national holiday celebrating the all powerful leader Nursultan Nazerbayev’s birthday in Kazakhstan. The night before, I was watching the World Cup at my hotel. At halftime there’s a surreal three minute propaganda reel celebrating the life and achievements of “Leader of the Nation” for his people. This is what Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad must have felt like, I think to myself.

“Kazakhstan is an interesting place”, my friend tells me a month before I go. We are dining on the rooftop of the Waldorf in Beverly Hills, where he tells me of his untamed business dealings in Central Asia. “In Kazakhstan, the people are very friendly. They will show you the entire world, but at the end of the day, it’s just a big tease”, he says. “A massive waste of time!”, he exclaims.

A few days before I arrive in Almaty, I text Kanat from Moscow. “Hello Kanat, I am a journalist from America. I will be going to Kazakhstan this week”, I write. “Hello, sir. Welcome to Kazakhstan. Call me, okay?”, the champ responds. When I get there, it’s evening time, and champ has retreated to the mountains—a thousand miles away. Kazakhstan is bigger than Texas. His brother will entertain me in the morning.

The next morning, a bright orange Hummer pulls up to the hotel parking lot. Two burly men get out of the car and squeeze my hand. The Kazakh diet is essentially the Atkins taken to the extreme. No wonder Gennady Golovkin knocked people out with such ease.

The first place we go to is a boxing gym. From the outside the building looks like a war zone from the third world. On the inside, there’s a world class gym. A man with a mustache as loud as Nacho Beristain’s greets us at the front door. His name is Torsen. Having trained two Kazakh Olympic National teams, as well as Gennady Golovkin in his early years, it turns out Torsen is essentially the Don Nacho of Kazakhstan. First things first, Torsen is eager to show me a picture from the time he met President Nazerbayev. The greatest honor, he intimates.

Torsen encourages me to stay for a sparring session. There is a prominent business man at the gym who also speaks zero English. It wouldn’t be a proper boxing gym without a wealthy benefactor. Through Google translate, said business man insists that there is a lot of money to be made in Kazakhstan. We exchange What’s App information and he promptly sends me a video of the upcoming apocalypse with an Islamic bent. Allahu-akhbar. Anyhow, I observe the training session and these kids are good. “Look at him over there”, Torsen tells me through Zhumabek, “His name is Berik. He won the gold in London 6 years ago. Please take him to America and make him champion”, he insists. After sparring, we go upstairs to Torsen’s living room. He gets on the phone and starts speaking in Kazakh. The only two words I can understand are “Bob Arum” and “Egis Klimas”. Torsen wants me to replace Egis and turn Kazakh boxing into a global powerhouse. “Start with taking Berik to America”, he insists. I later search Olympic records for a “Berik” from Kazakhstan. There is no such name. “A massive waste of time!”, I remember my friend telling me.    

Later in the day, we drive probably 80 miles out into the Kazakh wilderness. The outskirts of Almaty are quite beautiful. In the summers, the mountains roll with lush green grass. The air is crisp. It almost feels like Big Bear. No wonder GGG took such fine affinity to Abel’s Summit. All the sudden we arrive at a state of the art glass building at the base of a large ski resort. We have arrived at the national boxing training facility. The only one of its kind in the world.

Kazakhstan is mad about boxing. When the World Cup was not on TV, the only other sport on the airwaves was boxing. Nothing else mattered.

Nobody expected us at the training facility. But Kanat Islam is boxing royalty. Take a cab anywhere in Kazakhstan and bring up Kanat’s name, and a smile will light up on the driver’s face. Walk inside the national boxing training facility with Kanat’s brother, and you get shown all the stops, starting with the 15 foot mural of President Nursultan Nazerbayev.

This facility is impressive. It is the size of a small university in the United States with an entire floor dedicated to weight training. There’s a mini-arena for competition, and an olympic sized swimming pool for conditioning. The entire complex is attached to dormitories where the country’s best boxers live. There is a cafeteria that can feed three hundred people at once, but the meals are a closely kept secret. We may never know what exactly gives Kazakh boxers their fearsome knockout power. The guide showing us around the campus is too kind. He offers to drive me to the airport personally at 5 AM on the day I leave town. I cannot take him up on such an offer. But we exchange What’s App info.

Fast forward a few days and I am at Nursultan Nazerbayev Airport in the country’s capital, Astana. I text my new friends a few words of thanks. They are gracious enough to reciprocate. A few weeks later, I reach out. All of my communications lines have gone silent. “A massive waste of time!”, I recall my friend telling me. Perhaps. Or maybe I just need to hop on a flight to Almaty, and tell champ I am in town.








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Sunha Kim

Sunha Kim

The boxing world might know me as Gennady Golovkin's Korean cousin, or that guy with the hat.