It's not often that a fighter who just won a title, like Roman Karmazin -- who captured the IBF junior middleweight strap last July -- goes into the hometown of a former champion (who's a slick southpaw, to boot) to make his first championship defense.
But Karmazin faces Cory Spinks on Saturday at the Savvis Center in St. Louis (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET/PT), and exacerbating the situation is that Karmazin, whose moniker is "Made in Hell," has been on the shelf since thoroughly dismantling Kassim Ouma last year.
"We're not really looking at the fact we're in St. Louis," his adviser, Steve Bash, explains of the decision to face Spinks in his home digs. "You're talking about a fighter, Roman, who's fought in every country practically in the world. He's gone in other people's backyards before and that's what he's used to; it's actually motivational for him. As far as this particular fight, we're not looking at the venue, we're looking at the fighter, and we're not really looking at the fighter -- but the name."
The reality is that the Russian-born Karmazin, despite being in a division with Fernando Vargas, Shane Mosley and Ike Quartey, with Jermain Taylor and Winky Wright hovering above him, must take bold steps like these to make himself a known commodity.
As of now, he's just another tough guy with a belt.
"Roman's main message that he wants to send is that he's the best junior middleweight in the world," said Bash. "And he feels the best way to send that message is to basically one by one -- if he has to -- knock off the biggest names. Just the royal names, the royalty, we call them: the Spinkses, the Mosleys, the Vargases. A lot of people are paying a lot of money to see guys like Vargas and Mosley fight but they're not seeing the best junior middleweight in the world."
But perhaps every fight is a "road game" for guys who come from Eastern Europe like Karmazin. Outside of the Klitschko brothers, none of these migrant boxers has really ever built up a sizable fan base in the States. Karmazin, who turned pro in 1996 and boxed his first 24 bouts in Russia, Estonia, Spain, Germany and Belgium, didn't make his stateside debut till January 2000, when he stopped Anthony Fields in two rounds in Atlantic City, N.J.
Beginning with his no-contest against Jason Papillion in May 2004, Karmazin has boxed exclusively in the United States, beating Keith Holmes in a 12-round decision in April 2005 and then winning the title against Ouma.
"I appreciate American boxing fans and they've shown me that they appreciate the art of boxing, good technical boxing, and so I don't have a problem fighting in America, I enjoy fighting in America," Karmazin would say through Bash, who is fluent in both English and Russian. "As far as where I fight and what city, that's been my whole career. I've gotten used to fighting in so many different places that it doesn't really affect me.
"I don't really think about it too much, and hopefully once the American public keeps seeing me fight, that everywhere I go, we'll be in my hometown."
Bash says of Russians fighting in this country: "Every fight's a road fight. Boxers say that they're not worried about judges and that's what Roman says, but it's in the back of their minds a little bit because he's been on the road his entire career. He got his nickname 'Made in Hell' because he basically rose from the ashes. That's where he came from. He's had to prove everything in his career, his entire life, and so there are no issues for him to have to prove things once again. It's not a big deal at all."
For the record, Karmazin, 33, hails from Kuztniesk, Russia. But going into St. Louis was made easier because Spinks has hardly proved to be infallible in his hometown. When Spinks attempted to defend his welterweight championship last year versus Zab Judah, it turned out to be a disastrous homecoming as he was stopped by Judah. All of Nelly's "Air Force Ones" couldn't help him evade Judah's lethal left hands late in their contest.
"It's something that I know Roman and I talked about," said Bash, "that no matter how much Spinks may say that, that may not be the case -- that's something that's going to be in the back of his mind. Not only this fight but for the rest of his career. And that's why Roman thinks Spinks made a mistake to come up in weight to fight a fighter of his caliber, where he could've stayed at his weight class and probably been champion again."
But what could be on Karmazin's mind is the specter of what happened to his good friend Dimitri Kirilov, who in May was blatantly robbed in his title bid for the IBF junior bantamweight belt versus Luis Perez. Karmazin worked his corner that night in Worcester, Mass., as "The Baby" was indeed robbed.
"Aside from what happened, [Dimitri] could've finished off the fight and I wish he would've," Karmazin says in recalling that night. "Aside from the fact he won the fight, I think there would have been no doubt if he took those opportunities to finish the fight. I think when he comes back to the United States and whoever he fights next, he's going to know and finish the job next time."
With that said, if Karmazin finds himself in the same position, does he press the gas pedal?
"Absolutely," he says. "I'm not going out there to knock him out, I'm going out there to box and fight my fight. And if there's an opportunity -- and I feel there will be -- I won't hesitate to knock him out."
Bash also represents Kirilov, so after seeing what happened a few months ago, why go into someone else's casa?
"The circumstances there were a bit different," he explains. "Kirilov wasn't a Don King fighter and Perez was. Roman has been promoted by Don King and is promoted by Don King. I think it's in everybody's interest that the true winner of the fight wins. I mean it would be a travesty; everyone talks about the 'black eyes of boxing,' it would just be amazing if a fight's stolen from him and I don't think that'll happen this fight."
As for facing a lefty, Karmazin is accustomed to facing them. "I've become so used to southpaws that I don't think I can fight orthodox fighters anymore," he says. "It's just become par for the course."
According to his trainer, Boris Zykanov, the key to handling them is to "take space over your opponent from your left side. That's the most important thing. If you do it, you take him. And plus, make him square and stay in front of you."
Rust might be a factor for both fighters, as Karmazin has been off since last July. Spinks has been off even longer, as he hasn't faced live bullets since losing to Judah in February 2005. Which concerns Zykanov just a tad.
"A little bit, yes," he admits. "But not too much because we're on the same level as Cory Spinks and Roman had preparation for maybe six months. Just not for Cory Spinks, just to be in shape."
For Karmazin, the time is now to make a move -- and significant money. He can't afford any more yearlong layoffs. Belts are meaningless unless you can make consistent defenses of them and perhaps eventually unify. And it seems King is doing fewer shows as the years go on.
"It's very frustrating, but that's something that's completely out of my control," Karmazin says. "That's why fighters have promoters and that's a question my promoter, Don King, must answer as far as an inability to get fights. On my end it's frustrating, but it's not something I wanted."
Bash hopes that in the Show-Me State, Karmazin can stake his claim as the world's best 154-pounder. Currently, Karmazin is ranked No. 1 in "The Ring" ratings, with their title being vacant.
"We've been very patient," Bash says of their situation. "I mean, Roman's had a lot of things in his career not go his way -- Oscar De La Hoya backing out, taking certain fights that he didn't necessarily want to take. It's frustrating, but I think it's worth the wait.
"We're on Showtime; we're there for the world to see who the best fighter in that weight class is. It's a steppingstone."