Tripoli trouble to Riyadh riches: Malik Zinad fights Dmitry Bivol for title and Arab pride

Libyan light-heavyweight contender out to make history by winning WBA crown at Kingdom Arena in Saudi Arabia on Saturday night

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Malik Zinad has come a long way since the days he’d imitate Roy Jones Jr in a Tripoli basement.

Back then his boxing talent was a family secret, and with good reason, too. The sport was banned in Libya under Muammar Qaddafi so his father, Ahmed, himself a former amateur fighter, would let his son hit pads away from prying eyes.

This Saturday, the secret will be well and truly out when Zinad takes on Russia’s Dmitry Bivol for the WBA and IBO light-heavyweight titles in Riyadh on the latest extravagant card to be staged in the kingdom.

Should he pull off what would be an almighty upset, he would become the first Arab to hold a world title since the British-Yemeni featherweight "Prince" Naseem Hamed in 2001.

"I am the first Arabic [fighter] after him, since Prince Naseem there is nobody else,” Zinad told The National. "Everyone is happy for me and I want them all behind me for the next fight. I want them shouting, and together we are going to make it. We will make history.

"I am proud and this is my dream. All this time I am dreaming to be world champion, I am dreaming to walk to the ring with my father and brother and it is all happening for the next fight.

"People might say, ‘Malik is going to lose the fight with Bivol.' I am not going to lose the fight. I am not an easy fighter. You know why? Because I work for this moment. I really worked hard. I knew it was going to come and Bivol will be surprised on June 1.”

Zinad’s title shot arrived in serendipitous fashion – in keeping with a nomadic and unconventional career that has seen him roll the dice time and again.

The 30-year-old Malta-based contender will box in a 13th different country this weekend after going unbeaten in 22 bouts across Europe and America; often taking fights at short notice for modest financial reward, and winning when he was brought in to lose.

You can understand why he feels it's his destiny to shock the world on Saturday.

Bivol should be fighting his fearsome compatriot Artur Beterbiev in a unification, but the 39-year-old champion withdrew because of a ruptured meniscus.

Just a week earlier, Zinad had been in both familiar and unfamiliar territory.

The familiar? Being in the away corner and about to cause an upset. The unfamiliar? Sydney, Australia, where house fighter Jerome Pampellone expected to sweep him aside and secure a title shot of his own.

After silencing the home crowd and handing Pampellone his first loss, Zinad spoke of his desire to fight on the big stage in Riyadh in front of fellow Arabs. His prayers were about to be answered.

“In the ring, after the fight in Australia, I said my next fight I am going to give to my Arabic people," he said. "The next fight is going to be in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and look where I am: the fight is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. God has opened the way for me. Thank God. Alhamdulillah.

“It was a big win [in Australia]. When you have everyone against you but you have the big things in life, you have Allah, you have God – if God is with you then no one can stop you. And, if your mother is happy and prays for you, then that's it, the way is straight ahead and no one can stop you.”

Fighting for the title marks the culmination of a journey as astonishing as it has been arduous for Zinad.

Speaking to The National from his London training camp, the word “dream” is used again and again. His story is a reminder that for every Anthony Joshua, fast-tracked to stardom, there are hundreds of Malik Zinads grinding in the shadows.

Engaged in his own personal ‘Rocky’ story, he has earned his shot through talent, perseverance and love for a cruel and punishing sport that loves seldom few back.

“I sacrificed a lot, hard times, but that's the life,” he said. “I am outside my country so I had to do everything from the bottom, from zero. It started from there and I pulled myself up. I met good people in my life, I met bad people in my life, too. I learnt from both and keep going.”

A self-confessed troublemaker on the streets of Tripoli, Zinad started boxing when his father risked jail to coach him in the hope that it would keep his son on the straight and narrow.

It worked. Knowledge was passed down a generation, while videos of Jones Jr, Prince Naseem and Floyd Mayweather were obsessively analysed.

“I was a bad kid when I was young. I was fighting in the street and stuff like that, but I always say that boxing changed my life. Boxing made me a different person,” said Zinad.

“Before, when there was no boxing, if they hear that you train boxing then you go to prison in Libya. So, my father taught me and trained me behind the scenes. No one seeing it.

“He is proud, too proud of me right now. I think I made him mad before in Libya because I make so much fighting in the street. Now he's proud of me. Boxing is in our blood.”

With his prospects limited at home, Zinad departed for nearby Malta where another quirk of fate launched his professional career.

Donny Lalonde, the Canadian former light-heavyweight champion who once fought "Sugar" Ray Leonard, was holidaying on the island and spotted Zinad’s talent while checking out a local boxing show.

“Promoters won't sign me up. I send them messages, no one cares, and I say, ‘Ok, you will see me at the top,' and then you will sign me up when you see me at the top.
Mailk Zinad

“I met Lalonde. I fought a Maltese fighter, he was a champion, and I won by points. Then, when I met Donny, it was the rematch and I knocked him out in the seventh round,” recalled Zinad. “Donny said, ‘You are really good, I need to sign you.' I agreed and he signed me up for two years.”

That chance encounter helped Zinad turn pro, but once his contract expired he was left without a backer. Since then, he has experienced the dark side of an industry dominated by a handful of influential promoters, whose events project a moneyed and glamorous veneer. It can be anything but – if you are on the outside.

“I never had the easy way,” said Zinad. “Always the hard way, always sacrificing a lot. No one wanted to sign me. Big promoters closed the door to me. I say, 'Ok, close the door,' I am going to keep going by myself and I have the hard times.

“Sometimes I could not sleep at night. I want to sleep but I can't because of thinking too much, ‘What am I going to do?’ Stressing out at two, three or 4am.

“I know I am a good fighter. If I am not a good fighter then I would stop boxing straight away and do something else. But I know myself and I can be a success in boxing, so I keep going, I am not going to stop.

“Promoters won't sign me up. I send them messages, no one cares, and I say, ‘Ok, you will see me at the top,' and then you will sign me up when you see me at the top.

“My last fight in Australia was a good opportunity. They offered me the fight, I signed the contract and I fly there and win. That's me. I am a fighter. I needed the chance. I was waiting for the chance for a long time and nobody gave me this chance.”

Zinad’s faith and determination are now paying dividends after his big win Down Under coincided with Beterbiev’s injury and he got the call from the kingdom.

Standing in the way of him and the chance to emulate his heroes and become world champion is the unbeaten and stylish Bivol, who will start as the favourite.

“He is a good fighter, he is one of the world champions, but it doesn't matter,” said Zinad, who will have the renowned American trainer Buddy McGirt in his corner this weekend.

“For me, I see him like I would any other fighter. I see them the same. I don't see them as something different or big. I will fight Bivol like I did Jerome [Pampellone] before. Jerome is a good fighter and he came to win. Everyone comes to win the fight, so I am going to go there to win, too.

“It's going to be good, it's going to be a surprise, for sure, a big surprise."

Saturday’s bout will mark the end of a gruelling period of back-to-back training camps and fights for Zinad, who had just five days rest before being offered his title shot. It has also meant a prolonged spell away from his wife and four-year-old daughter.

“I miss my family, always,” he said. “My family is the best. In camp it is only training and working hard and thinking about the fight. But soon it will be ‘Malik Zinad, world champion’ – and then I can enjoy spending time with them.”

Updated: May 30, 2024, 2:38 AM